How not to teach spelling

There is a big gap between sending home spelling lists and teaching spelling, but taking the time to close that gap is worth it in so many ways, not least for those students who will otherwise go through life saying "I can't spell".

This photo, used by permission, was posted on a support group for parents of children with dyslexia. A child in year 5 brought it home having been told to learn the spellings for that week.

Rather than give advice to parents of dyslexic children, I want to talk to any teacher who gives lists like this because this isn't about teaching spelling; it's about testing memory and, every week, the students with the best memories and the largest vocabularies will get the best marks.

Every. Single. Week.

What would I recommend instead?

Create a culture where spelling is part of every lesson - part of the educational air in the room with a shared vocabulary for talking about words.

Be consistent and persistent until every student:

1. can say the word clearly out loud and hear how many syllables they're saying. If they can't say it, they'll struggle to spell it.

2. thinks about 'how to spell the sounds' in each syllable. You might choose to talk about graphemes representing sounds. Use letter names to talk about how to spell the graphemes.

"It's the oh/you/gee/aitch spelling of /oo/ in 'through'."

3.  can identify which bit they need to focus on remembering and which bit (usually most of the word) isn't hard to spell. Mark spelling by giving a mark for each correct grapheme and see how students realise how much they can spell already.

4. has the vocabulary to ask specific questions about how to spell a word and the confidence to ask.

"How do you spell the /ee/ in 'pizza'?"

5. understands how to use a spelling voice to clarify unstressed vowels (schwas).

6. understands prefixes and suffixes starting with the most common. <un>, <re>, <ing>, <ed> <ly> etc.

As well as all of the above, the teacher will:

7. use the puzzle approach for words that are new or unfamiliar or words that are frequently misspelt.

8. create bundles of words by meaning or spelling pattern to help with memory and use morphology when it's helpful.

9. model curiosity about the language of their lessons.

10. understand that spelling is cumulative and collaborative for everyone and not something that gets learned by a weekly list.

How could you make good use of the original list?

If you think the words are useful for your class, use them for word study one at a time and bundle them to extend vocabulary.

mortgage? Link it with 'mortal', 'immortal' and 'mortality'. Use etymonline.com to discover the connection.

assuage? Make sure everyone can say it and use it then bundle it with other words without a <q> but where the <u> represents /w/: language, languish, penguin, persuade, distinguish, extinguish. That could be the spelling list for a week.

gauge? First, have them give a one-word spelling test to every adult in the school and note how many can spell it correctly.Then, because 'gauge' is the only word in English where <au> spells /ay/, have everyone create a bundle with a word which has <au> spelling a different sound. I like to think of "August gauge" but your students could think of others. If they frequently misspell 'because', put that in the bundle. Make sure your students know about the rarity of that spelling. Greg Brooks' Dictionary of the British English Spelling System, (Open Book Publishers), is brilliant for looking at frequency.

No one is banning unusual or complex spellings or obscure words, but use them with wisdom and in the context of establishing a culture where everyone can feel confident about learning to spell.

Spelling should be a satisfying part of school for everyone, not just those with great memories.

2 Responses

  1. Paulene Forde
    |

    Beautiful not so common spelling sense.

    • TriciaMillar
      |

      Thanks! I like that description.