Three Things I Wish I Had Been Taught About Spelling in School

Spelling Cartoon

Three Things I Wish I Had Been Taught About Spelling in School.

For most of my life I have identified as a “bad speller”, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I am a fairly typical learner, and picked up reading and writing at an acceptable pace in primary school. I continued to read books and write stories to an acceptable level throughout my schooling. Nevertheless, I could not shake the feeling that spelling “wasn’t for me”.

As a Speech Language Therapist, I became interested in reading and writing shortly after beginning my career. As I learn more about the science of reading and spelling, and spend more time teaching children and teens to read and spell, the better I am at spelling myself.

Firstly, let’s take a brief tour of some of my spelling misadventures.

The dreaded weekly spelling lists…

Short lists of words were sent home in a notebook, and my parents were instructed to “help me practice” the words. From what I remember, this was a mix of my parents reading out the words for me to have a go at writing, or (and more frequently occurring) spelling out loud (saying the letter names).

While my parents had the best of intentions, spelling out loud felt more like a punishment than practice.

“okay spell difficult”

“dee”

“yes”

“I”

“yes”

“eff”

“yes”

“ee”

“no”

“I?”

“no”

“…ay?”

“no, its another eff, dee-I-eff-eff… now what letter is next?”

I have a vivid memory of learning to spell the word “nice” early in primary school. This was a word on my list that was giving me a hard time, I didn’t know what a long vowel sound was, and had no clue what this crazy “e” was doing on the end. My mother thought of an ingenious way to help me with this spelling. She made up a little story about the letters, in which somebody was talking to the letter “n” (I liked to imagine that they were at a letter party), and saying they see their friend letter “e”. Producing… “N, I see E!” n-i-c-e. While this worked in teaching me to spell “nice”, it perpetuated a focus on the letters (separated out from the sounds), and taught me that spelling was random, and that for some words I just needed to memorise the sequence of letters.

Correct your own errors in writing by looking it up in the dictionary

One of my least favourite past times was checking my errors in the dictionary, especially being kept in for part of morning tea time to keep looking for the correct spellings for my errors. “Just one more and then you can go to morning tea”. I don’t have much to say about this except that it felt like yet another penalty for my spelling errors.

Introduction of spelling rules

Later in my schooling I remember being introduced to some spelling rules. I remember sitting in a lesson around 12 years of age and listening to my teacher introduce some spelling rules. Wow! So you are telling me there is some logic here? I was amazed that there seemed to be some order in the chaos of spelling.

Could I tell you what these rules were today? Have I used these rules to improve my spelling? Well… no. Perhaps with additional carryover this may have helped. Still, I was grateful to know there was some structure to the system.

The spelling shame intensifies

There are several experiences of spelling shame which have been burned into my memory. Sometimes, part of speech therapy is “shame busting” (especially in stuttering therapy), so here I am, busting my own shame on spelling:

  • Sitting in class and doing “peer spelling tests”. For some reason I just couldn’t get “clothes” right. Another kid from a neighbouring peer leaned over and said “huh! Can’t you spell clothes, that’s easy!” I think this was the point when I started “putting up my defences” on spelling. That is, either taking a “who cares about spelling” attitude, or making excuses for my spelling errors.
  • Fast-forward to my teenage years and writing hand written notes back and forward to a boy I liked (ooh la la!) – taking special care to disclose “I’m writing this really early in the morning, so sorry if I make any spelling mistakes”. When he got back to me the spelling check came back all clear, apart from the one word I had missed (“until”, where I had used a double L).
  • Around the same time my younger sister (7 years my junior!) discovered a spelling error in my homework on the word “muscles”. To be fair she was a pretty smart kid, and my spelling was really off. She took special care to have a good laugh at the time, and brought it up several times in the future in front of my friends “remember when you couldn’t spell the word muscles, and I had to tell you how!” I chose the “who cares” defensive approach for this one.
  • Fast-forward to now(ish) – well, as a professional adult (who teaches spelling!!!) I still don’t want to be caught out with my spelling, so here are some of the tricks which I have used to avoid this: relabel spelling errors as “typos” rather than admit that I was a bit fuzzy on the spelling of the word. For handwritten notes, if I am not 100% sure on the word I might swap it out for one I know I can spell. Checking and rechecking words I do know how to spell, just to make sure. (NB – the above strategies are not recommended!)

So, what have I learned about spelling that I wish I had been taught early in my schooling?

  1. Letters and groups of letters represent sounds (up to four letters per sound). We can segment words into sounds, and then write the graphemes which correspond with each sound (no, it’s not just a bunch of letters!)

NB – graphemes are letters or groups of letters which represent a sound. For example “igh” is a grapheme with three letters, “p” is a grapheme with one letter.

  • There can be many ways to spell one sound, but some spellings are more common than others, and are more likely to occur in specific contexts. Further to this, I wish I had been taught to identify graphemes in words, and then MAKE LINKS to other words. For example: For a long time I stumbled over the word “colleague”, spelling the “coll” and then just “giving it a go” with the rest, and using spell checker. The last time I needed to spell colleague, I decided that I would practice what I teach. I broke down the last part of the word into sounds and their corresponding graphemes ea-gue. I compared it to other words that use the same graphemes (ee as in each and sea, gue as in vague and league). I’m pleased to say with a high degree of confidence that this word will not be tripping me up again!
  • I wish I had been taught reading and writing in a more integrated format. One which was systematic and explicit without a focus on letter names (and without so many spelling tests!)

I do not blame anybody for my spelling misadventures, as at the end of the day, everybody is doing their best. However, we do know better now, and must take special care to ensure that teachers and parents have access to the appropriate information and resources so that each student can reach their potential with reading and writing.

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