I have begun to resent this latest trend for endless spelling practice homework from my children’s primary schools and wonder why we have to endure the drudge of endless, relentless spelling, spelling, and spelling?
Easy homework to mark, I cynically suspected, but I have now discovered that it is not the teachers who are responsible, but the Department for Education, which has introduced a new KS2 English grammar, punctuation and spelling test – so that explains it!
But, why? Why have educators decided that spelling is key? Is this part of the conservatives “back to basics” agenda, or is there evidence to suggest that this endless practice and testing of spelling will reap rewards for our children?
Learning to recognise High Frequency words is useful, I can understand this, but why do our list of spellings include words like “campanology” and “Primula”?
The research of reading Specialist Susan Jones, M.Ed. tells us that spelling improves reading and writing fluency and how it improves vocabulary and comprehension. She writes that:
“Rather than relegate spelling to a back burner, spelling can and should be an integral part of language instruction for every student. It is mortar that helps students master the basics of language, especially students who may struggle with reading. Rather than dismiss it as a frill to “focus harder” on reading, teaching spelling and handwriting enables a struggling student to use different senses and strengths to learn and master the relationship between the sounds and symbols of our language, which is the backbone of reading. Other students will be able to more deeply understand the patterns of our complex language and become master communicators”.
“Spelling is not simple, but when people understand its structure, it is perfectly decodable and not limited to people “born to spell” to understand. For example, many people struggle with spelling the word “broccoli.” Which letter should be doubled? If a student – or teacher or parent – understands the syllable types of the English language, the word makes sense. “Closed” syllables end in a consonant and have a short vowel sound. Open syllables end in a vowel. Often, a consonant is doubled so that a vowel is clearly short, including when we add suffixes. Examples are bagged, collie, and broccoli, which would be divided into syllables as broc – co – li. Perhaps it’s unfortunate that people who are naturally good at spelling and reading are likely to be teaching it; they may not have needed to have these rules explained, or perhaps don’t remember the explanations because they did not have to practice them”.
I can see that the usefulness of understanding spelling structure, as outlined above, but I am not convinced that my 11-year-old is absorbing this. I am sorry to say that he practices the words on Thursday night, gets most of them right in the test on Friday and then they are forgotten again by Saturday. I do take out the dictionary and talk to him about the meanings of words I don’t think he knows or understands, but he shows little interest. He even insists that I test the words in the order they are written, because that way they are easier to remember and that is how they will be tested the next day.
I might put myself in the category of “people who are naturally good…at reading”, but I am good at reading despite the fact that I am hopeless at spelling! I cannot spell a large proportion of the words on my 11-year-old’s spelling list, but I can read them.
I worry that my children will be so fed up with learning endless lists of words that they will never experience the satisfaction I felt when I discovered the meaning of a new word. Learning a new word was a pleasure for me, not because I had a list to learn, understood how it was constructed, and got 10 out of 10 for a test, but because I enjoyed discovering new, interesting and unusual words and finding an opportunity to use them.
I fear that this new passion for spelling is part of the tick-box culture of our education system, leaving no room for fun or joy for pupils or teachers. More of a conveyor belt than a journey of discovery – it certainly leaves me sad and cold.