Spell it out

14th October 2005 at 01:00
Paul Blum offers strategies for tackling spelling in secondary school learning support groups.

Spelling is the toughest single literacy problem. To spell correctly pupils have to be 100 per cent accurate with their recall of every letter. Whereas to read with total accuracy you scan words without needing a photographic recall of each and every letter sequence you see. Spelling is the literacy skill that can trigger the highest level of emotional frustration and negativity from secondary pupils. They have had years of covering up their limitations and many have long since given up. Even those with otherwise mature literacy skills still find spelling is an area of weakness.

For some pupils, it may be best to miss out work on spelling altogether and concentrate on reading skills only. For others, spelling strategies will help them gain confidence in reading .

A lot of controversy and mystery surround the art of spelling. Good spellers, like good readers, don't often remember what explicit strategies they used to learn their skill. For many, it is just an unconscious talent they acquired. A good speller uses three key skills in combination. First, a good visual memory for what they have seen in print. Second, a secure motor movement memory, so that they recall automatically how their hand should move across a page to form a word correctly ( if they are not sure, they simply write the word out in a couple of versions and assess which one "feels right" in terms of movement). Third, a speller needs a good memory for sounds in words and which combinations of letters represent them.

Good spellers find it comes so naturally that they do it intuitively.

Obviously, many learning support teachers or assistants are like this. Yet, what pupils need more than anything else are explicit strategies for teaching them how to spell better. The intuition and unconscious talent of their teacher won't help them.

Unless you had a lot of difficulties learning to spell yourself, you will need to learn those explicit strategies before you can help others. Good spellers are not always the natural teachers of spelling.

Here are some useful intervention strategies:

* Remember, each of your pupils is an individual with their own particular learning styles. You need to work out exactly what they are finding difficult, before you can come up with an effective intervention. Careful diagnosis of spelling problems is vital.

* You'll need to experiment with strategies for getting your pupils to spell better. No one method is right for all pupils. A strategy that one pupil thrives on will be a dead loss to another.

* Build up a spelling intervention around your students' strengths. Use the good points of the way they spell already, to move them forward. . l Teach spelling through words that pupils need to use for real writing assignments. Disassociated word lists will never be as effective as words for immediate consumption. l Many pupils will hate spelling. You'll need a lot of positive reinforcement or little rewards to bolster their confidence. Praise their successes and make the process fun. l A new word spelt correctly in a test is a very positive sign. But it should be the beginning of a regular programme of reinforcement in which you return again and again to old lists of words to see if the pupil can still get them right.

* Learning how to spell better is predominantly about weak spellers finding strategies that help them feel more confident about facing up to their own spelling problems, rather than continue burying them. It's about a process of tackling spelling. If your learner gets that process right, then the number of words they can learn to spell is unlimited. Eventually, they will be able to take control of the process themselves.

Paul Blum is a senior manager at Islington Green school and author of 'Improving Low Reading Ages in the Secondary School' (Routledge 2004)

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