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A cross-curricular approach to spelling

Long reads
Authors: Peter Westwood
A cross-curricular approach to spelling

The ability to spell is without doubt a literacy skill that does span the entire curriculum. Students need to write accurately in almost every subject they study.

And, although spelling is not specifically named as one of the ‘seven capabilities’ in the Australian Curriculum (ACARA, 2015), it is obviously an important sub-skill within literacy.

The cross-curriculum aspect of spelling development is evident in the Australian Curriculum, where the guidelines state that ‘word knowledge’ (as a component of literacy) involves all students in developing a wide topic vocabulary in all learning areas, and also the capacity to spell the relevant words accurately (ACARA, 2015). The curriculum guidelines also reiterate that all aspects of literacy teaching should not be confined to English lessons alone but must be applied in all other learning areas. By implication, this will only be achieved if all teachers – including subject specialists in secondary schools – ensure that their students are able not only to read and understand new vocabulary and terminology in their subject, but can also spell those words.

I guess I was lucky back in the 1960s when I was teaching in a secondary school in the UK. I had a school principal who already saw spelling as a skill that was important in every subject. He asked me to prepare a paper for a staff development session on the topic ‘Teaching spelling is not just the responsibility of our teachers of English’. In researching that paper I acquired a deep interest in how students learn to spell and the factors that influence whether they become good spellers or struggle throughout their school life. As a result of writing that paper I came to believe firmly that, just as ‘all teachers should be teachers of reading’, so too ‘all teachers should be teachers of spelling’.

During that staff development activity many years ago it was agreed that all specialist teachers in the school would prepare a list of core vocabulary for their own specialist subject, and this list would be made available to all students as a reference when writing and proofreading their work. Most teachers also agreed that students would be tested regularly on these ‘must know’ words, as an incentive for learning the spellings. In some classrooms a poster-size copy of the word list was displayed permanently on the wall.

In primary schools, where teachers tend to be generalists, the view that all teachers are responsible for spelling is probably easy to accept; but subject specialist teachers in high schools may find it more difficult. ‘Surely’, thinks the Geography teacher, ‘it’s the English teacher who should have taught these students to spell, even if the primary school had not managed to do so?’ The History teacher may say: ‘Oh yes, I always correct the spellings in my students’ assignments … so, yes, I am attending to spelling.’ But helping students improve takes much more than that. There is no evidence that simply marking corrections in students’ work in any subject has an effect on that student’s future ability to spell those words.

One recent development in teaching spelling has implications for all teachers. It has been found that treating spelling as part of a broader concept, namely ‘word study’, can greatly increase students’ interest in words – for example, discovering where the words came from, how they are constructed and can be changed, and how different parts of words signal different units of meanings. Word study from Year 6 onwards should therefore include some attention to basic etymology and morphology as an aid to spelling (Scott, 2010). The Australian Curriculum at Year 8 states that students should understand how complex words are constructed, and should draw on morphemic knowledge as well as on phonological knowledge and visual memory when spelling these words.

All teachers, including subject specialists, should develop an interest and enthusiasm for the words that are the life-blood of their subject. Why do geography and geometry begin with the same unit of meaning? What meaning does ‘-ology’ have in biology, sociology and technology? A good starting point for teachers to develop this interest in words for themselves is the book The story of English in 100 words (Crystal, 2012).

We still have a long way to go to facilitate the development of spelling as a cross-curricular topic in our schools. It would help if the theme could be promoted in all teacher education courses.

Peter Westwood’s most recent title is Teaching spelling: Exploring commonsense strategies and best practices (Routledge). New editions of his three books on learning difficulties (Reading and Learning Difficulties; Teaching and Learning Difficulties; and Numeracy and Learning Difficulties) will be published by ACER next month.

References

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (2015). Literacy: Key ideas. Accessed 11 August 2016 at http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/generalcapabilities/literacy/introduction/key-ideas

Crystal, D. (2012). The story of English in 100 words. London: Profile Books.

Scott, R.M. (2010). Word study instruction: Research into practice monograph 27. Ontario: The Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat.

How are you supporting students to not only develop a wide topic vocabulary, but also learn how to spell those words?

Think about a time where you’ve corrected spelling in a students’ work and they’ve continued to make the same mistakes. Why do you think this might be? How can you provide further support?

