(This article was originally written for and printed by The Mother magazine 2016 and is re-printed with kind permission)
A Holistic Approach to Spelling
‘I have a correspondent whose letters are always a refreshment to me, there is such a breezy unfettered originality about his orthography. He always spells Kow with a large K. Now that is not just as good as to spell it with a small one. It is better. It gives the imagination a broader field, a wider scope. It suggests to the mind a grand, vague, impressive new kind of a cow’ – Mark Twain
A beautifully written and correctly spelled essay or story is a pleasure to read of course, but nothing is more delicious and sweet as the spelling of an emergent writer. Not many things make me smile more than the inventive spellings of a child who hasn’t yet been ruined by phonic tuition. When my daughter was 5 she used to write entire sentences backwards. I used to think that was pretty amazing. I’d seen mirror writing often but mostly just odd words. L wrote whole sentences in perfect mirror image. At about 6 or so this stopped entirely; I found it to be rather a shame. She also spelled words quite oddly, not the kind of phonic attempts you often find in young children’s writing, but really odd spellings with lots of consonants grouped together. Now at 9 her spelling is far more accurate. I have literally watched her grow up in the words she writes and how she writes them. It is like her character splashed over a page in ink. As her spelling improves, some of that character vanishes. Her spelling is more conformist, but then that is what we want isn’t it?
In historical terms, a single spelling system is relatively recent. In the Middle Ages there were hundreds of ways to spell common words. For example the word ‘through’ was spelt in the following variations: drowgh, yhurght, trghug and trowffe.
According to Wikipedia, the spelling of William Shakespeare’s name has varied over time. It was not consistently spelled any single way during his lifetime, in manuscript or in printed form. After his death the name was spelled variously by editors of his work and the spelling was not fixed until well into the 20th century. Many arguments occurred during the fixing of the spelling of Shakespeare and at one point people assumed there must be three different Shakespeare’s; the actor, the author and the man from Stratford.
I love that little anecdote and it explains clearly why we do need some spelling rules! We need some uniformity so that we can all communicate effectively.
The English language has a remarkably large vocabulary. The Oxford English Dictionary lists about 500,000 words. The language contains at least a further half million technical and scientific terms. The influence of so many other languages and English’s various main sources – Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, and French – mean that we have synonyms when many other languages do not.
In addition, another feature of English vocabulary is that many common words in English have been, and continue to be, borrowed from other languages all over the world. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, lists about 900 of these “loan words” coming from India alone. You can also find borrowings from Hebrew, Arabic, Malay, Chinese, the languages of Java, Tahiti and Polynesia. This helps to explain why the English language has one of the richest vocabularies in the languages of the world. Did you know, for example, that ‘sofa’ is an Arabic word and that ‘marmalade’ derives from Portugal?
The English language is far from static. It changes as society changes; new developments and inventions require new words, and people travel. The English vocabulary is in a constant state of renewal with new words and expressions entering the language and other ones disappearing. We even have an urban dictionary, an online source of youth speak updated by its own users. There are new meanings for old words, and some entirely made up words, such as ‘slapperdoodle’ which apparently means ‘an unexpected but not entirely unwanted event, such a puppy licking your face’. There are also many variations of spelling conventions, such as the wide use of acronyms in social media: LMAO, LOL, AITR (adult in the room!) There is even the use of numbers to communicate online or via text. The number 9 means a parent is watching and 99 means a parent is no longer watching. The occasional new urban word makes it in to the Oxford English Dictionary and therefore becomes an accepted part of language system.
In the last few years, the Oxford Junior Dictionary has omitted a variety of nature related words, like bluebell and conker, in favour of online media related words, such as, chatroom and blog. It’s a changing world and the job of the Oxford Dictionaries is to document that change in language.
‘…ours is a mongrel language which started with a child’s vocabulary of three hundred words, and now consists of two hundred and twenty-five thousand; the whole lot, with the exception of the original and legitimate three hundred, borrowed, stolen, smouched from every unwatched language under the sun, the spelling of each individual word of the lot locating the source of the theft and preserving the memory of the revered crime.’ -Mark Twain
A ‘mongrel’ language indeed, but personally I think this is what makes the English Language at once so beautiful, with such a multitude of words to express oneself at our fingertips, and on the other hand a tricky customer to master.
