I’ve just been reading ‘Why some kids can’t spell and why spelling tests won’t help’ by Misty Adoniou, who is a ‘Senior Lecturer in Language, Literacy and Teaching English as a Second Language’ at the University of Canberra.
The piece, which appeared on the website ‘The Conversation’, begins from the perspective that spelling does matter. On that we can certainly agree! Although when people make phonically plausible errors, other literate people usually have no trouble in understanding the message intended, people do, fairly or not, make judgements about poor spelling.
I think Misty is absolutely correct in many of the things she says in her preamble:
- that spelling is one of the most tested of literacy skills but is the least taught
- that sending home lists of words to spell is not teaching spelling skills
- that ‘look, cover, write, check’ doesn’t explicitly teach spelling
- and, that looking for words in words and other detrimental practices teachers often use are a waste of time.
I also agree with her when she says that children ought to know the meanings of words they spell, although this one is a bit of straw man: if a child is writing something, they clearly have meaning in mind and, in this instance, spellings would be corrected in context. However, if words are being presented randomly, of course meaning should first be established. Personally, I’d never ask a child to spell a word whose meaning they didn’t understand.
Where I part company from Misty is in her assertion that the English language isn’t phonetic and, frankly, for a senior lecturer in literacy to make such an absurd claim is preposterous. English is a phonetic language! Shout it from the rooftops! The kind of mystification which she and others like her create is partly what holds us back in making real progress in the teaching of literacy.
All English words are comprised of sounds – no exceptions – and all sounds in all English words have been assigned spellings at some point – again, no exceptions. The reason why spelling in English is a lot more difficult than spelling in Spanish or Italian or Finnish, or German, whose spelling systems are relatively transparent, is because English is relatively opaque. That is to say that there are many ways of spelling the sounds in the language and that many spellings represent different sounds. In addition, some spellings are simply not very commonly used and are therefore more difficult to remember. However, to say, as Misty does, that ‘only about 12% of words in English are spelled the way they sound’ is not only patently incorrect, it demonstrates a total lack of understanding of how the writing system in English is linked to the sounds of the language.
All of this is not to say that the spelling system can’t be taught. It can! As long as it’s taught systematically, from simple to more complex. Whereas Misty seems to separate spelling from reading altogether, I would take a much more holistic approach. Reading and spelling are two sides of the same coin and should be taught simultaneously. The difference is that reading draws on recognition memory and writing or spelling draws on recall memory. Recall memory is a deeper kind of memory and, because there are no cues to help, it is harder.
When testing spelling, teachers should be using words that are commensurate with where children are in a phonics programme. For example, one wouldn’t (or shouldn’t!) expect a child to spell words with more complex spellings before they have mastered one-to-one correspondences.
Teachers also ought to ask themselves where good spellers and poor spellers begin to part company from one another. Although not always the case, even poor spellers can often spell simple CVC words like ‘dog’ and ‘mat’. Where some children begin to have trouble is in spelling words containing adjacent consonants. They tend to miss out the second consonant when they’re reading and spelling words with the structure CVCC and CCVC (‘mist’ and ‘crab’). These children need lots of skills training.
Moreover, many poor spellers often haven’t been taught explicitly that sounds can be spelled in more than one way and what those ways are. Even when they have, it is difficult sometimes for them to remember which particular spelling is required in any particular word. This is where teaching methodology, practice, and lots of exposure through reading and writing are essential.
What children in schools learning to read and write in English need, wherever they are in the world, is systematic, linguistic phonics.