Masha Bell 16 August 2016

If all teachers are made to become obsessed with teaching spelling, spelling standards may improve a little, but I doubt it. The majority of poor spellers are simply unable to cope with the vast amount of memorisation correct spelling necessitates. And is it really worth the effort anyway? Would it perhaps be more sensible to treat English spelling with the contempt it deserves and to make pupils aware that learning to spell English takes many long years - only because roughly half of all words have something silly them:
some are encumbered with SURPLUS letters (heAd, hEart,  plouGH, gonE),
others have WRONG letters (fond – PHoto, run – frOnt, ditty – prEtty),
some have both WRONG AND SURPLUS letters (sum - sOmE,  taut – bOuGHt) and
some COULD DO WITH MORE letters (lost toast – pOst, shoddy – boDy).

Would it not make more sense to encourage pupils to start thinking about correcting some of these abuses of the alphabetic principle in dictionaries, instead of spending endless effort trying to get them into their heads? If we at least started to make pupils aware that learning to spell English is difficult because it was repeatedly changed for the worse by people who did not care a jot about enabling all children to learn as much as possible (as I have explained to the History page of my EnglishSpellingProblems blog) future generations might start doing something about it.

Jo Earp 17 August 2016

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Thank you for your comments. But I did not ask all teachers to ‘become obsessed with teaching spelling’. I simply encouraged them to become enthusiastic about helping their students take an interest in, and spell correctly, the common terms used in their subject fields.

Your other remarks seem to suggest that you want a spelling system that is based entirely on perfect single-letter-to-sound correspondences―in other words, is entirely phonetic. George Bernard Shaw did not mange this; and the English Spelling Society (previously known as the Simplified Spelling Society) has been equally unsuccessful … so I wish you luck.

With 44 phonemes (sounds) in the English language and only 26 letters in the alphabet you are always going to need two-, three-, and even four-letter combinations to represent some phonemes. Hence the ‘surplus’ letters that you cite in some of your examples.

Learning to spell is not a tedious process of rote memorization of each and every word. It relies, in particular, on recognising that certain common letter strings occur in and across different words. We refer to these as orthographic units, and they include letter strings such as –ough, -tion, -ology, ite, pre-, dis-. When we recognize these units we can use them easily to generate correct spellings. Once young children progress beyond writing simple consonant-vowel-consonant words, they can be helped to discover that English spelling has never just been about single letter to sound translation.

Readers may be interested to look at the entry in Wikipedia under ‘English-language spelling reform’.

Peter Westwood

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Masha Bell 17 August 2016

Dear Peter. No, you did not say that all teachers should become ‘obsessed’ with the teaching of spelling. You said only that you believe that ‘all teachers should be teachers of spelling’ and also that just correcting spelling mistakes is not enough: “There is no evidence that simply marking corrections in students’ work in any subject has an effect on student’s future ability to spell those words.” This suggests that you think that teachers should do more to achieve higher spelling standards.

In the UK successive governments have spent and more and more on improving literacy standards and put teachers under relentless pressure to do so. Yet the percentage of pupils who leave school barely able to read or write has not changed. I therefore question the wisdom of blaming teachers for poor spelling standards.

I have brought up two children, both of whom went to Cambridge, one of whom became a very good speller with very little effort, while the other never became really good, despite working hard at it. I also observed such differences over and over again in the pupils I taught over two decades. This has made me inclined to think that being able or not able to learn to spell ENGLISH is determined more by the abilities you are born with rather than by how well students are taught or how hard they work at it. What helps most is being able to VISUALISE THE RIGHT LOOK of words.

Having lived in several countries and learned several languages, I also know that in countries with more learner-friendly spelling systems than the English one, learning to spell is not the endlessly discussed, all-pervasive pre-occupation or worry that it is in English-speaking ones. I also could not help but notice that all Anglophone countries have almost identical, relatively high levels of functional illiteracy.

After having to retire from teaching on health grounds 20 years ago, I decided to devote my time to understanding why this is. I made a careful analysis of the spellings of the 7,000 most used English words and also the spelling errors of children and adults. I have written a few books about my findings but have recently also made most of them freely available to all on my blogs, EnglishSpellingProblems and ImprovingEnglishSpelling.

I discovered that the words which children and adults misspell are nearly all ones which have irregular or unpredictable spellings, and the more words with irregular spellings a spelling pattern has, the more they get misspelled. This has led me to conclude that if we tackled at least some of the biggest sources of spelling errors, pupils would learn to spell better and faster, and the teaching of spelling would become easier.

