Evidence informed spelling

What follows is for professionals who are offering phonics advice to parents and/or teachers. Please check all your content, especially when stated as 'rules', against a credible source, i.e. make it 'evidence based'. Errors happen and I depend on people to be gracious when they spot mine, but the example below is something that could discourage poor spellers who are already feeling bad about themselves. Some children will actually know some of the information is wrong but hesitate to say anything because it comes from an adult.

I recently saw a comment by a parent who had learned from the internet that <air> words are usually nouns and <are> words are usually verbs. I followed the link and found the following information on a very plausible and professional looking website.

I will write the paraphrased advice here with the evidence-based answers. What do I mean by evidence? For this particular advice, I used Collins online dictionary to check the parts of speech and Greg Brooks' Dictionary of the British English Spelling System to check assumptions about frequency. Both are freely available. My hard copy is already bookmarked for /air/ and <are> because we discuss this very issue in some spelling CPD sessions.

The site says it's important for children to understand what a noun is before teaching the first spelling rule and what a verb is before teaching the alternative spelling.

  • We'll decide whether this approach is helpful later but be prepared to hear that it is not.

The site says the first common way to spell the /air/ sound is <air> and the words are usually nouns like chair, hair, pair, fair, airport and fairy.

  • The first common way to spell the /air/ sound is <are>.  I can see you might want to start with <air> because the grapheme is also a word which makes it the first go-to for spelling the sound but children should know that <air> might not be their first choice.
  • I can air my laundry and pair my socks so they can also be verbs. The part of speech based spelling rule unravels quickly.

The site says the alternative spelling is <are> and is usually found in verbs like care, dare, glare and scare and an exception to the verb rule is square.

  • I don't have a care in the world. That's a big dare! Your glare gave me a scare. They are not 'usually verbs' and square is also both a noun and a verb. Square that with your mum. What do you get when you square 3?

The site says the third way of spelling /air/ is <ear> and that the small group includes bear, pear, wear and swear.

  • I'll go with that but add tear to the list and you've got them all. The list is complete and it shouldn't be taught with the word 'includes' as though the list is as long as the words with <air> and <are>.

What's not mentioned is that there are two rare spellings that are used so often that they actually account for 50% of the words with the /air/ sound when you look at frequency in text. (Brooks notes page 184)

Therefore, a lesson on /air/ should also include the spellings in:

  • their, theirs
  • where, there

All students should be listening for the sound and know that these words are not spelt with the 'popular' options but have their own special spellings. They are not harder, just different.

So how would I teach it? Forget the parts of speech because they don't work. Create a list of words with the various spellings that reflect each grapheme's frequency. Below is the lesson page from That Reading Thing. TRT is for improving reading with older students but you could use the list for spelling with year 6s or create your own, following the frequency but with more suitable words. That would be my advice for ESOL tutors too. The students sort the words, look at the patterns, talk through how they might remember the ones they will struggle to spell. I don't have time to discuss that in detail but that's what we call bundling and can be done in a variety of ways.

The most basic approach is to agree on an anchor word for each spelling - one that everyone can spell easily. That ends up being part of the culture of spelling in your classroom and you'll be saying things like: That's the 'repair air' or that's the 'care air'. Be very careful to avoid homonyms where it could be either spelling like hair/hare, stair/stare, fair/fare etc. Keep that conversation going as words with the 'air' sound arise naturally from writing and reading activities.

My plea to other literacy professionals? If you give advice to teachers or parents, double check that there is some evidence behind your ideas, something that underpins your approaches even if you have seen it before and are sure other people are using it. If you come up with something brand new, I'd love to hear about it and if you've made a mistake I would be kind about helping make corrections. However, I don't want to see parents and teachers frustrated and I especially don't want to see that bright dyslexic struggling speller thinking, "I think 'dare' can be a noun or a verb but I must be wrong."

2 Responses

  1. Debra FARQUHAR

    Great post, thanks for sharing.

    • Tricia Millar

      Thanks, Debra.