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The Right(est) Way To Teach Spelling (part 3)

Updated: Jun 3

The Right(est) Way To Teach Spelling (part 3) - Aidan Severs Consulting Education Consultant

I initially thought part 3 of this blog series would be an exploration of the linguistically explicit instructional techniques that teachers could use in the classroom. However, I was asked a question which led to the writing of this blog post. I thought that rather than saving this for part 4, it might actually be a good idea to share this as part 3 as it speaks into current practice and doesn't require huge changes. The contents of this post should help teachers to think about how their assessment and feedback of children's spelling tests and written work might help children to improve in spelling.

If you have not yet read the rest of the parts of this series, click here to catch up:

An important aspect of the teaching of spelling is, as with any subject, the feedback that is given to children about their spelling.

There are two ways that spelling is most often assessed: in tests and in written work.

Spelling Tests

Commonly, with the teaching of spelling, children are provided with a list of spellings which they are given a week to learn before they are tested (regardless of whether or not they have learned them in the interim). Some form of marking will then take place: self-, peer- or teacher-assessed depending probably on teacher's preference (and there are merits and pitfalls to each). Often the marks of this test will be recorded somewhere (in many cases for very little purpose).

Written Work

The other way that spelling is 'assessed' (in the loosest sense of the word) is when teachers are reviewing written work in English and across other subjects where written outcomes are produced. Within this there are a range of practices often depending on what school leaders have written in to policy: all incorrectly spelled words must be underlined; a certain number of mistakes must be identified for children to correct; all high frequency words must be highlighted for children to edit with purple pen; corrections will be made by teachers in a particular colour pen - the iterations of this will be endless.

But do the above forms of assessment actually help children to learn and to improve their spelling?

What Is Feedback?

In order to answer this, we must return to what we think constitutes feedback. Essentially, feedback is a part of the assessment process - a teacher cannot give feedback unless they have first reviewed the work a child has completed. By discussing this using the terms 'review' and 'feedback' we avoid the term 'marking', therefore allowing us to sidestep some potentially ineffective practice.

When it comes to feedback there is one particular thing to remember: feedback can either be the feedback that teachers give to children OR it can be the feedback that teachers get for themselves after reviewing a child's work. And it's this second kind of feedback that really opens the gate for much more effective practice.

But before we delve into that, let's just take a moment to mine the depths of the first kind of feedback in the context of spelling.

How Might We Give Feedback on Spelling?

When a child gets a spelling wrong, either in a test or in their writing, what feedback can we give?

We can tell them, in one way or another, that it is wrong but to be honest, I can't think of what purpose this serves for children whose ability to spell we are concerned about. Most probably it is just demoralising and has the potential to put children off the other aspects of writing such as being creative. A child who has been told a spelling is wrong may try to correct it and in some cases (more on this later) may actually succeed in correctly spelling the word the second time round. However, we all know that this certainly wouldn't be the case for the majority of children who for one reason or another struggle with spelling.

We can tell them that it is wrong and that they need to correct it. See above - telling a child to correct a word doesn't necessarily mean that they will be able to. But this approach doesn't take into account the difference between a mistake and a misconception. If a child has made a mistake then this implies that actually they do know how to spell the word but just got it wrong out of absent-mindedness as they concentrated on their creativity, the content, their handwriting and various other sentence level and text level features.

A misconception, on the other hand, is something else altogether. Misconceptions arise from incomplete learning - perhaps they weren't present on the day something was taught, or they weren't listening because they were thinking about something that had happened at home, or that they got the wrong end of the stick and internalised what they thought to be correct.

Spelling Mistakes or Spelling Misconceptions?

First of all, teachers must attempt to determine whether the misspelled word is as a result of a mistake or a misconception.

Here are some questions that can help to ascertain this: Has the child been taught the relevant spelling patterns for this word? Has this child spelled this word correctly before? Is the spelling phonetically plausible? Have they picked the wrong grapheme for the phoneme? Have they chosen the wrong phoneme altogether? Is the incorrect word an ambitious choice that you wouldn't expect them to be able to spell? Is the misspelling a homophone for the word they were trying to spell?

We can tell them that it is wrong and can point towards a particular part of the word where the spelling mistake can be found (for example, a child has written 'ei' instead of 'ie'). This is a better option as it attempts to address the mistake not as a whole word but acknowledges that the incorrectly spelled word is made up of several parts and that perhaps only one part of the word is spelled wrongly.

Feedback To Teachers

But let's go back to that other definition of feedback - the kind of feedback that teachers take for themselves having reviewed work. Where spellings are incorrect, as teachers we must consider what we can do, rather than what the child can do. What must we teach in the future in order to begin to address the spelling needs? To whom will we teach it? Will it be 1:1, with a group or do the whole class need it? How will we teach it? What methods of instruction will we employ?

Unless a child has just made a genuine mistake and we can be certain of that, there is very little point in giving the kind of feedback that requires a child to correct their work. Spending time writing an explanation for how to correct their spellings is too time-consuming when you have a whole class of children potentially making their own individual mistakes. Asking children to write out whole words several times in the hope that it will help them to remember the spelling is almost certainly futile - it doesn't attend to the fact that words are made up parts and that we learn to spell best by understanding the phoneme-grapheme correspondence of the different parts of the word.

The best practice when it comes to addressing spelling misconceptions is to teach in a linguistically explicit way. Make a note of what the needs are when reviewing children's writing and then plan to address these needs in your teaching. It might feel good to choose a number of spellings for a child to correct because it feels like you are doing something however it likely won't have much of an impact.

If you are required to respond visibly in some way, go for the most basic errors - high frequency words, current pieces of vocabulary that you have been explicitly studying, and if all these are present and correct, words that match spelling patterns for the current year group (particularly ones that have already been taught).

In the next blog post (unless I get waylaid by some other aspect of the right(est) way to teach spelling) we will finally explore exactly what we might so in the classroom to actually teach spelling in a linguistically explicit way.

If you would like Aidan to work with you on developing spelling at your school, please use the contact details below or complete the contact form by clicking on the 'contact' link above.

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