Astonishing, isn’t it? Our ability to decipher words. It’s thought that we rely heavily on a word’s shape and layout to decode its meaning, rather than the precise order of the letters which is why the above passage is so easy to read, despite being absolute nonsense.
Fluent readers have the ability to read words as a whole, rather than to read every letter by itself. However, reading is a much more complex cognitive process than that and we rely far more on the positions of a word’s first and last letters when we do it. In addition to the grapho-phonemic patterns of language, we’re also drawing on multiple sources of knowledge in order to read and understand a text (e.g. known words or root words, common letter strings, word structures and meanings). Children need to be encouraged from the outset to draw on a number of different strategies to aid their reading (and spelling) of words but how do they learn to spell exactly and what kinds of teaching supports them most effectively?
I recently attended the CLPE’s Building a Literate School Conference in Bristol, where Jonathan Rogers, academic phonetician and primary advisory teacher at CLPE, led an insightful session on spelling. It was all about building children’s interest in how words are formed, creating a culture of inquisitive, playful experimentation with language through the use of rich reading texts. He urged us to encourage children to consider culture, ornographies, origins, analogies, syllables, structure, pattern, rhyme, compound words, root words, word families… this list goes on! There are many kinds of knowledge involved in spelling and a clear link between reading and learning to spell. Fluent (or mature) readers combine all of these skills simultaneously so it’s important that we teach children how to use different strategies when reading and spelling words.
Whether from ‘middle English’ to ‘modern English’, the creation of new words or establishing which words had been ‘borrowed’ from other languages, exploring the origin of words is fascinating. This was one of the first things we looked at with Jonathan. It was such a simple exercise, yet incredibly effective. We were given a list of words and asked – in groups – to categorise them under different subheadings such as ‘French, Spanish’ etc. through discussion. This was a lively activity which led us to draw on a variety of strategies and prior knowledge – decoding, visual, morphology, phonetic, cultural, syllables, analogies, pattern and rhyme, structure etc. – in order to categorise words.
I immediately took this activity back to the classroom and asked the children to think about the same thing. My class is a mixture of nationalities so there was only 1 rule: If you speak the language and know the word, you are not allowed to ‘tell’. It worked extremely well and there was a real ‘buzz’ as children drew on all sorts of cultural knowledge and experiences to complete the task. They really surprised me and most of them managed to organise the majority of the words correctly.
“My music teacher told me that opera actually originated in Italy.”
“…but I just think it soooooounds French.” (Child proceeds to say the word with a French accent!)
“They sell lager in Germany and my dad’s been to OktoberFest!”
When we looked at the answers together as a class, I asked my German, Spanish, Italian and Greek speakers (yes, I have all of these in one class!) to explain what the words meant in their own language and then we drew comparisons, for example ‘solo’ translates as ‘only’ in Italian. We also looked at the different sounds of words and how this helped us during the task (e.g. the children had noticed lots of O’s and A’s at the end of Italian words and shorter vowel sounds in German words).
There are a number of short games you can play with children to encourage a keen interest (and enthusiasm) for word play and I have recently trialled a number of games and activities: word webs, word families, prefixes/suffixes (how many can they think of? help, helps, helpful etc.), word origins, hangman, creating jokes and puns and boggle to name but a few.
Three activities that I found to be particularly successful were Word Webs, Word Chains and Vocab Lab. I’m going to give a brief overview of how I used all of these in the classroom:
Word Webs – The idea is simple. Give the children a root word and set a timer on the Interactive Whiteboard. Give the children 2-3 minutes to think of as many words as they can which stem from the root word. Sometimes I ask them to do this initially on their own, then in pairs, then in ‘squares’ (or groups) to compare and add to their own word webs. The children loved this activity. Through discussion of the words and how prefixes and suffixes change their meaning, it enabled them to understand what worked and what didn’t.
Word Chains – Give the children a compound word to start with, they then have to use the second part of the word to start a new word. The aim is to make the longest word chain possible. For example: Birthday > daylight > lightbulb etc. This game was definitely more difficult but once it is played more frequently the children begin to learn key compound words and sequences that help to extend their ‘chain’. Again, setting this task to a timer gives the kids that extra ‘thrill’!
Vocab Lab – This is a fantastic app that takes 100 overused words and offers 600 alternatives. I particularly liked it because it not only improves spelling through sight recognition (when played frequently), it also exposes children to new, exciting vocabulary. Subsequently, I began to see an improvement in the up-levelling of vocabulary in their own writing. The app can be used in different ways, but I give one iPad to a group and ask them to choose a word from the glossary. Once the word is on the screen, they each have 60 seconds to come up with synonyms that they think are better than the original word. Once the time is up, they can turn over the cards and reveal the given synonyms. If their word is on the card, they score points. More impressive the word = more points for the child. I’ve also asked them to write straight into books and add any synonyms that they didn’t get in green pen – just do whatever works for you!
What is also great about this app is that if the children don’t know how to say the word there is a little sound icon and they can listen to the pronunciation. Magic.
If we teach a child to spell, but fail to develop a culture of linguistic enquiry, exploration and understanding, we will have created a children who can score top marks in spelling tests but who cannot understand or use those words in their own writing. As I’ve said before, the teaching of grammar and spelling should be embedded across the curriculum, not simply taught as stand alone lessons. There are many ways to embed spelling into the curriculum in fun, engaging, explorative and exciting ways. I would argue that the single most important thing we can do for spelling in school, is to spark that interest in language and words. If we can ignite an enthusiasm for the written word and pique their interest in the etymology and origin of words, it will inevitably unlock the doors to a whole new world of understanding.
