Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Some Thoughts on the Teaching of Spelling

I had better declare an interest right from the start. I am not a good speller. I have a note at the bottom of one of my final-year university essays in the hand of Norman Stone: “Your spelling is rather bizarre”. Naturally this has made me inclined to be sympathetic to pupils who are not good spellers; but it does not mean that my sympathy or my methods are wrong. In fact I am more sure that I am right on this matter than on most others in education.

Of all the things that make up written English, spelling is the least important. (I do not say it is unimportant, but I do assert that it is the least important.) Punctuation matters a lot because it can change meanings. The sentence “He did not go to school because he was ill” means that he did go to school, but not for the reason that he was ill. Word choice matters a lot. For example, to use the word “decimate” to mean “kill almost everyone” will confuse readers who know that it really means “to kill ten percent.” Even if words are used accurately, a writer with a wide vocabulary will write richer, better prose than a writer with a limited vocabulary. Sentence structure is important. An ear for the rhythm of sentences is important. Grammatical points such as making sure that adjectival phrases are unambiguously linked to the intended noun are important. A sensitive awareness of the needs of the reader when it comes to paragraphing is important. Spelling is less important than all of these.

If you do not believe me, try reading some Shakespeare or Donne in their original spellings. Spelling had not been standardised in their day, and yet they were great masters of language.

I was lucky enough to have enlightened teachers who could write in reports such things as “He writes well, despite his poor spelling.” On the other hand when I began my own career as a junior teacher I was surprised to find highly intelligent pupils in lowly sets and streams. Their work had been marked on the “Spelling mistake? Minus one mark” approach. Some of them overcame these handicaps, and the loss of self esteem, to achieve eventual academic success. Others did not.

After a couple of years teaching I began to get a reputation for being “good with” lower sets. My only particular method that I can recall was to put as little red ink as possible on their written work. Many pupils who found spelling hard had developed a cunning plan to avoid making too many mistakes: write very little. I stopped marking all their mistakes in red, praised more than I blamed, and they wrote at greater length.

There seem to me to be two big problems with spelling. The first one is that spelling errors are, for most ordinary readers, the most conspicuous errors; and they are used, by those who lack professional experience, as the bench-mark for literacy. In the thank-you letter to the uncle, the job application, the public notice or whatever, bad spelling is noticed above all else, so of course all pupils need to be helped and encouraged to improve their spelling.

The second problem is that some children seem to have no difficulty with spelling at all. I can remember this with some of my own friends at primary school and I have seen it often with my youngest pupils. There seems to be a mental facility for precision which some possess. However, it is probably true that an above average proportion of the successful in our society were naturally good spellers (I admit I have no evidence for this) and so it is as hard for them to think that children cannot be fairly easily be taught to spell as it is easy for me to sympathise with those who find correct spelling a struggle.

It was during an In Service Training talk given by an expert when I was about 35 that I learned about my own case. She explained that some children learn so rapidly how to read that they never go through the careful piecing together of words letter by letter. That was me. For other children there are many different explanations, not one all-embracing one.   

During my career my ideas developed in conjunction with an increasingly active and enlightened Support for Learning Department. Some of my methods I worked out for myself. Some I learned from them.

In the first place I found that there was almost never any need to motivate younger pupils (we started at ten years old) to try and improve spelling. They had already been corrected tediously often by well-meaning adults and they knew that they wanted to spell better. What was needed was to persuade them that poor spelling did not make them “bad at” History or English, and to provide them with methods for improvement that worked.

When I was teaching junior history we did lots of writing. When I was teaching junior English they wrote something almost every day. I would mark the misspelt words with a tiny red dit – about the size of a hyphen – under the word. (The sprawling red S can spoil the finest piece of work) Then at the end of the piece I would write the word spelled correctly and (this was the Support for Learning slogan) they would “Look – Cover – Write – Check”. If, on checking, they found it was still wrong they would repeat the process. Keen pupils sometimes wrote the word out three times; that was their choice.

The other thing I did was explain from time to time the point I made above – that spelling matters but is not all that important. It was worth a certain amount of effort to create the balance between working at spelling and avoiding the low esteem, or time-wasting, that can come from giving spelling too high a priority.

As I have already said, there are many causes of poor spelling. One of them can be, with some children, a casual carelessness. Part of the teacher’s job – one of the hardest – is to observe when a pupil needs to be pushed to improve as well as encouraged. Certainly with some older pupils, at GCSE stage, a brisker treatment of the “I know you can spell perfectly well when you try…” variety may be appropriate. I once cured a future doctor of putting “would of” and “should of” by one carefully devised lunch-time detention. He thanked me later. However, with little children over-emphasis on spelling can become a real burden and a barrier to educational achievement. A casual child will take no hurt from being allowed to coast for a while when he might be pushed. Earnest children who are criticised and pushed, when they need to be encouraged, may be set back very seriously.

In my role as a senior examiner in History I can tell you that in essays scribbled under exam conditions the spelling is hardly noticed – whereas errors in grammar and punctuation that distort meaning inevitably damage paragraphs, even if they are not explicitly marked down. Equally a candidate whose prose is a pleasure to read inevitably does better, all other things being equal. In course-work dissertations, on the other hand, we take a dim view of spelling errors. Where there is time to check and proof-read, spelling should be accurate. Beware, though, of the automatic spell-checker. It let through one outstanding typo recently: “The Medici came from an eminent Florentine baking family.” I fear my blogs contain some similar slips of the key-board.

Those of you who teach senior school pupils may like to make use of my A-level History spelling test. It is very short.

Parliament – Government – Independent – Toleration – Tenant – Privilege – Develop

If you do the nineteenth century add:  Napoleon – Gladstone – Palmerston – Russell – Denmark - Bismarck

Once we had marked it I would say “If anyone got full marks, I apologise for wasting your time.” I don’t remember that many pupils ever did.

1 comment:

  1. Here here! My stance as well George, although one that was not generally tolerated by ny Primary teaching colleagues!