Cambridge assessment · Debra Myhill · Rhea - super speller · Today programme

Of polydactyls

If you were listening to the last five minutes of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday, you will have caught a short item on, allegedly, how pupils’ spelling has deteriorated.

The item began by stating that new research from Cambridge Assessment is telling us that ‘we are making more spelling mistakes than our parents’.  Words, such as ‘too’, ‘off’ and ‘said’ are causing us problems. However, when the research was examined more closely, it turns out that, at least at GCSE level, inability to spell words like these – and the bar here is very low indeed – is found mostly in the weakest writers in Grades G and F.

And no, you can’t blame it on texting. Contrary to popular opinion, there seems to be a correlation between texting and good spelling. This makes sense: if can hear the sounds in words, you can represent them, albeit in this case in the coding of the texting genre. For example where the word ‘great’ is written as ‘gr8’, the writer needs to be able to hear the sounds in ‘great’ to be able to represent them.

What professor Debra Myhill, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, who reviewed the research, hypothesised was that the reason for pupils achieving at Grades G and F’s inability to spell may be because schools are targeting pupils in the range C and D in the hope that grades can hold up or be improved. However, she thought that this may be at the expense of pupils working at a Grade E, F or G level and who are thought to be incapable of raising their performance to gain that magical C grade.

We hear a lot about this sort of thing going on in secondary schools and I have to say that I think it is not only pedagogically unacceptable, it is also morally repugnant that pupils are not given every opportunity to learn to read and write before they leave school.
At this point in the Today programme, listeners were introduced to 10-year-old Rhea, speller par excellence.

Out of the mouths of babes

When asked by the interviewer if she just learned words to spell, she responded by asking what use it was ‘knowing how to spell a word if you don’t know what it means’. Wise words! Why, for instance, would a teacher ask a child to spell a word they didn’t know the meaning of or hadn’t seen before? How would you, for instance know how to spell ‘eleemosynary’ if it wasn’t within your vocabulary and if you hadn’t seen it before? You might not know how to spell the /ee/ as [ ee ], or the /i/ as [ y ], or even the schwa as [ a ].

So, how has she become such a terrific speller? She tells us that reads a lot – from The Secret Garden to the Junior Edition of The Week magazine. Her mother also informed us that she has been read to since the year dot. But then she also added something highly significant: she said that Rhea ‘doesn’t just skip over words. She doesn’t just read with inference’. In other words, Rhea reads every word, she looks carefully and she doesn’t guess.

Putting it another way, when you can decode accurately, you don’t need to guess, your already very good decoding skills are supported by the context; whereas, poor readers cast about desperately in the hope that they can glean meaning from contextual clues because they can’t decode efficiently. As professor Keith Stanovich says in his paper ‘Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy’, ‘Fluent readers are not engaging in the wholesale skipping of words, nor are they markedly reducing their sampling of visual features from the words fixated.’*

The item finished with Rhea testing the team on spelling ‘polydactus’ and ‘lyophilisation’ and on the meaning of ‘diaphanous’. A Year 2 class I used to teach using Sounds-Write would easily have been able to spell ‘polydactus’, though the meaning would have to have been explained first. ‘Lyophilisation’ might have proved slightly more difficult – but only slightly!

*Stanovich, K., (2000), ‘Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy’, Progress in Understanding Reading, Guilford Press, London, (P. 167).