Provocation on Spelling

I have always been, what is considered to be, a poor speller. The kid who was once kept in through lunch and had to miss out on a special whole school treat after lunch (yes I struggled for 2 hours) because she just could not remember how to spell ‘next’. A kid who didn’t even have the understanding that the dictionary in her desk (or had I lost it and was too scared to ask to borrow another) would solve my problem.

For the last 18 hours while writing yet another private blog post/email/possible chapter for my book, I couldn’t for the life of me remember how to spell ‘succumb’!! Was it ‘circome’, ‘surcome’, or even ‘sercome’? Can you see where the problem was?

Did I race upstairs to grab my phone that has not only a dictionary, but a lovely app called ‘Speller’? There’s no longer anyone to scare me enough not to enjoy, what these days is such a pleasure, inquiry! It could have been a stubborn streak that does, I confess, prevent me from ‘checking the map’ from time to time; not only men are afflicted by this small road block to discovery and enlightenment! It could have been the four, possibly five glasses of wine – or did I consume those after I recognised a blockage in my underdeveloped, fragile, insecure, spelling synapses? It could also have been the late hour and having endured three days of temperatures above 40 degrees celsius with no cooling in the house.

No matter. In the cool, calm, light of day, with, I might add, no hangover, I reach for my phone, and discover, the problem lay in my pronunciation of the word! Who would of (or is that ‘have’) thought!

My point is, do we need to teach Spelling once a child has begun to read and write with enthusiasm and fervour? When should we stop using up valuable timetabled lesson time to play with word sounds and patterns in isolation to the joys of written expression?

I was always an under achiever throughout Primary and Secondary school. I hazard a guess that much of it was connected to my ignored and struggling wellbeing; but that’s another blog post or posts. I do know, that once I was given the time and encouragement to write, and the freedom to read what I like, words became my friends.

If I misspell, I have spell-check, a phone and about 6 or 8 dictionaries and thesauruses on my bookshelf. I have trusted peers that will, I hope happily, read my rough drafts.

Before you shake your head, reach for the keyboard and begin your lengthy counter argument to my pondering; which I most certainly welcome – nothing like healthy educated debate to help clear up matters of pedagogy. Let me expand upon this train of thought and dabble, ever so slightly, in the role of devil’s advocate for a moment.

Recently I was given a small spelling group of Year Five students, dare I add, a huge waste of a teacher librarian’s skills, for a Term. There was a program to follow and a more than resistant, disinterested group of low achieving spellers to drag kicking and screaming through 11 weeks of sounds, blends, word sorts and spelling tests. Needless to say, I soon learnt that it was up to me to squeeze some fun out of the program; like blood from a stone. Thank goodness for iPads and my love of thinking creatively outside the box; anything to avoid the dull and tedious.

Once the fun had begun, my litmus test was the boy, who for the first lesson hid under his desk and tried to avoid walking into the room for the second, I loosened my hold on the ‘program’, gathered samples of their creative and non-fiction writing and did what I have always done, helped the children explore words in their natural environment, the place where words have meaning and relevance.

Yes it’s a full, hands on kind of spelling lesson. Students reading their own writing, discovering misspelt words through collaborative editing with their peers and teacher. Smiling at the anomaly uncovered and then inquiring into why this little devil of a word has such a need to be spelt so differently to how we originally thought it should be spelt! Out come the dictionaries, on goes the iPad and here comes the discussion. Oh, what’s that I see? Another word that seems to insist upon being spelt with the same pattern! I wonder how many more there are? Actually no, I think this word would be a better one to use for this sentence in my story…

You get the idea.

Now, pull out that keyboard. Let’s discuss spelling!

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17 Responses to Provocation on Spelling

  1. colleenkr says:

    Absolutely beautiful. I have a special person in my life who is plagued by a “little devil of a word” or two, and I know that I will revisit this post again and again. Thank you for writing such a wonderfully honest and insightful article.

    Like

    • filearning says:

      Hi Colleen,
      I glad you liked it 🙂 Tell that special person in your life, that what a word conveys is the powerful and clever thing; and the amazing bonus is, the more you use the word as part of your writing, you come to know it so well that the letters begin to fall into the ‘correct’ position.

      Like

  2. Rob Clarke says:

    Great post Edna, to me spelling is merely a part of the writing process. Why wouldn’t you use a learner’s own writing as the programme and therefore take them from the known to the unknown?

    Like

  3. I am struggling with this question at the moment, but for the opposite group of kids. I have a group of extremely high level spellers. They can learn to spell any word, even words functionally irrelevant for their expressive language level. Now I am grappling with the question – If I ditch the spelling programme what would a short (15min) daily language enrichment time look like. What would replace spelling tests? Do they even need to be replaced? Are there aspects of the programme that are valuable (e.g. Greek & Latin roots) that I should still include? So far we have explored word families and building word matrices, prefixes and suffixes connected to parts of speech, and the efficient use of a thesaurus or dictionary. I like though the idea of going back to students own writing, maybe something along the lines of writing powerful paragraphs. Thankfully I have Chinese New Year break to think this all through more.

