Evaluating spelling strategies

As so often, it started with a tweet when a teacher asked:

Does anyone have any tips or tricks for teaching pupils (read: me) how to remember the spelling of camouflage?

Ideas were offered by people self-described as KS3/4 teachers of physics, maths, English, French, science, biology, RE, heads of year, departments, curriculum, learning and teaching and an international educational consultant.

I have no intention of shaming teachers who haven’t been taught how to teach spelling but I do want to explain why some strategies for spelling are much better than others, especially for students who have the weakest memories. As with teaching reading, the strategies for the least confident won’t harm the most confident but it doesn’t work the other way around.

Here are some of the ‘tips or tricks’ offered and why they are mostly not a good idea. They fall into three general categories.


1. Don’t teach at all

I’m assuming some of these were tongue-in-cheek but will respond, just in case.

Use spell check – In a pinch? Sure, says the woman who once printed a run of training manuals with a sentence about ‘unstressed bowel sounds’.

Learn the string of letter names – like you’d memorise a phone number. How many 10 digit phone numbers does anyone have confidently tucked away for instant recall? This is oldest and least helpful spelling strategy. There is no teaching involved.

Just write ‘camo’ – You don’t want me to get up on my ‘high expectation for every student’ soapbox but I will report a conversation I had with a college sports instructor who told me that students would gain a better mark for writing ‘pectoral’ but are stuck at ‘pec’. Let’s do better for our students.

Don’t bother – some words are beyond teaching – see above. I know many teachers are uncertain about their own spelling but we can conquer this together. Susan Godsland of dyslexics.org.uk said of That Spelling Thing, ‘By the end, even if you’re a weak speller yourself, you’ll feel confident enough to put this spelling guidance into use, in your own classroom, immediately.’

2.  Bad mnemonics

Make up a funny story  – A bad mnemonic is any ‘trick’ that takes up memory, has nothing to do with the meaning of the word and can’t be extended to expand vocabulary. A sentence about elephants to spell ‘because’ or salmon sandwiches to spell ‘necessary’, is a bad mnemonic. I hear you shouting:

a. But that’s how I learned! Yes, you did but you’ve probably got a decent memory and only a handful of words that you need to remember how to spell. Tricks like these work for the spelling privileged.

b. They’re fun! Yes they can be but satisfaction trumps fun in spelling.

c. Kids love them! Some kids love them but others flounder and they obviously can’t remember a random and unrelated story for every word they can’t spell.

This is a good place to say that how you learned to spell is not the same thing as consistently using the bones of the English language – syllables, sounds, graphemes and morphemes – to teach how to spell all words. Teach spelling to increase vocabulary and reading comprehension in every subject. Spelling a single word is of limited educational value.

3. Disconnected spelling voice – say ‘ca-mo-u-flag-e’

Wed-nes-day, temp-er-a-ture These pronunciations help us clarify when there’s a mismatch between spoken and written syllables. However, cam/ou/flage has equal syllables in speech and writing and adding extra syllables like ca/mo/u/flag/e adds an extra layer to be remembered and defies the logic of English. Better to teach <age> as an ending and point out that some words maintain the French pronunciation: camouflage, espionage, triage, sabotage, etc

Of course we can use a spelling voice to clear up unstressed vowels like the ou syllable in camouflage. Ask students how they will best remember it. Is it the same sound as in ‘you’ or ‘cousin’ or ‘famous’? Don’t split a grapheme when you’re deciding on a spelling voice.

What did I suggest?

My ideal starting place would be a school-wide approach to spelling so that every teacher of every subject would have the same key strategies. Do the hard work for a term and it will become part of school culture.

Because of how the question was worded, I assumed ‘camouflage’ is a frequently misspelt word so suggested the puzzle approach. It slows down the process, allows students to take in the whole word accurately and makes the correct spelling almost guaranteed. Ask each individual to identify what they need to work on remembering.

Here’s my tweet expanded:

1. First, it’s French so demonstrate the pronunciation for them even if you think everyone knows. 

2. Make a grapheme puzzle with the <age> ending : c a m ou f l age

3. Use the TST script:

How many syllables? 3

Say them clearly (everyone). They all have to say it clearly out loud. How are they going to pronounce the <ou> syllable? Is there a good spelling voice?

4. Build the puzzle one syllable at a time, sound by sound (grapheme by grapheme) and the ‘age’ ending.

What’s the first syllable? ‘cam’ – can you build that (say the sounds) – ‘k’ ‘a’ ‘m’

What’s the next syllable? spelling voice here – say it as you build it.

What’s the last syllable? ‘flage’ – ‘f’ ‘l’ ‘age’

5. Each student identifies their own tricky bit.

If it’s the <age> ending, bundle it with espionage, triage, sabotage etc.

If it’s the <ou> grapheme, pair it with a word they already know how to spell: cousin/famous/camouflage

If it helps, put those into a phrase like: ‘My famous cousin’s camouflage’.

It might be something else! Give your students autonomy to fill their own spelling gaps; the proof of that pudding will be obvious.

And the winner on Twitter?

The teacher making the query helpfully picked a winner which is one of those strategies that…depends. I was hoping to be black and white here but the final pick is truly possibly ok or possibly bad as far as mnemonics go.

The suggested trick is for the student to say, ‘oh U found me’ as they write the word.

Potentially ok: It relates to the word, it spells the grapheme – except for the disconnection between the y in you and the letter u – and it’s quick. It is one of those mnemonics that I consider a strategy of last resort for good spellers who have only a few words they need to remember. I wouldn’t recommend it as The Strategy for everyone.

Potentially bad: If it is used out of the context of the logic of English spelling then it’s just a one word solution – not building vocabulary or increasing reading comprehension.

If your students go through the whole puzzle building process above and need to remember how to spell the <ou> grapheme then this is something they might choose. However, if they don’t understand graphemes and how they relate to the sounds and meaning of English then try the above first and put this mnemonic in its correct place.

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