School-wide spelling

11th February 2000 at 00:00
The big question for teaching spelling in all subjects is not why, says Mike Torbe, but how.

No teacher has ever said to me: "Spelling doesn't matter, and I don't bother to teach it." What they have said is that they don't actually know how to teach spelling.

The National Literacy Strategy has set out to try to deal with this problem. There are now extensive materials for primary schools dealing with spelling, and the Spelling Bank for key stage 2, with its lists of carefully chosen words together with teaching ideas, has been particularly welcomed by many teachers. Staff feel more confident. Their knowledge about language has expanded, they are more comfortable with error analysis, and know how to involve children in investigations to understand how words and spelling patterns work. So the positive headlines from the strategy and its approach to spelling in the primary school seem to be:

* the literacy strategy has provided good resources;

* teachers are now growing more confident about managing the literacy hour;

* literacy co-ordinators in schools are more clear about their role.

But problems remain. Pupils may do well in tests and exercises, but may still not be able to spell when they do their own writing. They can find it difficult to transfer what they learn in literacy hours to their work in other subjects. And though teachers are more confident, they too have had some difficulty in transferring what they do in the literacy hour to the rest of the curriculum. Ironically, for example, teachers find that the numeracy hour does not seem to make provision for the discussion of mathematical words and their spelling.

At secondary school level, although the literacy strategy has not yet reached KS3, Education Secretary David Blunkett and Chief Inspector for Schools Chris Woodhead are clearly keen to see it there.

Leading issues in spelling are:

* whatever their subject, teachers want to do address spelling, andare looking for help;

* but they are all, sometimes even the English teachers, unsure about what is best practice, and lack confidence about their own knowledge and understanding of language;

* even when they know what ought to be done, subject teachers can find it difficult to organise lessons to deal with spelling alongside the demands of the subject content.

An approach confined to the English department may be difficult to transfer to the rest of the curriculum. At the same time, subject teachers have to feel assured that any school-wide approaches to teaching spelling will not damage the teaching of their subject.

* At the beginning of the lesson choose two or three important words that you want to use in the lesson, and talk about them for no more than two or three minutes. Remind the class how the word is spelled; compare it with similar words; talk about any spelling conventions or patterns and its history and meaning. If we are looking at why leaves go green, what has that got to do with the word "chlorophyll"?

* Log the pupils' errors. When you are marking books, copy into your own word book those spellings that are obviously giving pupils problems. Every three weeks or so, take five or 10 minutes to talk through the words and find ways together to help everyone spell them.

* When you set homework, tell the pupils that they have to include words from a list you give them, and spell them correctly.

* Every so often, spend 10 minutes working with groups or the whole class on words you think are important for them to learn. Use the Look, Cover, Remember technique pioneered by Grace Fernald in the USA in 1918. It still works. I describe it in my book Teaching and Learning Spelling (Ward Lock Education).

* Remember that although spelling matters, fluent and lively writing is even more important.

Mike Torbe is an educational consultant working with schools on literacy and effective learning at KS3

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