    Like

    • filearning says:

      Hi Renee,
      Thank you for your comment. Can I be so bold as to suggest that perhaps spelling tests are not really needed. The spelling test is one of those assessments that is so blatantly connected to the archaic idea of ‘getting a score’. A spelling test does, I suppose, inform teachers about what list to give the student next, and you do get to see what sound patterns etc. are causing a problem for the student; which will guide you into more spelling lessons on that sound pattern. I think exploring words in their own habitat can lead to very interesting inquiries and wonderfully vibrant pieces of writing.
      Fiona

      Like

  4. Rubi says:

    I am so happy to see that we are developing the guts to write it and follow it. I have had several discussions with my group about stopping focussed spelling lessons with a specific sound. In the 21st century we have access to the correct spelling of a word in several ways. I feel it would be better if we can enhance the vocabulary of the students which often worries me.

    Like

  5. Dan Allen says:

    Alright, keyboard out and ready to discuss spelling, but first, I want to explain how I got here, to this blog and this post. I was in a team planning meeting this morning with Kath Murdoch (I’m sure most of this blog’s readers know Kath, but for those who don’t: Click Here. She is at our school (Zurich International School) for the week and we’re running her ragged – which she loves. A hectic schedule, on top of the jet lag, prompted her sleepless ponderings in the middle of the night over the structure and potential connection between ‘migration’ and ‘migraine.’ I immediately thought to myself, “Oh, she knows about structured word inquiry…I wonder if she knows Pete Bowers Pete Bowers and Real Spelling?”

    (Not sure if those hyperlinks will work in comment section…sorry if they didn’t!)

    Kath knew Pete from working with him at Chapters International, but not Real Spelling. But I digress….back to the point of the post.

    What if we viewed ‘spelling’ through a different lens? Currently, the metric of success for a competent speller is simply correctness, and much of the spelling activities that take place in schools have that as the desired end result: a student who can spell lots of words correctly and consistently is successful. Some of you reading this might be thinking, “Uh…yeah…what else is there?” Well, there’s understanding, connections, curiosity, wonder, questioning, etc. What if those were the qualities we strove for in our spelling ‘instruction’? What if we learned with our students? What if, rather than weekly tests on a set of words and the low level memorization it assesses, we instead measured a child’s ‘success’ with spelling by his/her ability to generate thoughtful, reasoned questions about the English language? Or his/her ability to conduct scientific investigations of our orthographic system? Or his/her ability to share the learning journey even one word inspired? Isn’t that truly what inquiry is about?

    Like

  6. Old Grouch says:

    I regard it as incumbent on me to comment that if we supinely succumb to the assumption that ‘spelling’ is about “playing with word sounds and patterns” which is somehow supposedly separate from the “joys of written expression”, then whatever is being talked about is certainly not orthography – human thought made visible as text.

    Your up beat last paragraph is a clarion call to ditch the official ‘sound’-obsessed systems, schemes and methods that start in the wrong place facing the wrong direction with the wrong map, and before before which the schooling industry remains so uncritically recumbent.

    Every word is a treasure house of discovery and deepening understanding. I did know how to spell ‘succumb’, but since the term ‘correct’ is not part of my world, I spent a happy half hour exploring why this word meant what I though it meant, and what were its relatives and, yes, I did construct a matrix once I had isolated its base element and its denotation. Above all, my joy was complete when I discovered that ’succumb’ has absolutely nothing to do with ‘encumber’ and ‘cumbersome’ – except for a superficial sequence of letters. And I feel a whole heap better for it.

    Real spelling is, in a very real sense, about the representation of the meaning of life.

    Thanks for the post.

    Like

    • filearning says:

      Hi,
      Thank you for your comment. “Human thought, made visible in text”, it is the thought that counts. Shakespeare (shaxpur, schakespeire, shagspere, schaxepur, schaxpeire, shakspere, saxpere, shackspeare, shackspire, shaxkespeyr, shaxeper) had some lovely thoughts 🙂
      Of course I understand that in a time when mass production of texts for the masses had not really begun, that spelling was not so rigourous; and I do like to read all those visible human thoughts with consistent spelling. I just think there is a better way to go about learning how to spell those words.
      Fiona

      Like

  7. Pete Bowers says:

    I was pleased to see your response to what seems to be an inert school subject:

    “Another word that seems to insist upon being spelt with the same pattern! I wonder how many more there are? Actually no, I think this word would be a better one to use for this sentence in my story…”

    In my 9th year as a classroom teacher (who was always a terrible speller) this is the kind of attempt I always made. It had to be better than lists of words for rote memorization.