Useful Spelling and Word Play Resources
- Real Spelling www.realspelling.com
- WordWorks www.wordworkskingston.com
- Real Spellers www.realspellers.org
- Download Vocabulary Ninja‘s fantastic word of the day, topic vocabulary, etymology and other resources.
- Vocab Lab app for the iPad: https://vocabularyninja.wordpress.com/category/vocab-lab-app/
- TED Ed video by Gina Cooke, Why is there a ‘b’ in doubt? https://ed.ted.com/lessons/beyond-the-shadow-of-a-doubt-gina-cooke
- Duelling Due by Joseph Coelho – a fantastic poem for investigating homonyms, find the link here: https://clpe.org.uk/poetryline/poems/duelling-duo.
- Understanding Spelling is a useful research summary on children’s spelling development, funded by the Mercers’ Company and conducted by Olivia O’Sullivan and Anne Thomas of the CLPE.
- Reading Rockets has lots of reading strategies which also help with spelling, you can find strategies for the classroom, along with classroom practice videos, examples, downloadable templates and suggested reading books to use for each strategy here: http://www.readingrockets.org/strategies
- This is a map of the wheel-ruts of modern English. Etymologies are not definitions; they’re explanations of what our words meant and how they sounded 600 or 2,000 years ago. http://www.etymonline.com/
- We all know certain spelling errors are very common, such as miniscule or geneology. But how common exactly, and are they getting more or less common as time goes on? http://keithbriggs.info/spellometer.html
- Spelling is the writing of one or more words with letters and diacritics. In addition, the term often, but not always, means an accepted standard spelling or the process of naming the letters. http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/spelling
- You will also find downloadable learning resources, word games, puzzles, and much more are available for additional online support at www.oxforddictionaries.com/schools.
- On the history of spelling. by the Rev. Professor W. W. Skeat, LIT.D., LL.D., D.C.L., PH.D. Published on behalf of the Simplified Spelling Society by Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd. London. January 1941. First published December 1908. http://www.spellingsociety.org/journals/pamflets/p1history.php
Some useful books on the Subject of Spelling
Click on the book for a link to Amazon…
Spell it Out
Why is there an ‘h’ in ghost? William Caxton, inventor of the printing press and his Flemish employees are to blame: without a dictionary or style guide to hand in fifteenth century Bruges, the typesetters simply spelled it the way it sounded to their foreign ears, and it stuck. Seventy-five per cent of English spelling is regular but twenty-five per cent is complicated, and in Spell It Out our foremost linguistics expert David Crystal extends a helping hand to the confused and curious alike.
Oxford School Dictionary of Word Origins
This Oxford School Dictionary of Word Origins gives an engaging insight into the origins of the everyday language we use. It provides additional language support and information through funny and absorbing word histories, feature entries on especially curious, ‘yucky’, and ‘mind-boggling’ words, and a full thematic section on words from the worlds of food, fashion, dinosaur names, invented and onomatopoeic words and much more. John Ayto, top word expert, entertains all ages from eight to eighty with this informative and humorous dictionary and language reference tool.
The School Spelling Dictionary
A fresh new edition of this highly acclaimed and strong selling dictionary. This book allows students to use phonic attack to find both regular and irregular spellings. Students can look up a word as it sounds – if they are correct, they will find it in black, if they are wrong they will find it in red, with the correct spelling in black alongside. Designed for use from Key Stages 1 to 3, the School Spelling Dictionary is ideal for improving spelling and writing.
Packed with case studies, photographs and examples of children’s work, this unique book sets out the most effective approaches to spelling and provides teachers with a broad set of principles on which to base their teaching. This is an invaluable resource for any teacher or trainee teacher wishing to raise standards in spelling in their classroom.
Take Away the A
A word totally transforms if you take away just one letter – without the A, the beast is best. Without the W, the witch has an itch! This is an alphabet book like no other. An irreverant exploration not only of letters in their alphabetic order, but also of how they form words and communicate ideas. Packed with humour and wordplay, the author and illustrator effortlessly play off each other to enhance humour and meaning. Children will not be able to resist inventing imaginative examples of their own.
Once Upon an Alphabet
Here you will discover twenty-six short stories introducing a host of new characters (plus the occasional familiar face). From Edmund the astronaut with his awkward fear of heights, via the dynamic new investigative duo of the Owl and the Octopus, through to the Zeppelin that just might get Edmund a little bit closer to where he needs to be, this book is packed with funny, thrilling, perilous and above all entertaining tales inspired by every letter in the alphabet.
Joining the Literacy Club
The essays in this collection reflect Smith’s belief that we learn from other people, not so much through conscious emulation as by “joining the club” of people we see ourselves as being like, and by being helped to engage in their activities. The general theme holding the essays together is that the most significant people in every learner’s life are teachers the formal teachers of the classroom, the informal (and less frequently acknowledged) teachers in the world outside school, and the teachers (scarcely ever recognized) who are the authors of the books we read.
I hope you found this blog useful! If you have any feedback or additional resources you’d like to share, please do leave a comment!