Changing the way we think about spelling

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How many children think about spelling in a negative way? They view it as a hostile barrier which interrupts the fluency of their writing. They see it as a mountain, too hard to climb or they perceive it as an ongoing battle of rote learning ‘list words’, which relentlessly continues throughout their entire primary education.

It is our job as teachers to present spelling as a voyage of exploration. At Seymour College, we don’t say, ‘it’s a special word’ or ‘you’ll just have to learn that one by heart’. We know that English spelling isn’t chaotic or random and that there is a system which explains why words are spelled the way they are.

IMG 9078The mystery behind English spelling lies in understanding how it works. The difficulties that students (and adults) often face when spelling are actually linguistic in character, to do with the history of the word, the word structure and the way the sounds and letters interrelate. This sort of explanation has been lacking in pedagogical practice and absent in many classrooms across Australia. This year at Seymour College, we are creating impactful lesson sequences which are underpinned by evidence-based research as part of our new literacy structure.

Why does English spelling seem so difficult?

The English writing system is complex and challenging to learn. There are forty-four sounds (phonemes) in the English language represented by only twenty-six letters. There are twenty vowel phonemes (no, a, e, i, o, u are not the only vowels, they are just vowel indicators) and there are twenty-four consonant phonemes. To give a contrast, in Finnish, each letter of the alphabet is represented by only one sound. Therefore, Finnish children learn to read and spell with minimal difficulty (Seymour, Aro and Erskine, 2003).

The importance of explicit and impactful teaching

When teachers adopt explicit teaching practices they clearly show students what to do and how to do it. Students are not left to construct information for themselves and there is a high level of teacher-student interaction (Hattie, 2009). This means that spelling needs to be taught at school, by the teacher, not rote learned at home, by the student.

Misty Adoniou, Professor of Language and Linguistics at Canberra University, suggests that teachers stop giving pre and post spelling tests and start teaching spelling instead. In her article, Why some kids can’t spell and why spelling tests won’t help, she states:

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.

Teachers can only teach structured word inquiry if they have confidence in their own knowledge of language and linguistics.

What skills and strategies is the College employing to ensure that all students understand spelling?

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Students need to be taught to think of spelling like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that need to be unpacked, studied and then put back together. The first thing we do when attempting to complete a puzzle, is to look at the picture on the front of the box. This is so we can understand how the puzzle pieces fit together in a larger context.

In the Junior School this year, we are unpacking the four key areas of linguistics which contribute to the ‘big picture’ of spelling: etymology, orthography, morphology and phonology.

Phonology: Hearing the sounds in words and representing those sounds with the correct spelling choices

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Eugenie in Year 1. If Eugenie had been taught that a, e, i, o and u were the only vowel sounds, that would mean that she would have five vowels in her name. As vowels determine the number of syllables in a word, this would indicate that her name has five syllables. If we break her name into syllables, we can clearly hear Eu/ge/nie.

If we teach students absolutes in English, that aren’t true and are not based on a strong linguistic understanding, we are setting them up for failure.

To teach Eugenie how to understand her own name, the first word any child learns to read or write, we simply ask her to identify the sounds she hears. The International Phonetic Alphabet is a useful tool to show the pronunciation of a word and it helps highlight the parts that might seem confusing.

Eugenie

In Eugenie’s name, the ‘E’ is a consonant making the sound /j/ as in the word neutral, the ‘u’ is making the sound /u:/ as in the word flu, the ‘ʒ’ is as in genre. The /eɪ/ is as in café, the /n/ is as in net and the /i:/ is a digraph (two letters that make one sound) like in the word movie.

Teaching Eugenie how to understand her name according to linguistics and through analogy was not nearly as complicated as telling her that ‘one letter only has one sound’ or to ‘just learn it off by heart’. If we have to do that with students’ names, what is going to happen when they are faced with more complicated words? 

We need to arm students with the knowledge that letters are just letters, until they are in a word. The letter ‘a’ is just a letter, but in ant, baby, swan, ball and zebra, the letter makes completely different sounds.

Morphology: Morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in a word

David Crystal, author of Spell it out: The Singular Story of English Spelling, states that words should never be taught in isolation, such as quick lists, or without the meaning of the word being explained.

We therefore need to help students understand morphemes and teach them that they are the smallest unit of meaning in a word such as base words, prefixes and suffixes.

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For example, the word ‘acyanopsia’ means ‘unable to see the colour blue’ or ‘blue colour blindness’. In order for students to understand how this word is constructed, they need to identify the units of meaning.

There are three morphemes in ‘acyanopsia’ which are all borrowed from the Greek language:

1. a - a prefix meaning ‘without’

2. cyan - meaning ‘a shade of blue’

3. opsia - meaning ‘sight’

This word would be hard to spell, just by sounding it out. The students would have to understand what the word means, in order to unpack its spelling. If they have had deep classroom discussions, they might remember being taught that ‘cyan’ is a Greek origin word and has a letter patter ‘cy’ making the sound like ‘sigh’. It is found in words like cyclone and cyclopes (Misty Adoniou, 2017).

This can also be explained through the word ‘direction’. Before spelling it, we would have to identify its meaning. Students would know that it means ‘the way to go somewhere and how to do something’. By asking ‘how’ it means that, students would identify the base word which is ‘direct’. It is a verb that stands alone and tells people what to do or where to go. ‘-ion’ is the suffix. It turns that verb into a noun, so ‘direction’ is therefore a noun. Connections could then be made to other words such as:

  • act + ion
  • elect + ion
  • select + ion

In the lower primary, an awareness of morphology has been developed through compound words such as starfish, waterhole and nightfall. Compound words are two base words, joined together. The morphemes maintain their original meaning, to help us understand the new word.

