Under the spell of the language

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Sue Palmer urges teachers to put across spelling as a fascinating subject in its own right and not just a boring and routine basic skill.

I hate it when people call spelling a "secretarial skill". No offence to secretaries, but if their skills were interesting, bosses would do them themselves instead of hiving them off. "Secretarial skills" sound deadly . . . superficial, tedious and entirely lacking in creativity. Spelling, of course, is none of these. It's an opportunity to get stuck into one of the most fascinating things in the world: the English language.

There's the historical perspective for a start. Our language is such a glorious historical hotchpotch that every word has a story . . . and very often that story is enshrined in the spelling.

Dolphins, elephants and philosophers, for instance, show their Ancient Greek origins in that ph (to indicate a Greek phi). The peculiar silent n lurking at the end of every autumn and column harks back to the Romans, who enjoyed autumni and added up columnae. Then there were the Normans who changed our Anglo-Saxon cwen to a Frenchified queen, and introduced soft c in words like centre.

But my favourite spelling story is of the medieval monks who changed a perfectly phonetic u in words like cume and luve into an o - for the simple reason that all those downstrokes in the original spellings made their manuscripts more difficult to read.

Since then, of course, people have been bringing new words to English from all points of the compass. Crusaders brought words from the Arabic like assassin, sherbet and arsenal; traders in the Caribbean picked up barbecue, cannibal and potato; trek and safari and chimpanzee arrived with explorers of Africa; and if you live in a bungalow and shampoo your hair while wearing pyjamas, you can thank India, via the British Raj.

In fact, you could probably teach the whole of history and geography through spelling if you put your mind to it. Those people who want a return to the teaching of Latin would do much better to call for a more broad-minded approach to English orthography - that could give the benefits of Latin, and more besides.

The study of word origins is only one approach to spelling. Another very satisfying method is to concentrate on the way spelling rules throw strangely disparate words together. For the past year I have been horribly upstaged in my Language Roadshops by a delinquent snake called Cecil de Lacy, whose only interest in life is those soft c words. He makes shameless eyes at any children called Lucy or Vincent, steals Alice bands and pencils and - just to make himself utterly memorable - fills his mouth with a brand of cereal called Rice Pops and throws up all over the audience.

Cecil now receives bedtime stories riddled with soft c's from children all over the country, and is living proof that spelling patterns can acquaint a word with the strangest of bedfellows. He's been so successful that a host of similar creatures have begun to frequent my office. (As I write I am being urgently paged by Georgina Gypsum the German Giraffe.) Then there are mnemonics. You're probably already acquainted with the fact that People Eat Orange Peel Like Elephants, and know that embaRRaSSment involves turning Rosy Red and Sickly Sweaty. Did you also know, however, that Rhythm Has Your Two Hips Moving, and that it may be neCeSSary to wear only one Collar but you need two Socks? There is a limit to the efficacy of mnemonics, unfortunately - after you've absorbed a certain number it's probably easier just to remember the spellings. But getting children to make up their own mnemonics is a wonderful way of making them really look at words.

Mind you, there's a lot more to spelling than looking at words. As well as the myth that spelling is merely secretarial, schools have also been led to believe over several decades that "spelling is a visual skill", resulting in a conviction that children taught the mantra "Look Cover Write Check" will eventually learn to spell. This has always struck me as a very sad example of putting all your eggs in one basket.

It stands to reason that the spelling system of an alphabetic language will involve a fair degree of phonetic regularity. Though invaders, settlers, monks and empire builders have caused many exciting variations, the spelling of the majority of English words is nevertheless phonetically regular, so encouraging children's attention to sound - especially helping them to emphasise the pronunciation of vowels and to break longer words into syllables - is bound to pay dividends.

Perhaps if we add another word to the mantra and make it "Look SAY Cover Write Check" children will learn to use information gained through auditory and ar-tic-u-la-tory channels as well as the visual. But it's also vital to tell them what to look for and why - and how to listen to the sounds they say. If we want children to learn to savour our language, and write it with confidence and facility, we must first draw their attention to the words themselves - their sounds, their shapes, their stories.

It's not as if teachers don't find English interesting. When I talk to them on my travels in primary and secondary school, the overwhelming majority are language lovers - it somehow seems to go with the territory. They all have favourite stories about spellings and misspellings, treasured mnemonics, anecdotes about linguistic curiosities, and cheerful prejudices about words like alright and 'til. For some reason, though, many have been convinced that concentration on language itself alone is somehow harmful, and that any departure from a purely meaning-driven English curriculum will damage children's literacy skills.

Of course meaning is important. Of course the reason we teach English is to make children effective, enthusiastic users of the language. Of course they need to read real books and write for real reasons. But that doesn't mean that we have to devalue or ignore the medium through which they read and write. English is an amazing language - an international treasure.

If taught with enthusiasm, spelling can help inculcate pride and interest in that language - and thus increase command and control of it. But if we cover the subject with bored resignation, as merely a secretarial skill of no possible intrinsic interest, we're unlikely to inspire any of our classes to heights of linguistic pleasure - and we probably won't do much for their spelling either.

For details of the Language Live Roadshow for teachers and pupils (including How to Be An Absolutely Brilliant Speller for Years 3 and 4) send SAE to Language Live, 11 St Georges Road, Truro, TR1 3JE. Tel: 01872 41776

Language live also hopes to develop a virtual spelling themepark on the World Wide Web - http:www.nuff.ox.ac.ukusersmartinlanguagelive.htm Sue Palmer is general editor of the Longman Book Project

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