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Why some kids can’t spell and why spelling tests won’t help

By johnboy - 25 November 2013 26

scrabble

By Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

A couple of years ago, early one morning, I received an SMS advising “resadents to stay indoors because of a nearby insadent”. I was shocked by the spelling, as much as the message. Surely, I thought, if it was a real message then the spelling would be correct.

Spelling matters. In a text message from a friend teeing up a night out “c u at 8” is fine – but in an emergency warning text from a government agency, I expect the spelling to be standard. But why is it that some people struggle with standard spelling?

Spelling remains the most relentlessly tested of all the literacy skills, but it is the least taught.

Sending a list of words home on Monday to be tested on Friday is not teaching. Nor is getting children to write their spelling words out 10 times, even if they have to do it in rainbow colours.

Looking, covering, writing and checking does not teach spelling. Looking for little words inside other words, and doing word searches are just time fillers. And writing your “spelling” words in spirals or backwards is just plain stupid.

And yet, this is a good summary of most of the current spelling programs in schools today.

So, what should spelling teaching look like?

Finding meaning

Children should know the meanings of the words they spell, and as logical as that sounds – ask a child in your life what this week’s spelling words mean, and you might be surprised by their answers.

If spelling words are simply strings of letters to be learnt by heart with no meaning attached and no investigation of how those words are constructed, then we are simply assigning our children a task equivalent to learning ten random seven-digit PINs each week.

That is not only very very hard, it’s pointless.

More than sounds

English is an alphabetic language; we use letters to write words. But it is not a phonetic language: there is no simple match between sounds and letters.

We have 26 letters, but we have around 44 sounds (it’s not easy to be precise as different accents produce different sounds) and several hundred ways to write those sounds.

So, while sounds – or phonics – are important in learning to spell, they are insufficient. When the only tool we give young children for spelling is to “sound it out”, we are making a phonological promise to them that English simply cannot keep.

How words make their meanings

Sounds are important in learning to spell, but just as important are the morphemes in words. Morphemes are the meaningful parts of words. For example, “jumped” has two morphemes – “jump” and “ed”. “Jump” is easily recognised as meaningful, but “ed” is also meaningful because it tells us that the jump happened in the past.

Young spellers who are relying on the phonological promise given to them in their early years of schooling typically spell “jumped” as “jumt”.

When attempting to spell a word, the first question we should teach children to ask is not “what sounds can I hear?” but “what does this word mean?”. This gives important information, which helps enormously with the spelling of the word.

In the example of “jumt” it brings us back to the base word “jump”; where the sound of “p” can now be heard, and the past marker “ed” , rather than the sound “t” which we hear when we say the word.

Consider the author of the emergency text message at the beginning of this article as they pondered which of the many plausible letters they could use for the sound they could hear in “res – uh – dent”.

If they had asked themselves first, “What does this word mean?” the answer would have been people who “reside”, and then they would have heard the answer to their phonological dilemma.

Where words come from

English has a fascinating and constantly evolving history. Our words, and their spellings, come from many languages. Often we have kept the spellings from the original languages, while applying our own pronunciation.

As a result, only about 12% of words in English are spelt the way they sound. But that doesn’t mean that spelling is inexplicable, and therefore only learned by rote – it means that teaching spelling becomes a fascinating exploration of the remarkable history of the language – etymology.

Some may think that etymology is the sole province of older and experienced learners, but it’s not.

Young children are incredibly responsive to stories about words, and these understandings about words are key to building their spelling skills, but also building their vocabulary.

Yet poor spellers and young spellers are rarely given these additional tools to understand how words work and too often poor spellers are relegated to simply doing more phonics work.

Teaching – not testing

The only people who benefit from spelling tests are those who do well on them – and the benefit is to their self-esteem rather than their spelling ability. They were already good spellers.

The people who don’t benefit from spelling tests are those who are poor at spelling. They struggled with spelling before the test, and they still struggle after the test. Testing is not teaching.

Parents and teachers should consider these questions as they reflect on the ways in which spelling is approached in their school.

Are all children learning to love words from their very first years at school? Are they being fascinated by stories about where words come from and what those stories tell us about the spelling of those words?

Are they being excited by breaking the code, figuring how words are making their meanings and thrilled to find that what they’ve learned about one word helps them solve another word?

Put simply – is spelling your child’s favourite subject?

If the answer is no, then something needs to be done about the teaching.

Misty Adoniou is a Senior Lecturer in Language, Literacy and Teaching English as a Second Language at the University of Canberra. She occasionally presents workshops in schools on the teaching of spelling.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

[Photo by WireLizard CC BY 2.0]

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26 Responses to
Why some kids can’t spell and why spelling tests won’t help
Woody Mann-Caruso 3:29 pm 25 Nov 13

I was shocked by the spelling, as much as the message.

‘Shocked’? Did you understand what it said? Was its meaning unclear? Oh, but you’re a prescriptivist. How novel. By which I mean, how very privileged.

Ande verilye, thou hast left the e from the ende of ‘spelle’, thynketh me, frend. Ful wys is she that kan hirselve knowe how to spelle, trewely, and gladly wolde she lerne, yit before she teche anuther.

Erg0 3:25 pm 25 Nov 13

Incidentally, agree with this article 100%. You’ve got no chance with English if nobody teaches you how it actually works.