Younger students do have an awareness of compound words. We have noticed that students’ contributions to classroom discussions show that children in their first year of school can work with morphemes, because they are already morphologically aware of their oral language. Furthermore, delaying this work on morphemes until students prove themselves with sounds means that they would miss out on years of valuable instruction (Misty Adoniou, 2017).

 Our focus is on raising the bar for all students in our Junior School. Often students who face difficulty with spelling are put into remedial classes that focus on phonological processing (sounding out). We know that the research conclusively finds that, when children with literacy learning difficulties are given morphological instruction, they improve in all areas of literacy, including spelling (Goodwin and Ahn, 2010). Moreover, Siegel (2008) found that children with dyslexia improve even more than non- dyslexic children when given morphological training. This is because morphological knowledge provides these learners with another strategy for spelling.

Why do so many schools remove weak spellers from the classroom and take them back to single letter sound practice? Children in the older years who spell phonetically, can hear the sounds in words. They don’t need remedial work which lowers their self-esteem. They need help to ‘study’ the word and unpack the puzzle. That can only happen if a teacher relies on their knowledge of the English language, rather than relying on a sequence of pages from a spelling book.

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Etymology: The history behind the word

The most notorious spelling difficulties can be explained through etymology (Crystal, 2013) a word which comes from Greek, meaning ‘the study of the reason.’

There are hundreds of these ‘difficult’ words appearing on spelling lists each week which, unless taught explicitly by a teacher, are merely sent home for students to teach themselves. Teaching our students to have an awareness of the etymology of these words will help them predict the correct spelling choice and explain why a word is spelled the way it is.

Why does irresistible have two rs? Because it comes from ir + resistere. Why does occurrence have two cs? Because it is from oc + currere. And why is there no double c in recommend and necessary? Because there was no duplication in the Latin: re + commendare, ne + cedere. If children were introduced to some basic etymology, many ‘famous’ spelling errors would be avoided (Crystal, 2013).

Promoting this type of critical thinking is important across all curriculum areas. In Mathematics for example, explaining the Greek roots of words like perimeter and polygon is a clear way of students identifying the meaning. ‘Peri’ means ‘around’ and ‘meter’ means ‘measure.’ This explains the difference between area and perimeter. ‘Poly’ is a prefix meaning ‘many’ and ‘gonia’ means ‘corners’ therefore polygon means a shape with many corners.

Orthography: The study of correct spelling

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Progress in learning to spell will come when words are taught in realistic contexts, in sets of related items. Orthography is about knowing which graphemes (letter choices) are both plausible, possible and essentially correct, when attempting to write a word.

We need to show students how words are used and associate the right spelling to other words which follow the same pattern. For example, the digraph ‘ck’ as in duck is often seen at the end of words, or in the middle of words like chicken, but it is never going to be the correct spelling choice for the beginning of a word.

An effective way of teaching this is through the use of word webs which make connections to a range of words which have the same pattern. This allows students to see words in context and identify similar orthographic patterns.

Here is an example of what this might look like in a lesson:

  1. Use quality literature as a springboard: all the evidence suggests that the more children see spellings in their reading, the more readily they will use them in their writing (Crystal, 2019). Using quality literature as a jump off into a lesson leads to conversations about language features and grammar. Discussions will arise around contractions, synonyms, adjectives and the meaning of words in a context. The better readers in a class, tend to be the more advanced spellers, so this approach gets all students reading even a short passage, each day.
  2. Identify a word to unpack further: Choose a wordfrom the passage and complete a structured word inquiry. Conversations will spontaneously arise around verbs, adverbs, suffixes, homophones and homographs, nouns, proper nouns, base words and compound words.
  3. Collate a collection of meaningful words: Students can then use this collection of words (which have common orthographic patterns) in their writing. These words have been taught explicitly and unpacked according to their structure, their grammatical features and their meaning.

Putting the pieces of the puzzle together

To conclude, spelling is something that you learn and it relies on good teaching. There is nothing natural or intuitive about spelling, in fact, it is one of the most unnatural of skills to learn. It is not a measure of intelligence and it does not define a child, or adult. Anyone who struggles with spelling has simply not been taught how it works. We do not have the brain capacity to learn tens of thousands of letters in a sequence and recall them every time we try to write. I struggle to even remember simple passwords of randomly generated letters! Without unpacking the spelling of a word, this is what we are expecting of our students.

What we do know is that words are combinations of letter patterns and meaningful parts and there are four key puzzle pieces which fit together to help us understand their spelling: phonology, morphology, etymology and orthography.

Good spelling is a matter of good teaching and teaching spelling effectively supports reading comprehension and writing development across all subject areas. A linguistic perspective is essential to success in literacy and we look forward to sharing these success stories with you over the course of the year.

Katharyn Cullen
Academic Leader: Literacy

References:

Adoniou, M. 2017. Spelling it out: How words work and how to teach them.

Adoniou, M. 2013. Why some kids can’t spell and why spelling tests won’t work. https://theconversation.com/why-some-kids-cant-spell-and-why-spelling-tests-wont-help-20497

Crystal, D. 2013. Spell it out: The singular story of English Spelling.

Goodwin, A. & S. Ahn. 2010. A meta- analysis of morphological interventions: Effects on literacy achievement of children with literacy difficulties.

Hattie, J. 2009. Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 Meta- analyses relating to achievement.

Siegel L. 2008. Morphological awareness skills of English language Learners and children with dyslexia. Topics in Language Disorders.

Seymour, Aro and Erskine. 2003. Foundation literacy acquisition in European orthographies.