How I teach - Getting a buzz out of spelling

25th April 2014 at 01:00
Take the sting out of mistakes by admitting your own blunders

Spelling is a real issue for many teenagers. With the rise of social media and advances in communication technology, emoticons, acronyms and slang are taking centre stage, and the need for correct spelling in day-to-day writing tends to be far from young people's minds.

But the fear of exams changes that. Good spelling can be the difference between two grades, so suddenly students become interested. Indeed, the teenagers I teach often highlight spelling as a major area of concern in the run-up to exams.

When I was at school, spelling was my Achilles heel and little help was available. So now, as an English teacher, I ensure that my classes practise the skill of spelling daily.

Checking spelling has to become just another part of the lesson - it has to be seen as normal - and it is up to teachers to create this environment. My students frequently see me using a dictionary. When someone asks me how to spell a word I never reel off the answer automatically; instead, I turn to the dictionary. Thus, my classroom has become a place where it is safe to get spelling wrong and where students are encouraged to work out the answer independently using the resources provided.

To help my pupils on their way, I often give them the first three letters of a word and ask them to find the rest in the dictionary. Even in my marking, I circle incorrect words and write the first three letters above. Students are then expected to find the right spelling.

All for one, one for all

But spelling should be a whole-school initiative, not just something for English teachers to tackle.

Fortunately, this has already happened in my school. We have implemented spelling strategies that every teacher can use: creating wordtopic banks; adding a page in the school planner for lists of commonly misspelled words; securing funding for dictionaries; and introducing green-pen marking so that students can circle words they think may be spelled wrongly and then check them.

These initiatives mean that pupils know they can get spelling support in any lesson and from any teacher. And because the resources are the same in every class, students have the consistency they need to improve their spelling.

Schools can build on the methods used in class with extracurricular strategies. Our English department holds weekly drop-in sessions in which we focus on various spelling techniques, including sounding out, finding patterns, and cover and repeat. The sessions are targeted at the weakest students but all are welcome.

With all these strategies and resources, there is just one basic rule: let students see you get it wrong. When I'm standing in front of 32 teenagers, attempting to remember their target grades and where we are in the curriculum, while at the same time dealing with behavioural issues and trying to recall how Jimmy prefers to learn, my spelling occasionally goes awry. It's inevitable, so don't try to hide it. By showing your class how to respond - spotting that it is wrong, grabbing a dictionary and looking it up - you will teach your students that spelling is not scary. And, most importantly, you will show them that it's a skill they can master.

Georgia Neale is an English teacher in the South of England

10 ways to boost dictionary skills

1. Speedy readers

Test scanning speeds in this game. One student chooses a word from the dictionary and writes down the definition, then invites their partner to find the entry as quickly as possible.

2. Dictionary corner

This handy one-page introduction to dictionaries includes a word-finding activity for pairs of students.

3. Number words

Dictionaries aren't just for English classes, as this series of quick-fire activities proves. They can also help students to get to grips with maths and science.

4. Dolly mixtures

Dictionaries become intriguing vaults of puzzles in this quiz, starting with a challenge to work out which words could come between "doll" and "dolly".

5. All in order

The 24 differentiated questions in this PowerPoint will familiarise students with dictionaries and speed up their alphabetical ordering skills.

6. Blank sheets

Turn students into modern-day Samuel Johnsons by getting them to create their own dictionaries of "wow words".

7. Liuns and tigars

Pre-empt common spelling mistakes by tasking children with spotting the errors in these worksheets, which come with a collection of 100 frequently misspelled words.

8. Dictionary dash

Transform the tiresome task of flicking through pages to find a word into a helter-skelter race.

9. Not so nice

Your students combine their dictionary and thesaurus skills to find alternatives for simple words such as "nice", "said", "went" and "small".

10. Laughing matter

Why laugh when you can titter, snicker, chortle or guffaw? This handy poster packs in dozens of alternatives to some commonly used words.


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