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Strategies for teaching spelling, from a poor speller

Look, say, cover, write, check didn’t work for Ruth Baker-Leask, but these strategies would have made all the difference…

Ruth Baker-Leask
by Ruth Baker-Leask
Scarlett Fife teaching resources
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PrimaryEnglishHealth & WellbeingScience

There is a stigma attached to not being able to spell. I become aware of this every time I’m nominated to act as ‘scribe’ in front of a group of my peers.

I instantly feel uneasy, and too proud to decline the invitation, then revert to the spelling tricks of my childhood: writing ‘e’s that look like ‘a’s and vice versa (leaving it up to the reader to choose the appropriate unstressed vowel) and writing easy-to-spell alternatives to the tricky words offered.

People judge your level of education and, more personally, level of intelligence, by the words you can’t spell.

For years I have tried to hide my poor spelling abilities for fear of being judged as intellectually inferior, but now is my moment to step into the light.

My name is Ruth, and I find spelling difficult.

A bit of a bad spell

Spelling tests caused me anxiety as a child; no matter how diligently I learned the words I always got a low score. Some people are lucky and have a visual memory that preserves the mental image of a word perfectly.

They can LOOK at a word, SAY it, COVER it over, WRITE it and CHECK it and the word is theirs.

When I use ‘Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check’, the moment I close my eyes the word is lost forever.

Yes, I am the annoying child who can’t copy from the board for the same reason! My memory, both short and long term, needs more than a visual stimulus.

It needs something physical, a silly story, an image, rhyme or ditty. My teachers didn’t realise this so, to set the record straight, here are some strategies that would have worked.

1 | Make sure talk is central

Children need to develop a ‘spelling voice’ in their heads; a voice that considers alternatives, notices root words, and recalls rules and tricks. Talk is vital to this process.

Spellers are linguistic problem solvers; a skill they develop through interactions with other learners.

Try paired spelling tests that allow children to discuss how they have spelt a word before deciding on the correct spelling. Children may remember the conversation more efficiently than the strategy they used to learn the word.

2 | Help children to recognise and fix errors

The 2014 National Curriculum places a greater emphasis on the importance of spelling than we had been used to. It makes it clear that spelling is an essential part of being a successful writer.

Poor spelling hampers the flow of ideas and limits the vocabulary a child uses when they choose easy-to-spell words over the best words. So how can we help?

Forgive a first draft

If children know you are going to mark their first draft for spelling errors, they will be more conscious of their spelling and less aware of the quality of what they are writing (composition).

Encourage children to check their spellings as they go along but don’t be too hard on them if they make transcriptional mistakes the first time around.

If they know they have spelt a word incorrectly, encourage them to draw a line under it; you can help them with the spelling at a more appropriate time, without disturbing the flow of the writing.

Use peer editors

In real life, writers have editors who ensure their published work is accurate and sounds good. Why? Because your brain finds it almost impossible to notice your own errors; it fills in the missing pieces and ignores the mistakes it thought were correct in the first place.

If adults need editors, so do children.

Pair a great speller with a poor speller and encourage them to discuss why words are misspelt and share their strategies for correcting them.

Give writing a wider audience

As we know, familiarity breeds contempt, and I’m afraid that children don’t see the jeopardy in misspelling a word if you’re the only person who knows about it.

If I’m writing a quick shopping list for my husband and I misspell a word, he may tease me, but there is no real consequence; however, if I write a tweet to advertise some training I’m delivering, and there is a spelling error, then I’m unlikely to get many attendees!

The wider the audience, the more important accurate spelling becomes. Post letters, publish writing online, create anthologies for the library and poems for a display; in other words, give children a reason to care about the accuracy of their spelling.

3 | Match the spelling strategies to pupils

Teachers are great at spotting errors but spend less time analysing their cause. Error analysis is vital; once you know why children are misspelling words, it is easier to match the appropriate strategy to their need.

Making word pyramids, drawing the shape of a word or even highlighting the tricky bits are great visual strategies for some children but not all (they would have been no help to me).

I really struggle when words contain guttural, unstressed sounds called schwas ‘ə’.

I have to guess the correct letter because I can’t see or hear what it is. If we look at the word ‘definitely’, you can hear the first vowel (phew!), but the next two are schwas, and the final vowel is silent (grrr!). I remember such words using:

Auditory strategies

  • Stressing the unstressed vowels so I can hear where and what they are. Eg d e f ‘I’ n ‘I’ t ‘E’ l y
  • Making up a mnemonic eg I definitely have two eyes (‘i’s) and 2 ears (‘e’s)!
  • Saying each part of the word as it is spelt, eg ‘def-i-ni-tely’.
  • Saying every single letter out loud – giving it a rhythm / tune that I can repeat back to myself. Out of interest, this is how I learnt to spell mouse (and house) at primary school due to the catchy theme tune to the ‘Mickey Mouse Club’, which spelt out the word.

Physical strategies

I once became so fed up with the embarrassment of forgetting to write the silent ‘e’ at the end of the word ‘before’ that I drew an ‘e’, with my finger, on the palm of my hand, over and over again.

Now when I write the word ‘before’ I remember this action and write the final ‘e’, even if my brain isn’t keen on the idea. Some children will need to do something physical to remember silent letters or difficult letter patterns such as:

  • Writing the word repeatedly in the air
  • Writing it on someone’s back
  • Turning it into a collage, cutting each letter out of sticky paper, using a different colour for the tricky bit.

Knowledge of spelling rules

We usually keep the final ‘e’ when adding a suffix that begins with a consonant (the exception being words that end in ‘le’ when we usually drop the ‘e’). ‘Definitely’ fits with this rule. Spelling rules work well for some children who can’t see words in their heads. Teach them well and repeat them often!

What next?

Hopefully, I have inspired you to think carefully about why some of your children have developed poor spelling behaviours.

Perhaps my story has resonated with you or provided some insight into the causes of your class’ spelling muddles and mix-ups.

I hope so, because if you can support your children to understand what sort of speller they are and which spelling strategies suit them best, then maybe all children can become confident, successful spellers.

Ruth Baker-Leask (@RuthBakerLeask) is director of Minerva Learning and chair of the National Association for Advisers in English (NAAE).

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