Have you ever started to write a word on the board only to discover that the letters just won't seem to arrange themselves in the right order? Or found yourself surreptitiously consulting a dictionary under your desk? Well, if you're prone to the odd spelling lapse, at least you're in good company. Wordsworth once wrote of "eughtrees" (yew trees), and was guilty of such schoolboy errors as "pennyless" and "untill", while quite a number of "peculearitys" (as he would spell it) can be found in the writing of WB Yeats. Being hopeless at spelling may be no barrier to producing great literature, but there is still a stigma attached to it. We can get away with making the occasional grammatical error, or mispronouncing a word, but spelling is often seen as the benchmark of literacy, and those who are bad at it are perceived as poorly educated, or less intelligent. But, given the complexity of the English spelling system and the fact that very few of us are letter perfect, should it be such a big deal?
'Spelling is compelling'
Or so says the motto for Hard Spell, last November's BBC version of the US-style spelling "bee" (competition), which saw children struggle with such orthographic horrors as "haemorrhage" and "chihuahua". The show, and ITV's The Great British Spelling Test broadcast the month before, are examples of recent attempts by the media to make spelling "sexy". They followed the success of the documentary feature film Spellbound, which tracked a group of American schoolchildren as they competed in their national spelling bee. There's been an upsurge of interest in the publishing world too, spearheaded by a book that explores the eccentricity of English spelling: Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary; or Why Can't Anybody Spell? by Vivian Cook, professor of applied linguistics at the University of Newcastle.
So why can't we spell?
The answer to Professor Cook's question probably lies in the fact that the English language has 44 sounds, but more than 1,000 ways of spelling them.
A 2001 Dundee University study of primary schoolchildren in 15 European countries found that it took an average of 2.5 years for children working in English to master basic literacy skills whereas those in most other countries had achieved this within a year of starting school. Dyslexia is also more common in Britain than in countries with more straightforward spelling systems.
Despite frequent claims that spelling standards are declining, there's little hard evidence to support this. However, it's clear that many people are leaving school and university with a less than secure grasp. When a University of Ulster study asked 1,000 people to identify spelling errors in a piece of writing, no one in the 15 to 21 age group spotted them all.
And a survey of 1,000 job applications to a PR company found that 90 per cent contained errors on the first page, many involving spelling. Some of the most common mistakes are: not knowing when to double the consonant as in "beginning", using the wrong vowel such as writing "seperate" instead of "separate", and confusion of homophones such as "their", "there" and "they're".
A potted history
English has a long and complicated history and many seemingly illogical spellings can be traced back to the influence of other languages, notably Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse and Norman French. For example, the "qu" spelling for the "kw" sound has its origins in French. Before the arrival of the Normans, "queen" was spelt "cwen" in keeping with the generally more phonetic spelling patterns of Old English. Also, some pronunciations have changed while the spelling has stayed the same; in the 17th century the silent "k" in "knight" was sounded.
Until the 15th century, everyone spelled words as they liked, often in ways that reflected their regional accent. Incredibly, the Linguistic Atlas of Late Medieval English records 500 spellings of the word "through" from this time. It was obvious that something had to be done to ease written communication, and a slow process of standardisation began, headed by the scribes of the Chancery office who produced the official paperwork of the kingdom. However, their decisions were not always logical. Some reformers were keen to make the etymology of the words apparent, so "debt" and "doubt" had the "b" inserted in an attempt to emphasise their Latin origins. This resulted in a lot of silent letters and inconsistencies, not least because the reformers were sometimes mistaken about the provenance of words.
The introduction of Caxton's printing press in 1476 speeded up standardisation, but many early printers were either from the Netherlands or had learned their trade there, and so added some Dutch spelling patterns to the hotchpotch. The process culminated in Dr Samuel Johnson's dictionary in 1755 and, since then, changes in English spelling have been minimal.
Is reform an option?
A number of other European countries have successfully made changes to their spelling systems and, in the US, Noah Webster introduced a range of what he considered to be more logical spellings in his 1828 dictionary. So why can't we do the same in Britain? Spelling reform has had some high-profile supporters, notably George Bernard Shaw, who made provision in his will for the funding of a competition to devise a simplified version of English spelling, although nothing came of it.
Today a reformer called Richard Wade is campaigning for the widespread adoption of what he calls "freespeling", whereby writers are at liberty to adapt spellings of difficult words so they are more phonetically based.
According to his website (see resources), his aim is not an immediate overhaul of the system, but a continuation of the gradual evolution of spelling. Supporters are encouraged to "freespel" a few words on each page in informal correspondence. To avoid appearing illiterate, they place an "f" at the beginning, along with a footnote explaining the concept. He hopes that new, simplified spellings will eventually become standard or be allowed to exist with equal status alongside traditional spellings.
However, as Dr John Gledhill, membership secretary of the Simplified Spelling Society, points out, not only is there opposition to reform on the grounds of tradition, there are also practical difficulties. "Given that English is a global language with a huge variety in the way words are pronounced, it's impossible to develop a fully phonetic system that would reflect this," he says.
"Our society has existed for a century and no one has yet come up with a truly workable solution. At the moment our main focus is to publicise the need for reform. For many children, learning to spell is a laborious exercise that takes up time that could be better spent on other things. We need to start by getting rid of some of the dead wood of spelling, the silent letters and irregularities, so that we can see a way forward."
However, as Professor Cook points out in the introduction to his book, opponents would argue that the purpose of spelling is not just to reflect the sound of words, but also to provide a link to meaning and show their relationship to other words. We see an "ed" ending as a symbol representing the past tense, regardless of the variations in pronunciation. If you were to take the word "sign" and remove the silent g, changing the spelling to "sine" in keeping with a more commonly seen pattern, it would lose its connection with related words such as signal and signature. Those against reform also point out that English spelling is about 80 per cent regular and many problems can be overcome by proper teaching of rules and conventions.
