Do We Need to Look at How We Teach Spelling?

jumbled wooden letters scrawled out against a blue background

I adore this statement from Winnie the Pooh:

“My spelling is wobbly. It’s good spelling but it wobbles, and the letters get in the wrong places.”

It also makes me wonder what percentage of the population feels the same way. I believe there are thousands of wobbly spellers out there. Why should that be?

Why do we wobble with spelling?

I think in part it is due to the complexity of the English language; it’s got to be, but I would also question the rigour and quality of our spelling instruction.

In our current world of recall and retention, I think we may be placing too much emphasis on simply trying to memorise words. Trying to memorise lists of words is fine in principle however, we all have different capacities to be able to do this. The brain, after all, has a finite amount of space to hold such information which cognitive load theory informs us of.

In terms of spelling, an additional thing to consider is that we all learn spelling in different ways and the proficient speller uses a variety of methods, many of which are indefinable but those we can define need to be explicitly taught.

Teaching spelling over time

Since the 19th century, many educators believed that learning to spell depended on the memorisation of words so it may come as a surprise to you to hear that you can…

Teach reading through spelling but you cannot teach spelling through reading.

That is because simply being exposed to written words on a page, or indeed in spelling apps, does not help you spell that word because reading involves recognising words, whilst spelling involves reproducing words. They are two different skills – that is why many people are fluent readers but consider themselves to be weak spellers. Reading can be developed through consistent practise and exposure, whereas spelling often needs to be signposted.

Why spelling tests from memory aren’t always the answer.

Memorising list upon list of spellings is excellent in ensuring short term success, however, to switch this short-term acquisition into long term success means we need the strategies to unpick our way out of a spelling conundrum. When we are being exposed to academic language and the need to replicate this at speed with assessments, we need to be able to rely upon strategies and spelling rules which have embedded this knowledge into our long-term memory. We need to develop students who look at academic language and think about why it’s spelt in that way, rather than just thinking it is just because it is!

This makes me question the common practice of sending spelling lists home for homework. Is it really a good use of everyone’s time? We have been using this practice since Adam was alive, yet we have many wobbly spellers out there, so I think I am right to question this type of spelling practice. Just because we have always done something does not make it right. Some children will find spelling lists sent home to learn useful, but I would suggest there are many more who find the whole process futile. They learn their spellings over the weekend, often causing frustration and upset between child and parent, in preparation for a test on Monday but when spelling these words later in a piece of free writing they make errors. They have great success at the point of spelling list assessment, but how much of this is embedded into long-term memory? We must ask ourselves how is this practice helping prepare our students for being alone in a cold exam room six months down the line?

Do we need to look at how we teach spelling?

I believe we must. There are four ways we can teach spelling, (I cover these in my second blog on spelling - Do we need to teach spelling rules?) but spelling must be taught before it is practised. The learners need lots of spelling activities covering the same method you are teaching, that build in lots of repetition and spelling practise of that method.

I do not know who to give credit to for my second quote; many people claim it as theirs, however, I do love it and it applies to spelling rules:

a small boy riding a bike next to the quote don't practice till you get it right practise till you cant get it wrong

We need to look at the way we teach spelling and remember the teaching needs to come before the practise.

Do you agree?

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Katy Parkinson
Lexonik • Founding Director