Erg0 3:23 pm 25 Nov 13

Gerry-Built said :

and the ‘fix’ for attracting and retaining a “better standard” of applicant to teaching is not brain surgery…

Let’s not write off brain surgery without at least trying it out.

Gerry-Built 2:07 pm 25 Nov 13

Gershwin said :

tim_c said :

Among my circle of friends and acquaintances, the worst spellers all chose to be …. Primary School teachers!

Second that. I have a number of primary school teachers among friends and family and the grammar and spelling is poor to the point of illegibility. It’s their defining characteristic, followed closely by an unwarranted sense of infallibility on everything from international law to quantum physics.

Whilst certainly not ideal, poor grasp of spelling and grammar is a not a deal-breaker as to whether a teacher is going to be effective – and the ‘fix’ for attracting and retaining a “better standard” of applicant to teaching is not brain surgery…

Watson 2:00 pm 25 Nov 13

I thought ‘yeah, yeah, blah, blah’ when I started reading this, but there were a couple of sentences in there that did make me think about new ways to help improve my 8yos spelling.

Though I must admit that I will very much miss her phonetic spelling of words. It is so clever and funny. I told her once that she shouldn’t feel embarrassed about her spelling mistakes because as a beginning writer, she was actually smarter than the dictionary because she followed very logical rules and English spelling is just totally inconsistent. But that was to boost her confidence and get her to practice writing in class more as the teachers have a ‘learning by doing’ attitude. Obviously there’s an expiry date to that reasoning…

Anywho, that stuff about morphemes was definitely interesting and I will focus on that more next time my offspring asks for my help with spelling a word.

poetix 1:46 pm 25 Nov 13

When my daughter was just beginning school I volunteered to help with reading; just sitting and letting the children read books to me. I overheard parents saying things that shocked me, such as ‘Don’t look at the picture, that’s cheating!’ when a kid was trying to glean meaning from the context. So very stupid, and teaching children that reading shouldn’t be fun or easy.

We were given no guidance at all on how to help children who were struggling.

Onceler 1:37 pm 25 Nov 13

Madam Cholet said :

Thank goodness for poo pooing the learning by rote example that we have all laboured under! As the mother of a little person who is very into words and writing right now, I do find it really helpful to describe what the word means. It also kills a few birds with the one stone. We spell out the letters and also have a conversation about the word and it’s meaning. It’s really interesting listening to kids process all of that information and put it into their own context.

As an aside, I completed this test a while back. I like words and language and seem to have a general knack at spelling – and did at school (unlike times tables), and scored quite highly on this test. It’s interesting if you actually stop and think about the word to see if you can describe what it means.

http://testyourvocab.com/

Madam Cholet, can you spot your punctuation error? 😉

Gershwin 1:32 pm 25 Nov 13

tim_c said :

Among my circle of friends and acquaintances, the worst spellers all chose to be …. Primary School teachers!

Second that. I have a number of primary school teachers among friends and family and the grammar and spelling is poor to the point of illegibility. It’s their defining characteristic, followed closely by an unwarranted sense of infallibility on everything from international law to quantum physics.

marcothepolopony 1:28 pm 25 Nov 13

I follow ACT Police on Twitter.
In almost all tweets the spelling is incorrect.
Emergency Services need to do a short (or long) course at TAFE to enable the people who send these tweets etc. to look more professional. It’s a disgrace.

tim_c 1:06 pm 25 Nov 13

Among my circle of friends and acquaintances, the worst spellers all chose to be …. Primary School teachers!

Madam Cholet 12:46 pm 25 Nov 13

Thank goodness for poo pooing the learning by rote example that we have all laboured under! As the mother of a little person who is very into words and writing right now, I do find it really helpful to describe what the word means. It also kills a few birds with the one stone. We spell out the letters and also have a conversation about the word and it’s meaning. It’s really interesting listening to kids process all of that information and put it into their own context.

As an aside, I completed this test a while back. I like words and language and seem to have a general knack at spelling – and did at school (unlike times tables), and scored quite highly on this test. It’s interesting if you actually stop and think about the word to see if you can describe what it means.

http://testyourvocab.com/

Deref 12:25 pm 25 Nov 13

Most of that’s of the “sky blue, water wet” variety. If kids don’t know the meaning of words how can they be expected to spell them? If they don’t understand concepts and uses of prefixes and suffixes how can they use them appropriately? Are there teachers who aren’t teaching this stuff? If so, how about finding them jobs they’re more suited for, like truck driving or street sweeping.

curmudgery said :

They can’t spell or punctuate because they don’t read.

A mate of mine who was in English teacher in the ACT school system set a holiday project for all his students to get library cards. He was lambasted for social engineering.

pink little birdie 12:23 pm 25 Nov 13

when I was in school we got our 20 words a week and 10 activities for them. Things like what is the meaning of the word, synonyms and antonyms , using the words in sentances and the tenses of the words. It was fairly interesting. Still didn’t do it all (it was classwork and homework combination) and I am still not good at spelling. When having a theasuarus was exciting. I still love my theasaurus.
When I was nannying 10 years later the childrens homework was more about being able to spell the words and less about the meanings and using the words.

voytek3 12:17 pm 25 Nov 13

Because they and their parents are stupid. End of discussion.

curmudgery 12:03 pm 25 Nov 13

They can’t spell or punctuate because they don’t read.

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