So how should we teach it?
There's obviously a close relationship between the teaching of reading and spelling, but the latter presents more of a challenge for children as it involves attention to every letter and conscious choices that are not required in reading. The national literacy strategy framework sets out a structured approach covering the word level skills, such as knowledge of phonics, spelling conventions and strategies that pupils are expected to acquire throughout the primary years, along with lists of words they should be able to spell. These are tested in the key stage 1 and 2 Sats.
There has been much debate about the impact the teaching of phonics can have on the early development of literacy skills. In a study of 300 children in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, a system using synthetic phonics resulted in faster progress in both reading and spelling. A five-year follow-up found that the children taught using this method were almost two years ahead of their peers. The system involves an initial period of intensive teaching in which children learn individual letter sounds and how to blend (or synthesise) them into words before being introduced to books and to other strategies.
However, not everyone agrees with this approach. Olivia O'Sullivan, assistant director of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education and co-author of Understanding Spelling, says: "Our research found that children learn best if a multi-stranded approach is used from the start.
There's not always a close relationship between the sound of a word and the spelling, so the visual aspect is important too. Children's attention needs to be drawn to common letter strings and their connection to meaning. One of the best things teachers can do is encourage children to take an interest in words and the relationships between them."
Experts also believe that kinaesthetic learning has an important role to play, and practising handwriting helps imprint correct spellings on the motor memory. As Ms O'Sullivan points out, one of the problems for teachers is that the learning of spelling is a cumulative process and children develop at different rates. Some children are also very good readers but poor at spelling, so there will be a variety of levels in any one classroom. As part of the three-year project that culminated in Understanding Spelling, the research team developed an assessment framework that enables teachers to analyse children's errors so the class can be divided into groups to work on specific areas. "It's important to equip them with a range of strategies and encourage them to become more self-reliant as they get older," says Ms O'Sullivan.
What about secondary school?
By Year 7, the gap between proficient spellers and those who are struggling has inevitably widened, and many secondary staff lack experience in teaching basic literacy skills such as spelling rules. The framework for teaching English in Years 7, 8 and 9 attempts to address these problems, setting out objectives for each year. The Year 7 "spelling bank" contains detailed lesson plans for reviewing and consolidating rules, conventions and strategies, as well as a list of commonly misspelled words and spellings related to subject areas. There is also a literacy progress unit on spelling designed to support pupils who have failed to reach level 4 at the end of key stage 2.
The Literacy Across the Curriculum initiative, launched in September 2001, now forms part of the English strand of the key stage 3 strategy. It aims to involve the whole school in the development of literacy, including the active teaching of spelling. Schools are encouraged to address spelling across the curriculum through common marking policies and other strategies such as the display of subject-related vocabulary. However, for most subject teachers without specific literacy training, the teaching of spelling goes no further than correcting errors in pupils' writing.
But there are simple strategies that all teachers can use. When making corrections, it's good practice to underline only the part of the word the pupil has misspelled. This focuses their attention on it as well as recognising their achievement in getting most of the word correct.
"Look, cover, write, check" is a process with which most pupils are familiar, and it employs both visual and kinaesthetic learning.
"Spellspeaking", or using exaggerated pronunciation as in "bus-i-ness" or "in-ter-est" can help pupils remember spellings with unstressed letters.
They can also be encouraged to find words within words - "there is 'a rat'
in separate" - and many find mnemonics such as "it is necessary to have one collar and two socks" (one "c" and a double "s" in "necessary") and "Rhythm Helps Your Two Hips Move" very useful.
'Hard Spell' with a difference Some schools have capitalised on the recent publicity spelling has received by holding their own competitions. Bren Weston, literacy co-ordinator at John Hunt of Everest community school in Basingstoke, Hampshire, says: "A lot of our pupils watched the programme and they get very excited about any form of competition. But we wanted to organise something that would give everyone the chance to get involved, not just the good spellers."
The school has a number of pupils who are working below national curriculum level 3 in literacy and these pupils are withdrawn from some lessons to work in small groups. The planned Hard Spell competition will use word lists tailored to the individual pupil so that those from the small groups will compete on equal terms with the more able. The aim is to focus attention on pupils' achievement in learning the target words rather than on the ability of the few to memorise complex spellings. It also ties in with the school's emphasis on encouraging pupils to take individual responsibility for improving their spelling.
Ms Weston says: "Too many children label themselves as poor spellers. They are inhibited by this and tend to build their writing around words they know how to spell, and this limits their creativity. We need to use as many strategies as possible to help build their confidence."
* Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary by Vivian Cook is published by Profile Books, pound;5.99.
* The National Literacy Trust at www.literacytrust.org has information on a wide range of literacy issues, including spelling.
* Understanding Spelling by Olivia O'Sullivan and Anne Thomas is available from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, pound;13.95.
* www.spellingsociety.org.uk is the website of the Simplified Spelling Society. Spelling reform was discussed at this summer's International Conference on Global Literacy in Mannheim, Germany; a report will be available soon on the society's website.
* 'Freespeling' website: www.freespeling.com.
Did you know?
* The English language has 44 separate sounds, but more than 1,000 ways of spelling them
* It takes 2.5 years on average for children working in English to master basic literacy, while children in most other countries achieve this within a year of starting school
* A multi-stranded approach, combining emphasis on the sounds of words with the visual aspect and practising handwriting, can speed up learning
* The gap between proficient spellers and those who are struggling widens when children reach Year 7. But many secondary staff lack experience in teaching basic literacy skills such as spelling rules