Spellings 3: Teaching Rather than Testing Spellings

Some people look on spelling as a lower order skill and one whose importance is diminishing with the use of spell-checking software. However, spelling well helps you make a good impression when you write. As well as that, even though reading doesn’t necessarily help improve spellings, proficiency at spellings can help reading.

The teaching of spellings can be approached in several ways:

• Every child does not have to learn the same spellings. Children’s free writing can highlight common words that the child cannot yet spell correctly. When one teacher, Brendan Culligan, reads children’s writing, he writes out the correct spellings of some of the misspelt common words at the end of the work and allows children to choose a subset of those spellings to learn.

• Another idea from Brendan Culligan is to analyse spellings of chidren’s names: The name “Sean” contains the words “sea,” “a,” and “an.” Brendan contains “enda” which helps to spell calendar. Look for other words with the letters “bre” in them: Bread. Umbrella. Fibre. Some letter strings can be found anywhere in a word, some only at the beginning and some only at the end. Do you have a one-letter word in your name, a two-letter word? Compare spellings of names. Look for words within words – not moving the letters around.

• Children can learn to memorise some words. But they can also be taught to draw on different sources of knowledge to help them spell words. Here are some examples.

To spell well, children can use knowledge of: sounds, units of meaning, how sounds and symbols correspond, how words look, and the meanings of words. These are known technically as phonology, morphology, orthography, orthographic image and semantic knowledge respectively.

With regard to knowledge of sounds, children can learn, for example, that a /k/ sound might be made by “k” (kite), “c” (cat) or “ch” (ache or chorus).
Units of meaning in language might help children recognise “sign” in “signal” or “human” in “humanity.”

They can use their knowledge of correspondences between sound and symbols: knowing how letters or groups of letters make sounds, knowing common letter patterns and recognising known words in new words.

Children can use their knowledge of how words look. When children make errors in this regard, they tend to spell words in a way that is plausible but wrong in a given case. Examples would be shaim for shame or attension for attention.

Children might find that a knowledge of word meanings can help them spell. If they learn, for example, that “plat” in Old French – from plata in Medieval Latin – means “flat” they might see that the word is related to plate, platform, plateau and platitude.

• If using lists of words, spellings that look the same should be grouped together and not just those that sound the same. For example, “what” should be included with “hat” and “bat”

• Use spelling tests to make screening decisions, progress decisions or diagnostic decisions in order to identify who is mastering the necessary spelling skills and who is making steady progress, and to identify the spelling skills particular children need to learn.

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