The woman who broke spelling myths; People; Obituary

19th February 1999 at 00:00

The `TES' celebrates the work of Dr Margaret Peters.

Look, cover, write and check. Many teachers and children have used this simple strategy for learning to spell, now enshrined in the national curriculum and the literacy strategy. They owe it to the research, experimentation, writing and tireless lecturing of Margaret Peters.

Dr Peters, who died in November aged 81, was a literacy tutor at the Cambridge Institute of Education for many years. She was a international authority on the teaching of spelling. Her central message was that spelling was "taught, not caught".

"Margaret Peters was adamant that teaching children to write words from memory was probably the most reliable strategy for learning to spell," says Charles Cripps, her student and later colleague and co-author of Catchwords (Collins Educational).

She exploded two myths that were current about spelling in the late 1960s. The first was that spelling was automatically absorbed while reading. She argued that this was not necessarily so because, when engaged in reading, we do not consciously look at every single letter or letter sequence as our eye moves across the text.

So she explained to teachers that comforting parents with comments such as "your child's spelling will improve if heshe reads more" was in fact unhelpful.

The second was that spelling was picked up by listening. Dr Peters argued that because in English, there were simply too many alternatives for the same sound, listening only aided spelling with where there were no possible alternatives. But she did say that "phonic" spellings were qualitatively good and were readable.

Margaret Peters' early training at the prestigious Froebel Institute, followed by studies in educational psychology, gave her a great understanding of children's learning. She was herself a gifted teacher of young children and worked as a primary teacher as well as an educational psychologist and a college of education lecturer. She first joined the Cambridge Institute as tutor in charge of the remedial centre.

"Margaret never forgot or lost touch with the world of the child," says Brigid Smith, of Homerton College, Cambridge, co-author with Dr Peters of Spelling in Context: Strategies for Teachers and Learners (NFERNelson). "All her teaching life she worked with difficult and failing children, gained access to their interests and potential and made them feel they could achieve.

"Her methods were often unexpected: she taught one child to read and write through learning the names of football clubs. And she capitalised on my son's deep desire to play the piano by teaching him both musical notation and spelling sequences at the same time. For Margaret there was no such thing as failure."

She was equally gifted with experienced teachers, managing to impart an understanding of the academic theories underpinning classroom practice while keeping her audience royally entertained.

Lectures were made all the more entertaining by her continuing battle with technology, such as overhead projectors and videos. She was the subject of a premature obituary in the early 1980s and took it with her usual good humour. "At least it's well-written," she said, "but there'll be more to write." There was. Margaret Peters was married to Richard Peters, the educational philosopher.

Apart from the books mentioned above, her publications include Success in Spelling (the version of her doctoral thesis at Birkbeck College published by the Cambridge Institute of Education), Diagnostic and Remedial Spelling Manual (Macmillan) and Spelling Caught or Taught? (Routledge amp; Kegan Paul).

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