I realise that spelling reform was first advocated several centuries ago, but that does not make it bad idea. Literacy is now a far more essential life skill than it used to be, and I hope that by establishing what is wrong with English spelling more plainly than anyone did before me, I might have improved the chances of an English spelling reform.

Knowing what I do about the English language and its spelling, and how it came about, I would not dream of advocating that English spelling should be made completely phonetic, with one-to-one relationships between sounds and letters, with merely 44 spellings for the 44 English sounds. There is nothing wrong with spelling a sound with combinations of letters like ‘ee’, ‘ou’ or ‘sh’,  or longer graphemes like ‘-ation’ – as long as this is done consistently.

Learning to spell English is difficult because it is spelt with a profligate 205 graphemes for merely 44 sounds, many of which are completely unpredictable (e.g. seek, speak, shriek, seize, these, police …) and make learning to spell a very tedious process of memorisation indeed.

Anna 23 August 2016

Hi Peter. Can you point me in the right direction on how a parent can support a child whose spelling is not a strength. A practical resource on approaches to reinforcing spelling would be appreciated. English is my second language and although somehow I have managed to decode this complex language (which is still a mystery), I have no idea how to make it explicit and concrete for my 13 year old daughter. I used to sit with a dictionary and thesaurus searching for just the right words when my grammar was still pretty hazy. Computers do this for us and I wonder the impact these have on children learning spelling. Or is it just the way we are wired? I don’t think we can leave it just for the classroom and feel it should be reinforced at home. I too can be a teacher of spelling. I just need some guidance. Many thanks.

Peter Westwood 24 August 2016

Dear Anna
Thank you for your question. It is excellent that you are assisting your daughter at home. The main focus must be on helping your daughter develop a more strategic approach to learning the spelling of any unfamiliar words. By that I mean she needs to have a mental plan of action that allows her to look at a new word and decide how best to move it into long-term memory.

For example: Is it a word that can be ‘written as it sounds’ (in other words, it has perfect match between letters and the sounds they represent)? Is it totally unpredictable and therefore has to be mastered by rote learning (look-cover-write-check) and by repeated writing? Is it similar to a word I can already spell (spelling by analogy)? In my book ‘A parent’s guide to learning difficulties’ (ACER Press) I have described in detail several spelling strategies that parents can teach their children.

There is no doubt that we all differ as individuals in how easy we find spelling; but we can also shift from rote learning of each word to developing a range of strategies for tackling words in general.

In answer to you final point, the jury is still out on whether computer spell-checkers are helping or hindering students’ spelling ability. Some studies have shown no effect, but others suggest that spell-checkers may discourage careful attention to letter sequences when we write or use a keyboard.
 
Peter Westwood

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Yvette 23 August 2016

Thank you for this article Peter.  I am currently doing work in a Secondary school around spelling.

An analysis of spelling data in our school (spelling tests and spelling in writing) shows that while subject-specific vocabulary is an issue for students.  The bigger issue are common words (as identified by the NAPLAN marking guide) are the ones being incorrectly spelled when students are completing their writing tasks.

I agree that spelling, along with the other literacy skills, need to be included in teacher education programs.  I have English teachers at the high school saying that at university, they are not taught how to teach reading and it is a skill that all teachers need, no matter what subject or year level that they teach.

Peter Westwood 24 August 2016

Dear Yvette

I know well the situation you are describing where basic everyday words are incorrectly written by secondary school students. Sometimes it is just carelessness; BUT it can also reflect prior teaching.

We are only gradually emerging from the era of worshipping ‘invented spelling’. During that time primary school teachers were encouraged to play down the importance of accurate spelling in order to foster children’s creativity in free writing. During this era many children frequently wrote common words incorrectly many times, and the incorrect response became firmly established as bad habits. It then becomes very much more difficult to replace an incorrect response in memory with a correct spelling. Psychologists refer to this as an example of ‘proactive inhibition’ (what we already have in memory interferes with new learning).

One strategy that you might try is to make a list of all the common errors you have found and then provide a copy of the list to every student (and every subject teacher). The list might be headed “MUST KNOW WORDS”. Students use it when they proofread their assignments. Teachers use it as reference when marking students’ work. If you have a learning support teacher in the school, he or she should also be given a copy.

Peter Westwood

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