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Use People’s Names to Help Children Get Better At Spelling

Tired of having his name misspelled and mispronounced, David Waugh has some strategies to help end his torment...

  • Use People’s Names to Help Children Get Better At Spelling

Do you have a name which you always have to spell? Most English-speaking people do.

Even common names like Smith and Brown could be spelled Smyth and Browne.

And if your name is Waugh, the possibilities are abundant: I’ve had Wore, War, Warr, Waw and even Whore on letters from parents.

And I’ve been told I pronounce my name in an unusual way: it has been suggested it should be pronounced Waff as in laugh or Warf as in ‘larf’ from southerners, and I am regularly addressed as Mr Wo, or even the much preferred Mr Wow, by callers.

For the record, Waugh is pronounced like ‘war’ and there is a certain logic to this, given the existence of words like caught, taught, daughter and fraught.

Why’s it so difficult?
To spell, we need to understand the alphabetic system – the correspondence between letters and sounds. However, because English is derived from many different languages, there are many variations in the ways in which many phonemes can be represented.

The following words show that the same vowel sound /aw/ can be represented using seven different graphemes, including three digraphs (aw, or, au), two trigraphs (our and ore), and two quadgraphs (augh, ough): paw, morning, ought, caught, taunt, mourn, core.

For children and EAL learners, the choices can be daunting and it is understandable that they may make mistakes. It is important, therefore, to provide children with strategies to support their spelling.

The strategies used by good spellers

Good spellers use four main approaches when attempting to spell a word:

  • Phonic (spelling it the way it sounds)
    This often produces a correct spelling, but sometimes graphemes are chosen that are phonically plausible but incorrect, as in ‘possable’ for possible and ‘seperate’ for separate.
  • Analogy
    Drawing upon knowledge of other spellings. Thus, when asked to spell bright we might think of fight, right and tight.
  • Knowledge of root words
    Thus when asked to spell definitely, if we know that the root is finite we would be less likely to make the common mistake of spelling it ‘definately’.
  • Visual
    This involves writing a word with different spellings before deciding which one looks right.

Some people rarely make mistakes, probably because they have a good knowledge of what is possible in spelling and can identify and memorise the tricky parts of words.

Knowing the possibilities

A practical way to get children thinking about spelling is to give words orally and ask them to consider phonically plausible ways in which they might be spelled.

You can do this with a whole class or with small groups, and you may wish to record the words so that children can listen to them at their own pace, pausing after each one to discuss possible and then probable spellings.

They need to listen to the words carefully and perhaps repeatedly to hear each phoneme and assign a grapheme to it. It will help if you record the words using a fairly neutral accent.

In the example shown here, children listened to the word believe and explored possible then more probable spellings, before establishing the correct one and considering how they could remember it.

If we start by eliminating some of the suggestions in the possible column, we can remove ‘beleev’ and ‘beleav’ because English words don’t end in v (satnav, lav, etc are abbreviations).

There is an opportunity here to teach a spelling rule that actually works consistently, and children could investigate which other two letters do not appear at the end of English words (j and q).

The next step is to look up the words in the probable column to find which is correct.

Having established that the correct spelling is believe, children can consider how they might memorise this, perhaps using a ‘rule’ (i before e except after c) or a mnemonic (believe has a ‘lie’ in it).

It is important when using ‘i before e except after c’ to note that this is an unreliable rule with many exceptions (their, being, science, foreign etc).

Try this activity with some words from the English National Curriculum Y3-4 spelling list such as accident, address, century, circle, exercise, experience, imagine, peculiar, possess, regular and separate.

Encourage children to make analogies with words they already know and discuss the etymology of the words, so that they can begin to make generalisations while expanding their vocabularies.

If they learn that century means 100 years and relate this to centimetre, centurion, cent and percentage they will be more likely to spell other words related to one hundred ‘cent’ rather than ‘sent’.

Accident presents a challenge since the double c represents two sounds (/k/s/), whereas double c is often a single sound as in account, accurate and accumulate.

Be prepared to discuss such spellings and find other examples that can be learned alongside the words children are working on, for example, access, success, accent and succeed.

The key is to discuss spelling and vocabulary and encourage children to think about possibilities and probabilities so that they are better prepared to attempt new words.

Children’s spelling investigations can be supported through phoneme charts which show some of the alternative spellings for each phoneme.

Name games

A class I worked with recently included Kaitlyn, Kaytlin and Caitlin: all plausible spellings. Many names can be spelled in a range of different ways.

By exploring names and their spellings, children can engage with grapheme-phoneme possibilities and develop their ability to listen to the phonemic structures of words and relate these to the graphemes which can represent them.

Success in spelling is important, and not just because of GaPS tests. Spelling errors will influence readers’ opinions of writers and may harm career chances.

It is, therefore, important that we actually teach spelling and provide strategies, rather than simply giving children lists of words to learn for tests.

It is also vital that pupils investigate and learn about words and discover generalisations about spelling that will enable them to make plausible attempts at new words.

Perhaps then my name might be spelled and pronounced correctly more often – although I would miss Mr Wow!

David Waugh is Primary English subject leader at Durham University. He has written over 40 education books, as well as four children’s novels, one of which, The Wishroom, was co-authored with 45 children from 15 schools.