Letters of introduction

25th October 1996 at 01:00
SPELLING 9-13 By Sue Hackman and Liz Trickett Hodder Stoughton Pounds 19.99. TEACHING AND LEARNING SPELLING By Mike Torbe Ward Lock Educational Pounds 12.95. STRENGTHEN YOUR SPELLING By Elizabeth Wood Hodder Stoughton Pounds 18.99.

COLLINS CATCHWORDS By Charles Cripps and Margaret Peters Collins Teacher's Guide Pounds 19.95 Copymasters Pounds 19.95 Workbooks Pounds 1 each.

How do you teach spelling? Gary Thomas recommends some useful guides.

Books about spelling seem to have come of age. Gone are the badly drawn igloos, inkwells and Indians and the remorseless banging on about phonics. Although Spelling 9-13 does indeed have the kind of A4 format which makes you think you're going to be faced with igloos and inkwells, on opening the book you get a nice surprise. The emphasis is away from rules and towards understanding. Thus, a good proportion of the book is interestingly devoted to the roots of English spelling, covering Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman influences on the language. This will, I'm sure, encourage children to think about words, how they sound and why they are spelled the way they are. There are 40 photocopiable worksheets of activities, games and exercises to help pupils become more knowledgeable and accurate spellers.

There is encouragement to develop strategies for spelling and to look for patterns. There is advice on using dictionaries, using a thesaurus and - the first time I've seen it - advice on using a spellchecker. This is a good book.

Mike Torbe's Teaching and Learning Spelling is a third edition of his best-selling predecessor Teaching Spelling. This book for teachers is the Rolls-Royce of spelling books, unencumbered by gimmicks or snake-oil. It's well-written and sensible, incorporating good research findings in the psychology of learning without having to make reference to Vygotsky.

Included, however, is the recommendation of phonic training (seemingly inevitable in books on spelling) when things go wrong. For example, Torbe tells us that children invent spellings and that "they use rules of their own which are logical to them, but do not follow the conventions of adult spelling". Two examples he gives of this are "binocilers" for "binoculars" and "sopostoo" for "supposed to". Now, I don't know which conventions of adult spelling these invented spellings fail to conform to. They look perfectly logical to me in the context of the way young children speak, and certainly conform to conventions. Adult spellers can only say which conventions are correct because they know the correct spellings of the words in question. You only know which of the many, many "conventions" or rules apply once you know the word. The trouble is that up to 40 per cent of words cannot be explained phonetically, and phonic explanation is pretty difficult for many of the other 60 per cent. Children therefore resort to the simple phonics they know and understand. The solution lies surely not in the teaching of complex phonic algorithms, but rather in the guided experience of reading and writing.

It's unfair, though, to emphasise phonics as a major element of Torbe's book. It's not. This book is one of the most intelligent examples of its genre, covering identity as a speller, practical classroom organisation, miscue analysis and even school policy on spelling. Every school should have a copy.

Strengthen your Spelling is a workbook containing 54 photocopiable pages. It's a post-modern variant on igloos and inkwells, with cross-eyed owls and a pirate with "*!@" in his speech-bubble - because "His throat was HOARSE, and what he said was rather COARSE". Wouldn't "Aaarghh!" be better than "*!@"?

Collins Catchwords is by much-respected doyens of the teaching-spelling community, Charles Cripps and Margaret Peters. There are six workbooks for children in reception to age 12 (going through and reinforcing progressively complex word patterns), a pack of copymasters and a teacher's guide containing much sensible advice on teaching strategies and assessment. It covers the controversies surrounding spelling, the need (of course) for phonics (or should that be "of coarse") and an excellent concluding section on spelling policy and spelling in the national curriculum.

Gary Thomas is professor and reader in education at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

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