Dispel the Biggest Spelling Myths with Doreen Scott-Dunne
This blog challenges a few myths in spelling education and shares solutions to help students want to and aim to spell better.
“We don’t teach spelling anymore – spelling doesn’t matter!”
It matters when it’s public!
If you are applying for a job, painting instructions on a road, posting instructions on a sign – particularly outside of a school, or writing report cards for parents; spelling matters. It matters when it’s political. Premier Kathleen Wynne once gave a speech on a podium stating “open goverment.” Someone on her staff should have caught the mistake and spelled it “government” – it was a printed banner! The press really had fun with this.
It matters when it’s published!
Unless you are encouraging fledgling writers in grade one by promoting writing fluency, spelling matters when a piece of writing is taken through editing, is “published” and is on display. It should be correct in newspaper articles and books. It should be correct in anything that is considered a final draft.
Spelling does not matter when you are texting, when you are creating a grocery list, when you are writing a first or second draft, or when you are a child and spontaneously writing a card to your mum or dad.
“There is absolutely no logic to the English language. English spelling is a nightmare for kids and they find themselves lost in a maze of words.”
There is more logic to English than you think. Different spellings of the words pear, pair and pare immediately indicate different meanings to the reader. If they were all spelled the same way, you would have to search the entire sentence or paragraph to establish the meaning, but you recognize it, here, in one word. The same applies to all homonyms.
Before dictionaries, people spelled words the way they sounded with different dialects and different spellings. Written communication was difficult. Dictionaries standardized spelling, helping communication. Because language is living, spelling on both sides of the Atlantic is starting to differ more and more. This can create even more exceptions, for example, judgment is now commonly spelled without an “e.” I always taught kids to add a suffix to the root word, “judge” + “-ment” = “judgement.” Now that word is an exception, attempts to ‘simplify’ spelling are not always successful.
So what do we do as teachers? We teach children to look for patterns so that there are a limited number of alternatives, not infinite possibilities, when you spell a word. For example, if a word begins with the sound of “n” and it is not “n,” what are the possibilities? “Kn-” “gn-” “pn-” with “kn-” as most common. Otherwise, it is hard to find the word in a dictionary to check the spelling! Young children tend to spell the word “was” as “woz.” If you match it to “wall, ball and fall,” that pattern may help them to remember that “was” has the vowel “a.” They also need to know that very few English words end in a single “z,” so they can check their own writing for something like this.
Instead of telling children what the patterns are, you can ask them in the form of a question – do you think more words begin with “kn-” or “gn-?” If the sound “-tion” at the end of a word is never spelled “-shun,” and there are almost 1,200 words which are spelled with “-ation” at the end, can you find 20, 50, 100? Out of nation, station, destination, preparation, legislation etc., there are only four exceptions. Two exceptions are crustacean and Dalmatian.
“Weekly spelling tests are great because spelling is a rote memorization process.”
Firstly, spelling is not a rote memorization process. It relies on visual memory, finding patterns and problem solving. It is a highly cognitive skill. In her book, Why Kids Can’t Spell, Roberta Heembrock writes, “Mastery of spelling now becomes a more complex mental activity that requires cognitive thinking skills, problem solving, memory retention and mental imagery.”
This is a long way from rote memorization, and is modern thinking on spelling. Secondly, words are more easily retained in memory if they are linked to a pattern. For example, the most unhelpful spelling lesson is to teach “too,” and “two,” as alternatives to the word “to”. Ninety eight per cent of the time, the word is spelled “to.” The word “two” should be taught in two contexts: a meaning context in “one, two, three, four,” and a pattern context in “two, twice, twenty, and twins,” where the silent letter can be remembered because it is sounded in the other three words. The other “too” is used less often, and should be corrected then, until students are slightly older and learn it is related to degree like “too hot, too cold, too short, too tall.”
So what really matters in spelling? Writing is the context and thinking is the key. Without writing, spelling has no purpose. We write to communicate and poor spelling plays interference as we read. It’s like background noise that bothers us as we try to make sense of what we are reading.
Richard Elmore of Harvard University suggests that to improve student success, we need to first identify a problem of practice, come up with a solution, revisit it, and modify the solution until it works in practice – then share it with others. A common problem of practice related to spelling is that a number of students do not spell well and do not apply what they know about spelling to their writing. When they edit their writing, they often cannot find misspelled words.
One way to solve this problem of practice is to develop a plan of action. If we encourage students to love words, notice how they work, learn about word patterns, and explore these patterns every day, we will enable students to be successful when they apply this word knowledge to their writing and editing processes.
To engage students in spelling, they first have to learn to love words as a way to communicate effectively, to express it in poetry, to present a logical argument, and to play with language and communication. Then, they have to notice how words work.
What do these words have in common? Walks, talks, gnaws, knows, palms. They all have silent letters, they all end in “s.”
What do these words have in common? Kayak, level, radar, refer, civic. They have two syllables, begin and end with the same letter, and the same vowel repeats in each one.
Students enjoy this word work and will begin to invent puzzles like this. They need to explore and learn about word patterns. Possible questions to use here would be: do more words end in “-eat,” like “beat,” or “-ate” like “late?” Predict the answers, then create a list. In “signal,” you hear the “g,” while in “sign,” you don’t. Can you find any more word pairs like this? Crumb, crumble; autumn, autumnal; two, twins; bomb, bombard; mnemonic, amnesia, are all helpful examples.
Encourage students to ask questions about words. One student commented, “I wonder if we have many compound words with ‘land’ in them….” Some start with “land-,” like “landmark,” “landscape,” “landfill,” and “landmine.” Many end with “-land,” like “farmland,” “homeland,” “wasteland,” “coastland,” and “marshland.”
As teachers we want to develop writers who can spell and understand language. We want students to make informed predictions – not random guesses when they spell words because they know there are a number of alternatives, not infinite possibilities. Above all, we want students to focus on having something to say when they write and cognitive patterns to draw on when they check their spelling.
Doreen Scott-Dunne has had many exciting experiences in education. She has taught students from K through grade 8 in a variety of schools. She was a literacy consultant, principal, Student Achievement Officer with the Ministry of Education, and currently is a freelance consultant after completing her Masters degree in Spelling at OISE. She has always encouraged children to love words, to have something to say when they write. She is the co-author of Spelling Instruction That Makes Sense and her most recent book is When Spelling Matters.
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