    But my attempts to impose this type of inquiry on spelling always proved unsatisfactory. Whenever my students and/or I thought we found a good pattern, we would soon run into a word that didn’t fit. Those darn spelling “exceptions” are anti-matter to scientific inquiry.

    It was not until my 10th year of teaching that I was introduced to the the absolutely critical mechanism for scientific inquiry to develop ever deeper understanding of how spelling works over time. I presume from your post that – like most educators in the world – you have yet to be introduce to this tool for spelling inquiry as well.

    What most teachers lack is a mechanism for rejecting hypotheses about the spelling patterns.

    When a description of data is presented, scientific inquiry requires we look for evidence contradicting that hypothesis. If we find contradictory evidence we are supposed to either reject that hypothesis, or refine it so that it can account for the unexplained data. Scientific inquiry doesn’t blame the data when their hypothesis is not supported!

    Absent a means of rejecting false assumptions about how spelling works, there is no means of deepening understanding. It was not until I encountered Real Spelling in my 10th year in the classroom that I discovered that this necessary tool for scientific inquiry of spelling already existed.

    The word sum is a long-established linguistic tool for rejecting false spelling assumptions about spelling.

    A word sum simply analyzes complex words into constituent morphemes (bases and affixes). They can also be used to show suffixing changes.

    Here are some examples:

    do + ing → doing
    do + es → does
    go + ing → going
    go + es → goes

    (Hmmm… Does it make sense to say that “does” is irregular, but not “goes”?)

    How about these word sums which also mark the convention for dropping the single silent “e” and doubling final, single consonant letters.

    hope/ + ing → hoping
    hop(p) + ing → hopping

    (Hmmm… Notice the introduction to the understanding that the single or double “p” can be explained through a suffixing convention

    Now let me use these tools to help us reject an assertion about spelling that turns out to be false, and thus gain confidence in an alternative hypothesis.

    I have a reference that cites the suffix spelled “-tion” and gives the examples of the words “completion” and “relation”.

    This may seem a rather mundane statement. But consider what happens when we test that reference’s hypothesis of the word structure of these words with a word sum.

    If “-tion” is a suffix, we are forced to accept the following conclusions about the base or stem of these words:

    comple + tion → completion
    rela + tion → relation

    This hypothesized suffix, results in bases or stems that make no sense. There is no “comple” and no “rela”. If we behave like scientists and follow the evidence, we have to reject the hypothesis for the suffix in these words. We are then motivated to propose another.

    Now let’s consider the hypothesis of the suffix “-ion” for these words with the aid of the word sum, which also marks the convention for vowel suffixes replacing the single silent “e” (consider make/ + ing → making; designate/ + ion → designation).

    complete/ + ion → completion
    relate/ + ion → relation

    Scientific inquiry seeks the deepest structures that account for the greatest number of cases. The word sum allows us to determine that the hypothesis of “-tion” accounts for neither of the proposed cases, whereas they hypothesis of an “-ion” suffix accounts for both.

    It may surprise you to learn that the reference that cited “-tion” as a suffix in these words is the Oxford Dictionary on my Mac.

    If we are going to stay in the realm of scientific inquiry, however, the source of a claim is utterly irrelevant. Either we accept that scientific inquiry seeks the greatest number of cases, and that it requires a means of rejecting false hypothesis, or we don’t.

    I know this is a long comment. I apologize, but I’m afraid I don’t have the time to figure out how to write a shorter one that could take you through this path of evidence.

    If you are intrigued by this evidence, I recommend that you explore http://www.realspelling.com and that you explore the “Real Spelling Gallery” with many tutorial films (all free). I recommend you start with the “Morphology Album”

    It was Real Spelling that introduced me to the fact that spelling is a well-ordered system for representing meaning that can be analyzed and understood scientifically. My own website (www.wordworkskingston.com) is full of free resources, research, videos of classroom instruction and links to the community around the world building this understanding of spelling through scientific inquiry.

    See classroom instruction using these tools to explain how spelling works by explaining the logical, coherent spelling of the word “does” http://www.youtube.com/user/WordWorksKingston.

    And finally, to see how one Grade 5 class in a public school in Wisconsin presented their learning about this question about “-ion” or “-tion”. (http://mbsteven.edublogs.org/2014/01/16/its-time-to-shun-the-and-suffixes)

    If you explore the above links, you will see that this community is not studying spelling scientifically to become better spellers. We are studying spelling to celebrate and enrich our vocabulary, reading and writing. But most of all, to become better thinkers who learn how not to accept what we are told without testing it with evidence and who celebrate the journey together – making mistakes along the way — but always exposing those mistakes to the rigours of scientific inquiry so that we avoid going down a wrong path for too long!

