Education: The sweet spell of success: Theorists cannot agree on the best way to teach spelling, but schools often find that a mixture of methods works best. Diana Hinds reports

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NOBODY knows precisely how a child learns to read. Learning to spell, an intimately related but subtly different process, is equally complex. Some children 'catch' good spelling more easily than others and it remains with them for life. But educationists are divided on how best to help those who have difficulties.

Good reading and good spelling do not always go hand in hand. Encouragement to read at home as well as at school undoubtedly helps, but simply reading more books will not teach children to spell: in reading, unlike spelling, the child does not need to look at every letter in every word.

Improving spelling becomes harder the older you get. The Government is determined to identify and help children with spelling problems from the first years of primary school, and the National Curriculum Council is discussing controversial proposals which would require specific attainments in spelling for each age group.

The council believes, for example, that seven-year-olds should be able to spell words such as sun, leaf and desk; nine-year-olds should be taught to distinguish between words in same-sounding groups such as there, their and they're; 11-year-olds should be able to spell business, procession and signature; and 15- and 16-year-olds should cope with accommodate, acquaintance and conscience. All children, from eight or nine upwards, should learn to use dictionaries and check through their work for mistakes.

Many teachers complain that this approach is unnecessarily narrow and prescriptive compared with the existing curriculum, agreed four years ago, which encourages attention to spelling in the more general context of children's writing. But teachers and educationists already disagree over whether spelling is best taught through a visual approach - learning what words look like - or through phonics (the system of 'sounding out' words: c-a-t spells cat), which most schools use to some extent in teaching reading. Both the look- and-learn and sounding-out approaches are recommended by the Government's advisers.

Research published in 1970 by Margaret Peters, a leading authority on spelling, identified three factors in primary-school children that are particularly associated with spelling - verbal intelligence, visual perception of word form and carefulness. She suggested that children with weaknesses in any two areas were likely to have problems.

Her findings gave strong support to the belief that accurate spelling is largely to do with visual memory for words rather than auditory memory - not least because of the number of irregular spellings in English. Adults, when not sure of a word, will often write it down 'to see if it looks right'.

The principal technique for encouraging the development of visual memory is known as 'look, cover, write, check'. Teachers (or parents) write down the word and help the child to commit it to memory rather than simply copy it. This is harder work than simply shouting out the letters one by one, but, if taught early on, it should become a habit.

A recent study of spelling among 11- and 15-year-olds by the National Foundation for Educational Research suggested that this method needed more emphasis in schools, since the most common mistakes involved same-sounding words where a strategy based only on letter sound could not help. It recommended that word lists for children should be organised according to visual pattern, regardless of the way they are pronounced: 'tomb, womb, comb, bomb, Womble', for example.

But critics of the 'look, cover, write, check' approach say it can result in children reproducing the right clusters of letters in the wrong order, for instance 'drak' for 'dark'. Joyce Morris, co-founder of the UK Reading Association, is a strong advocate of the phonics approach to spelling. She has devised the Morris-Montessori word list, claiming that about 90 per cent of words in the English language can be spelt by sounding them out according to a system of 44 speech sounds.

For this to be effective, however, teachers need specialist training in phonics. 'The problem is that most people who become teachers have usually learnt to read and to spell quite easily, and haven't seen the necessity to make these things explicit,' she says.

As with reading, the best way to teach spelling would seem to be by combining methods. Dr Morris agrees: 'I believe in a multi-sensory approach - a 'look, articulate, write, check' method, if you like, where children also say the word: it's only if you say it to yourself that you get an impression on your brain.'

As well as visual and auditory memory, motor memory (the way the hand actually writes the word) needs to come into play. Fluent, well-formed handwriting is bound to help good spelling. Some schools have started teaching joined-up script to five- or six-year-olds rather than introducing it when children are about eight, partly as a way of helping them to learn spelling patterns.

Spelling rules such as the often repeated 'i before e except after c' have limited use, since few are entirely reliable. As for old-fashioned spelling tests, few schools now conduct them, although some test small groups of children more informally.

Holyport Primary School, near Maidenhead, Berkshire, sets Friday morning spelling tests for all except the youngest children - but word games such as lotto and Junior Scrabble are also encouraged as a way of improving spelling through sheer enjoyment of language. Johanna Raffan, the headmistress, says that the approach accounts for most children having a spelling age of 14 by the time they are 11. 'For the majority of children, spelling is taught not caught, and you do need to work at it - there does have to be an element of rote-learning,' she says.

Wordplay, jokes, rhymes and poems are important spelling aids - little and often. Redrafting and proofreading can be valuable, although some teachers are sceptical, saying children read back what they think they have written rather than what they have actually written. Others emphasise links between spelling and meaning, particularly for older children: the word conscience, for instance, becomes easier to spell when you realise it is 'science' plus 'con'.

Ultimately, each child will use the methods that work for him or her, however idiosyncratic. Jennifer Chew, an English teacher at Strode's Sixth Form College, Egham, reported the case of a 16-year-old girl who persistently spelt 'surround' as 'serround' until she got it into her head that the correct spelling was the same as her home county - Surrey. 'What I tell my classes is, find a clue if you can in the meaning of the word; if not, then go for a gimmick.'

(Photograph omitted)