A home educating friend recently asked my advice on how to improve their child’s spelling. She listed the different online programs she was using and various other methods. Did I have any other ideas? How did I teach my children spelling?
My son is learning to read and he enjoys writing notes and messages to people. I don’t tend to correct spellings, but because the atmosphere of learning is relaxed in our house, I find he is very happy to ask. He has a spelling mat with high frequency words on it, his topic words, word families and any words he wants to add which he can refer to as he writes. We sometimes spend time working on his words by clapping the syllables, noticing phonemes, making them in clay, looking up their meanings, painting picture cues as a memory aid, feeling the shape of the words as we say them, playing fun games that he has made up and so forth. I keep the sessions short and varied and best of all, he enjoys it, in fact he asks to do it!
My daughter is a self-confessed book worm. She tells me that she adores writing too. She is currently writing a set of books for beginner readers. I hardly feel inclined to spoil all this by interjecting with a bunch of spelling rules. L will ask me for help with words she can’t spell and luckily for her she has a great visual memory and seems to be picking spelling up from reading and asking me when she gets stuck. Her spelling mat is collecting dust somewhere and she has long since learnt the words on it without ever glancing at it.
I believe it helps too that I love to read and write, though the thought of a spelling test still sends a shiver down my spine. I was never a ‘natural’ speller, I probably only really learnt to spell at University when I was studying English and Education. I had to learn all the spelling rules in order to teach them. However, I did and still do find words truly beautiful and spelling is part of that of course. Effective writing requires a fluidity that comes from having fluent spelling. Spelling aids writing and though we can all rely on spell checkers these days, they won’t cure all spelling disasters.
Some children, like my daughter, simply learn to spell via reading and will require little or no formal instruction. Lucky them! However, you cannot assume that will be the case for all children. She is blessed with a strong visual memory and keen auditory skills. My son on the other hand, has difficulty in both those areas and is more kinaesthetically inclined. For those children, like my son, who need a more structured approach, here are a few ideas to support them.
Learning to spell should be a multi-sensory. Far too often we seem to rely on sight and hearing for spelling. How about noticing how the word feels when you say it? What shapes do your tongue and mouth make? In knowing the difference between ‘f’ and ‘th’ for example, try saying the sound slowly and see how very different the shapes our mouth and tongue make.
What about touch and movement? Feel the shape of a particular word as you paint it, or create the word from clay.
Spelling can be helped by movement memory, which means that the practise of joined handwriting does aid accurate spelling. I was taught that the best handwriting for dyslexic learners was continuous cursive because each letter starts at the bottom. Whilst this may be true for some learners, years of teaching has taught me that we must remain flexible. I would never stick to a particular style of handwriting that actively causes a child distress.
Learning via meaning
The prime concern of letters is not how they sound but what they mean. When we write, we do so to convey meaning. Words are like building blocks, made up of different parts.
Phonics is a mere part of the puzzle of words, so learning it in isolation is not particularly helpful. It also gives little credence to the fact that words are made of meaningful segments.
Learning to spell via ‘whole’ language is another method, but no matter how great your visual memory is, it would be pretty hard to memorise every word just by the way it looks.
The missing link as it were, is meaning. Children might enjoy creating their own dictionaries and investigating the origins of the words. They could analyse roots of words such as cand, which is of Latin origin and means glowing, iridescent. Words with this root in common include: candid-free from bias, prejudice or malice; candle- something that gives light; incandescent- white, glowing, or luminous with intense heat.
We should aim to engage a child’s sense of wonder when supporting our children in any language arts skill. They could for instance add a collection of words they find truly beautiful to their dictionaries. Everyone’s list would be different of course, but here are some words I love: phosphorescence –the emission of light by bioluminescent plankton; epiphany –a moment of sudden revelation; serendipity – the chance occurrence of events in a beneficial way.
Spelling can be fun
Ultimately the best kind of learning is when a child feels motivated. If learning is fun then motivation will be high.
