Dispelling the Challenges of Writing

Spelling is important, for every student at every level, because it is one of the foundations of writing, and better writers have better educational and social outcomes. Writing in itself is extremely demanding because writers have to combine and coordinate three different processes simultaneously: transcribing, text generation and executive function (you can read more detail about this here). Accordingly, the more automatic we can make any of these processes, the more we can concentrate on the other processes, and the easier writing becomes. In a nutshell, the less we have to focus on the ‘how to write’ the more we can focus on the ‘what to write’.

Spelling, a key transcription skill, constitutes a crucial part of the ‘how to write’ element of writing, yet it is often regarded as an inferior cousin to the more intellectually glamourous strands of idea generation and sentence crafting. However, explicitly teaching spellings so that these become automatic is likely to be a worthwhile focus that deserves its own moment in the spotlight

As with most areas of educational research, there is no easy path when it comes to teaching spellings. At the moment, there is a limited evidence base, especially for teaching the spelling of individual words. What we do have available are suggestions from the evidence about what might be happening when spellings go awry:

  • Phonological Gaps

These are students who have gaps in their letter-sound knowledge leading to errors such as catergory instead of category. Here, it is useful to remember that it is not the word that a student cannot spell but a particular sound (or sounds) in the word.

  • Orthographical Gaps

In this case, students may have gaps in their knowledge of common letter combinations or word-specific spellings. Consequently, these students make phonologically plausible mistakes but invent spellings, for example erly instead of early.

  • Morphological Gaps

Here, students have a lack of awareness of morphemes, or word parts, so they may make mistakes such as desappear instead of disappear

Practical Spelling Strategies for the Classroom

1. Keep it contextual

Select spellings that are related to the current content being taught and encourage the active use and checking of these spellings in students’ writing. This will also allow for plenty of practice, which is critical to spelling success.

Alternatively, as a department curate a list of commonly used but misspelt words and have these as a centralised focus. This could be done on a termly or yearly basis.

Once you have an identified list of spellings, the following strategies 2 – 4 below may be useful

2. Phonological Gaps

For phonological gaps, identify the common phonemes, especially digraphs such as th, with which students tend to struggle and explicitly teach these spellings. Do this through plenty of practise with lots of example words that use the phoneme, plus exceptions.

3. Orthographical Gaps

For orthographical gaps, encourage recognition of the whole word, for example by writing he word then asking the student to:

a) write the word over the top

b) write the word again

c) write the word again

d) then write the word with your eyes closed.

Another approach could be the ‘look-say-cover-write-check’ method alongside using exaggerated pronunciation, for example choc-O-late.

4. Morphological Gaps

Morphological gaps can be tackled through the explicit teaching of prefixes, suffixes and roots. For example, direct teaching that aer is the Grek root for air may help with the spelling of aeroplane.

Finally, in the absence of better evidence, it might be beneficial to teach strategies that good spellers appear to use. These may include using analogy, or in other words, asking students to think about the spelling of similar words such as fall and call; explicit teaching of the ‘tricky’ parts of words such as miniature ; and a visual approach where the word is written in several ways and the student decides which spelling looks right, for example seal, seel and sele.

Fran Haynes

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