    Seems pretty appropriate for readers of a blog entitled “Inquiry Within”

    Like

  8. Dean says:

    I love the idea of peer conferencing both orally and by allowing a peer to read another’s writing.
    Helps both students with their revising and editing skills, as well as recognising those common spelling patterns and letter blends.
    Lovely article!

    Like

  9. Dan Allen says:

    Hello moderator,
    Just curious why my comment from several days ago did not get approved. Was it something I said? Not upset, just curious…and I believe Pete Bowers left a comment as well…which has also not yet been approved. Hmmm…

    Alright, keyboard out and ready to discuss spelling, but first, I want to explain how I got here, to this blog and this post. I was in a team planning meeting this morning with Kath Murdoch (I’m sure most of this blog’s readers know Kath, but for those who don’t: Click Here. She is at our school (Zurich International School) for the week and we’re running her ragged – which she loves. A hectic schedule, on top of the jet lag, prompted her sleepless ponderings in the middle of the night over the structure and potential connection between ‘migration’ and ‘migraine.’ I immediately thought to myself, “Oh, she knows about structured word inquiry…I wonder if she knows Pete Bowers Pete Bowers and Real Spelling?”

    (Not sure if those hyperlinks will work in comment section…sorry if they didn’t!)

    Kath knew Pete from working with him at Chapters International, but not Real Spelling. But I digress….back to the point of the post.

    What if we viewed ‘spelling’ through a different lens? Currently, the metric of success for a competent speller is simply correctness, and much of the spelling activities that take place in schools have that as the desired end result: a student who can spell lots of words correctly and consistently is successful. Some of you reading this might be thinking, “Uh…yeah…what else is there?” Well, there’s understanding, connections, curiosity, wonder, questioning, etc. What if those were the qualities we strove for in our spelling ‘instruction’? What if we learned with our students? What if, rather than weekly tests on a set of words and the low level memorization it assesses, we instead measured a child’s ‘success’ with spelling by his/her ability to generate thoughtful, reasoned questions about the English language? Or his/her ability to conduct scientific investigations of our orthographic system? Or his/her ability to share the learning journey even one word inspired? Isn’t that truly what inquiry is about?

    Like

  10. filearning says:

    Thank you, Dan, for your comment. What a wonderfully exciting and totally engaging spelling lesson that would be!
    I’m going to investigate Pete Bowers and Real Spelling.
    Fiona

    Like

  11. whatedsaid says:

    Hi Dan

    Sorry, the comments on this blog are open, they don’t usually go to moderation. No idea why that one was stuck as pending, waiting for approval!

    Like

    • Pete Bowers says:

      Hello whatedsaid!

      Glad to see Dan’s response is up. I did post a response back then too that also appears to be awaiting moderation. I assumed that the length may have been the problem.

      I’ll just pass on the shortest summary that I can pull off for the moment…

      In your last paragraph that Real Spelling pointed to, I saw exactly the spot I was in in my 9th year as an elementary teacher trying to deal with this topic of spelling. I looked for the most productive patterns I could find, but did so always assuming that there would be random exceptions to any rule of thumb I might find.

      What I learned from working with linguistic tools called the word sum and the matrix — that I encountered through Real Spelling — was that the my long held assumption that English spelling is irregular was false.

      Consider these four words sums:

      do + es → does do + ing → doing
      go + es → goes go + ing → going

      Given these word sums, does it make any sense to say that the spelling “does” is irregular but “goes” with exactly the same structure is regular?

      From this we can introduce children — from the beginning of schooling — that in English, bases and affixes can use consistent spelling to mark meaning connections despite pronunciation shifts. And from that start children can begin their journey into learning to read and write with the valid assumption that there is a reason for every spelling that can be understood.

      If it is that easy to reject the false claim that “does” is an irregular spelling, might it not be possible that there other things we’ve been taught to believe about spelling are false as well?

      For those interested, you can watch a video of young children being taught the elegant order of English spelling through scientific inquiry that makes sense of the spelling “does” on this YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/WordWorksKingston

      A necessary feature of any inquiry that can be accurately called scientific inquiry is that we have a means of rejecting hypotheses that turn out to be false. For most of my teaching career I failed to question the hypothesis that English spelling was irregular.

      Once I gained access to tools that let me reject false assumptions, I found that there is no richer domain than spelling to engage in scientific inquiry in schools.

      I know that’s a big claim. To big to support in a blog post response, but find links to Dan’s Grade 5 blog and many others showing students making this point better than I can at http://www.wordworkskingston.com

      My point is not to advertise, but to share evidence that anyone is invited to challenge!

      Cheers,

      Pete

      Like

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