Here are some ideas your child might find fun to try:
*mnemonics – this is fun to use for those complicated words that a child consistently spells wrong. It requires thinking up words for each letter, like because=big elephants can always understand small elephants or how about necessary=naughty eagles can eat slimy snails and runny yogurt
*Make a little box of spelling rules. I like the small boxes with A5 sized cards in. They often include alphabetical order cards. When your child learns a rule, pop it in the box under the right letter so s/he can locate it to revise.
* Try visualisation techniques to learn tricky words with no rule. Ask your child to close their eyes and imagine the word ‘said’. Imagine the letter ‘s’ as a Snake slithering along the ground until it spots an Ant, the snake flicks out its long tongue and eats the ant. Next it spots an Inch worm…..at first snake isn’t sure if he should eat inch worm as it looked so similar to him, but he was hungry, so ate him up. Snake was now feeling sluggish and rested by a tree. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a Dragonfly. O’h it looked so tasty! He stretched his head up to reach dragonfly, but dragonfly fluttered higher. Snake balanced on the tip of his tail and opened his mouth wide, but dragonfly simply flew higher and into the clouds. Ask your child to imagine the clouds puffy and white making the word ‘SAID’.
Your child might like to paint the scene showing the snake, the ant, inch worm, dragonfly and the clouds above in the shape of the word.
I save visualisation’s like this to help my children with words they continually misspell over a prolonged period. I certainly wouldn’t use it for lots of spellings. If you use it too much you will find your child just becomes muddled. Also be aware that visualisation takes some practise, so if your child is not used to this way of working, keep it simple, ask them to imagine the letters in SAID placed on rungs on a ladder and forget long convoluted stories!
*Any game can be a spelling game. On his/her move a child could attempt to spell a word they are learning. I have used draughts, darts and Jenga and adapted them to make spelling games. Simple games work best. Spelling darts is the most fun, kids love it. You could also practise spelling words as you skip, reciting a letter each time you jump rope.
*Find ways to strengthen your child’s memory by playing games like ‘pairs’ with cards or ‘The tray Game’ where a child tries to memorise items on a tray, or perhaps ‘I went on holiday ‘ and then list items to pack in a suitcase. Poor spellers often have memory difficulties at the root of the issue, so spending time improving memory will help.
Personally I would avoid the traditional ‘spelling tests’ for young children (or any child). I feel they divorce words from their context, thus making them meaningless. Young children do not have the wealth of experience with language to work with a list of words. You may find a child can learn a list of words but then cannot apply it to their free writing, most likely because it has not been committed to long term memory.
Having said that, some children find spelling quizzes fun, especially when they are done spontaneously, say on a long car journey and by their own suggestion.
If your child asks you to help them with their spelling, make it enjoyable and never confuse creative tasks with spelling tasks. Decide what the focus is and stick to it.
To me, words are the gateway to a person’s inner world. Essentially words are about expression of individual thoughts, feelings and desires. When you focus a young writer too much on spelling you effectively hand-cuff their soul. A child who worries overly on the mechanical aspects of writing will write cautiously, often choosing simple words they know they can spell. Many children decide they hate writing at this point. It becomes something to endure, rather than a natural extension of their creative being. Some children stop writing altogether and once this happens it can be very hard to re-ignite the flame. They can find the spark again by listening to and reading quality literature and by engaging with texts through art and drama. Eventually, in time, these children should find the motivation to write once again, especially if they are supported in purposeful self-chosen writing tasks which are meaningful to them.
It is not that I believe spelling is unimportant, quite the contrary, but I do believe strongly in teaching that is appropriate to a particular child’s developmental timeframe and in giving children creative freedom. Wait for your child to ask for help and then use some of the above strategies to support them. Like all learning, spelling is a life-long journey.
My spelling is Wobbly. It’s good spelling but it Wobbles, and the letters get in the wrong places -A.A. Milne
I feel that’s the state of my own spelling now, wobbly but enough to get me through a spell checker, so it’s good enough. If a child is not talented at spelling, then good enough to get by is just fine. Good enough that it does not halt the flow of creativity.
There have long been calls to simplify our language to make spelling easier, but for me that would amount to dumbing it down and thus taking away its beauty
Twain, Mark 1875 quote taken from a speech reported in the Hartford Courant http://www.twainquotes.com
Twain, Mark 2010 Autobiography of Mark Twain edited by Harriet Elinor Smith, University of California Press