The Memories of Spelling

three children holding up the letters a b and c

I had a nightmare – not about contracting a virus, not about restrictions to travel, not about the economic ramifications of a pandemic – but about a memory. A memory that seems trivial and completely out of proportion compared to images and concepts I could have nightmares about.

I am sat in a classroom at primary school, watching intently as the class teacher walks between the desks. She has a pile of exercise books in her hand and, in what seems like slow motion, she is carefully placing each one in front of each child. I can see her hand hover in front of me as she places my exercise book down; her glance is one of disappointment with an element of sympathy.

I look down at the page open in front of me. I should not be surprised as every week it is the same. We are tasked with writing, on a Monday morning, our news from the weekend. I am fortunate as I often have a wealth of experiences to write about and frankly, I am a good at elaborating! Each Monday, I approach the task with enthusiasm; just cannot write fast enough (we only had half an hour before we had our weekly spelling lesson). Oh, how I wanted to get all my ideas down, using as many ‘long’ words as I could, sure in the knowledge that I would impress.

It is Friday morning and I have received the results of my frenzy of activity from Monday, now marked. There it is – a sea of red with words underlined and ‘Sp’ in the margin next to practically every line; the teacher’s conclusion at the bottom of my masterpiece is 4 out of 10, with the comment, ‘Spelling, Anne!’

The following week, I would try harder and help myself by utilising ‘shorter’ words within my writing… but unfortunately, this did not help as, apparently, I was not much better at spelling the shorter words. All this culminated in an end of year report which in the section for English, just stated,

Anne tries hard but must improve her spelling.

That was it, I was summed up in eight words, though I have to say, at least all the teacher’s words were perfectly spelt.

In my nightmare, I cannot remember any of the content of my writing and only remember the vivid red markings. I can confidently say that the content would not have been of any great literary standard, but regardless of the quality of the news report, all I remember is that I was a poor speller.

The red markings, the brief comment at the end of the writing, the numerical judgement, the pointing out of the spelling errors with the offending words underlined and an alarming number of ‘Sps’ wasn’t what really hurt or confused. That was the report comment ‘… must improve her spelling’. Yes, I took that on board, but HOW?

I was nine and it was a long time ago, but I struggled for years with how to improve my spelling.

It will not have escaped your notice that the weekly news writing was followed by a spelling lesson, so surely that is where my rescue resided. However, by a spelling lesson it was meant that we were handed a list of words to learn in our own time for a test on Fridays. One attribute I did have was being conscientious, so I worked really hard at my spellings; however, on Fridays, under the pressure of a test situation, I fell short of my goal to achieve 10 out of 10. By Monday morning, I had forgotten how to spell even the words I had achieved a mark within the test… so the cycle continued – I failed, I tried hard, I continued to fail.

I did not realise it at the time, but I was being presented spellings, not taught them. As a result, I had not a clue how to improve. Equally, I judged myself, as others did, as a poor speller which each week was reaffirmed.

My nightmare was not just about being a poor speller, but about my self-image. It seems dramatic to state this – that, due to my inaccurate spelling, I judged myself as unintelligent or even an inadequate person – but I remember clearly this is how I felt. Trying harder was my response which was no help if I did not know how to try harder.

Alongside trying harder, I used the tactic of using less challenging vocabulary in my writing in order to reduce the chances of an overload of negative red marks. I was being judged and I associated spelling with the quality of my writing and even the level of my intelligence.

Spelling correctly gives an impression of knowledge, education, credibility; the writer has a level of authority.

Poor spelling led me to impress on the reader that I was lazy, lacked intelligent engagement and my continual poor results in the isolated spelling tests indicated that this was a fixed position.

It is worth pointing out that the teacher in my nightmare was not the subject of the nightmare. I adored her. She was inspiring, knowledgeable, charismatic, engaging and so much more; it was down to the memory of her that I eventually became a teacher. My nine-year-old self lives in the past and times change as does pedagogy.

Distanced from the events of the past, I was surprised when the memory surfaced again when I became a parent. As a dedicated teacher, I was so excited about parenthood not least of all because I had an image of how I would support my child in their educational journey. However, as pointed out by a colleague of mine in her recent ‘From teacher to mother and back again’ blog, being a professional teacher and being a parent who wants to support your child’s education can look very different!

Thus, when it came to supporting my child’s weekly learning of spellings, my nightmare returned. Many things had changed in the education world since I was nine and pedagogy had challenged itself and moved on. So, no longer was a list of spellings given to learn with no instruction; my child benefitted from instructions on how to learn the spellings. Therefore, at home, we sat together each week and I enthusiastically supported him using the ‘look/say/cover/write/check’ method. This certainly was a support and helped with the ‘how’ regarding improving spelling. My child was getting 10 out of 10 in his spelling tests weekly, and, I was a proud parent when I saw his spelling book with no red marks but sticky stars at the end of his list of spellings.

However, his ability to spell in a spelling test once a week, and his ability to spell within his writing did not necessarily transfer. There was a disconnect between his ‘spelling book’ and his ‘writing book’. I, and he, found this a little frustrating. Again, it was not the teacher, who was another inspiring teacher adored by his pupils and certainly became someone who encouraged my child to reach anything he aspired to. The question remained ‘How to improve spelling?’ not just in a spelling test but in the free flow of writing; there seemed to be something missing.

As my boy grew up and I saw him take his A-levels, go to a top university and successfully enter the world of employment, I had moved on in my teaching career and was constantly revising my own pedagogy. I now realise that the ‘how to improve’ was about ‘how to teach’ and that involved an understanding of ‘how we learn to spell’. Katy Parkinson, in her two blogs about spelling, explains and illustrates this well.

To be taken seriously, to make a good impression, to be able to improve and achieve, spelling did and has a place. To explicitly teach spelling from a stance of an understanding of how we learn to spell enables the learner to use the skill, giving confidence within their writing and so credibility and a voice to be heard.

I had found that orthography can establish insecurities so deep that it had become the stuff of nightmares. But it doesn’t need to be a nightmare.

If you feel like you want to learn more about our intervention programmes check them out here or if you’re looking for advice, get in touch.

Anne Wassell