Let your fingers do the spelling

22nd October 2004 at 01:00
Perth and Kinross has rolled out a special touch-typing course to help improve literacy, reports Douglas Blane

Shakespeare signed his name in six different ways that we know of and not one was "Shakespeare". So if a master of the English language couldn't even spell his own name consistently, surely no one else need worry about bad spelling?

The trouble with that argument is that Shakespeare never had to apply for a job in competition with 40 people who could spell well. At the very least, with a spellchecker on every computer now, mistakes suggest a slapdash approach.

But not everyone can use a spellchecker, points out Jane Hodgkinson, Perth Grammar's dyslexia specialist. "If a child can't recognise what a word is supposed to look like, a spellchecker is no help."

Perth and Kinross has now provided a computer resource to all its schools to support children with reading or writing difficulties, and it takes exactly the right approach, Ms Hodgkinson says.

"The program tackles spelling and builds up from there.

"You might think spelling is the least of these children's difficulties but it's the hardest to improve. We often make progress with their reading but bad spelling lingers.

"Also, if spelling improves, there is an immediate effect on a child's self-esteem, which helps in all sorts of ways."

Touch-type, Read and Spell - TTRS - is a multi-sensory, computer-aided course which was developed by primary teacher Philip Alexandre in the early 1990s as part of his Masters degree project and is used in more than 300 UK schools and many prisons.

It is based on the idea that the ordered, sequential, repetitive process of learning to touch-type can be designed to parallel a well-established method of learning the structures and spelling of English words. By using the program for an hour a week, a learner internalises the patterns over a period of years and that helps with more fluent reading.

"It is very hard to get youngsters with difficulties - or prison inmates - to practise three-letter words in a repetitive way," says Mr Alexandre, "which is where they need to begin if they are going to make progress. But if, at the same time, they are learning to use a computer and acquiring a valuable skill like touch-typing, then that is a great face-saver.

"What they are actually doing is transferring finger patterns and word patterns in a graded fashion - based on an approach recommended by dyslexia experts - into their brains."

The program is graded in such a way that even children with difficulties score well. "Typically they would get over 80 per cent and often 90 per cent or more," says Philip Campbell, the TTRS agent for Scotland and a religious and moral education teacher. "A score like that is highly motivating for kids who have not generally had much success at school."

For Mr Campbell, who has a daughter with dyslexia, training teachers and children to use TTRS is very rewarding. "It's wonderful to see the progress children make and the confidence it gives them."

The number of children coming to Perth Grammar with some form of reading or writing difficulty is increasing, says Judith Moore, the principal teacher for support for learning. For all of them, the acceptance that they have a problem shared by others is a big step forward, says Ms Hodgkinson.

Computers can benefit them greatly but will not make their problems disappear; skilled teaching is essential, says Ms Moore. "Building up their touch-typing skills is a huge thing for them, because it greatly facilitates their use of technology.

"And spelling might not seem vital to those of us who don't have a problem, but it is to many of these children. It is so humiliating for a clever child not to be able to write a simple sentence."

Contact Philip Campbell, tel 01887 830582, pip@pipco.fsnet.co.ukwww.ttrs.co.uk

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