David Crystal · DCSF · Marilyn Jager Adams · Support for Spelling

Support for Spelling (Part 2)

I have previously written that true literacy tuition is about teaching reading and spelling together because they are inextricably linked. What most children can do when they start their schooling is talk. They are already very accurate at using the grammatical structures of English and have vocabularies running into many thousands of words. David Crystal estimates that by the age of four/five, children give the impression of having absorbed about three-quarters of all the grammar there is to learn (Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language) and, according to many researchers, children as young as six have vocabularies of several thousand words. Those that haven’t, need to start their schooling by being brought up to this level of communicative speech before being introduced formally to reading and writing.
So, most children arrive at school already communicating very well through language. But how many five or six-year-olds do this knowing consciously the history, morphology, etymology, phonetic and phonological knowledge of the words they are using? Absolutely none of them, of course! These are adult analyses and have no bearing at all on teaching these youngsters how to spell accurately, at least in the early stages.
Spelling is basically a very simple and completely logical activity. We use symbols (that we call letters) to represent our speech sounds and we write them down sequentially in the same order as they are spoken. To write the word ‘dog’, we just need to segment it into its three component sounds, ‘d’ ‘o’ ‘g’ and to write the most likely symbol that would represent each of these sounds in written English, which in this case results in ‘dog’.
At this point some readers may be thinking, “OK, but it’s not always that simple!” And they are right! We use multiple ways of spelling many English speech sounds, which, at at some point in the child’s education, all need to be known and the correct ones selected for each word. If the correct spelling(s) are not chosen, then even a ‘simple’ word such as ‘was’ may end up looking like ‘woz’.
The teaching trick is to sequence carefully the introduction of the 175 (or so) common spellings of English whilst accurately directing pupils towards using their sound-based memory system, which has already been so successful in helping them learn to talk and to retain new vocabulary, in order to link sounds to spellings! What is needed is to use associative learning in order to group words they already possess in their spoken vocabulary. At a really early stage in literacy development, we need to teach children to form associated groups of words. An example might be words containing the sound /k/, which can variously be spelled in English as , , & (and for older pupils , & as well!). This will lead to groups of words organised together in sound-format such as: cat, cast, carry; kit, bake, like; duck, pick, sack; and, quiz, queen, quack.
Our brains are actually very good at sorting and categorising. If teaching instruction maximises the brain’s facility in this regard and proceeds from simple transparent sound-spelling correspondences to the more complex, it can, in the words of Marilyn Jager Adams, proceed for ‘maximum progress and minimum confusion’*.
In addition, after a certain point, not all of the complexities of the English alphabet code will have to be taught explicitly. If pupils have been accurately taught how the code works and if the code is taught from simple (‘cat’) to more complex (‘caught’) in properly designed and targeted literacy teaching lessons, then their brains will gradually get on with doing the organising without the need for direct personal control or teacher involvement.
Finally, a simple example! A six-year old pupil wishes to write the word sunny (something pupils accurately taught by a linguistic phonic approach would normally be able to do by age five). Are we to believe from Support for Spelling that our pupil should be thinking along the lines of ‘sunny’ being an adjective created from the root word ‘sun’? And that then to get to the adjectival form they need to double the final consonant of the root word, after which they have to think about the way they spell the final ‘ee’ sound? Or perhaps this little six year-old should be considering that the origins of the word ‘sunny’ lie in the Old English word ‘sunne’, which originally came to us as an Indo-European word.
There is plenty more in this document that either doesn’t work or simply doesn’t need teaching (-ed endings, for instance). What I’d also like to know is: in how many schools has it been trialled and where’s the evidence that it has made a significant impact on children’s reading and spelling.
* Quoted from Adams, M.J., (1994), Beginning to Read, p.253, Cambridge, Mass, MIT.

One thought on “Support for Spelling (Part 2)

  1. Since when has what the government published as part of the literacy strategy, etc, been evidence based John? Do we even know who the authors are and what their background is?


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