GCSE Students Will Lose Marks For Poor Spelling From September 2012 – How Can We Help Children Improve Their Spelling?

Spelling is costing UK online businesses millions of pounds every year according to a BBC article published last year. A single spelling mistake on a website can halve a company’s online sales. Many employers complain about poor spelling skills in their workforce.

Do your children struggle to spell the simplest of words? Whent, theay, carnt, couldent, gynormus, frend, these are just a few of the common misspelt words I have come across. So have spelling levels decreased, and if so what are the reasons for this?

I have worked with very bright children who still struggle to spell. Poor readers often struggle with spelling and it has often been thought that poor spelling was linked to poor reading. However, I have, over the last 5 years, become more aware that we have strong readers with poor spelling skills. So what are the reasons for this?

I believe that strong readers should result in strong spellers. Children should be encouraged to look at whether a word looks right. In my experience there have been a number of changes in the emphasis of teaching which have influenced children’s experience of spelling

1) a too heavy reliance on phonics both for reading and spelling.

2) a focus away from correcting spellings in favour of creativity.

3) the development of emergent writing at too early an age.

4) a heavier reliance on IT.

Too heavy reliance on phonics

The English language is a phonetically irregular language and there are many exceptions to every rule in English. We have 26 letters of the alphabet which are used to form 44 speech sounds and even then there are several ways of writing the same sound. Take the sound oa, this can be written oa as in boat, oe as in toe, ow as in snow, o as in go or o-e as in hose, just to name a few. If we take the sound er there are also a number of combinations er as in feather, or as in doctor, ir as in girl, a as in banana, ur as in fur, ure as in measure. If, very early on in a child’s learning they are taught that a is for apple, how then can they decode words such as was and said? They learn to read and write phonetically, resulting in ‘sed’. Some children assimilate the rules of reading and spelling and become confident readers and spellers. Many partially move on but still become reliant on a phonetic approach to spelling.

So what is the answer? I have used many spelling programmes over the years. Children need to know the names of the letters of the alphabet and know that these can be arranged in many different ways to create different sounds for reading and spelling. Sometimes the same sound can be made using different letter combinations. I used to have a large THRASS chart in my classroom which was a visual reminder to children that there is more than one way to make a sound when spelling. Vowel sounds cause the most difficulty as there are only 5 letters to make 20 different sounds with. Teaching spellings in word families helps and teaching words with the same sound ie ea words alongside ee words beach, teach, steal, steel, feel. This helps children to learn that they need to remember and learn visually which graphemes (letters) they need for which word. Children often struggle with homophones (words which sound the same but are spelt differently), there, their, they’re. Try pointing these out as they occur in reading or find ways to remember the differences; their with an i in it is to do with a person/ animal, as in I for me, there with the word here in it is to do with place or position. Children need to learn early that English is a phonetically irregular language and therefore phonics can not be applied consistently -either to reading or spelling.

A focus away from correcting spellings in favour of creativity

I believe that failing to correct spellings in favour of creativity is a mistake, it is very difficult to correct misconceptions once they have been ingrained. A child in Year One may write creatively and write the word gigantic as jigantic: if this is uncorrected the child will presume that the spelling is correct and therefore continue to spell it this way. At some point he will be told that the spelling is incorrect and then will have to try to reprogram his brain. I am not saying that we should make children re-write large pieces of writing, but I do believe that the correct word should be written next to the misspelt one to aid with children’s spelling development. High frequency words which are misspelt should be written at the bottom of a child’s piece of work for them to practice (said, went). I believe it is essential to correct spelling misconceptions early.

The development of emergent writing at too early an age.

Children as young as 4 are being encouraged to write. In my opinion this is too early. Many children develop poor pencil grip and handwriting and are left to invent spellings, building misconceptions. Children should become confident readers before they begin to write, that way they have an understanding of how text is constructed, how words look and how punctuation is used. Too often, poor habits are formed early and then these are difficult to break. If children are going to write at an early age, a transcript should be made underneath the child’s writing so that correct spelling and punctuation can be modeled.

A heavier reliance on IT

With a greater reliance on IT in the last 15-20 years we are all relying more on spell checks. Sometimes these fail us as they only pick up misspelt words, not mistyped words. They are also only able to make spelling suggestions if the word is almost spelt correctly. In the UK, exams are still completed as written tasks and in the last few years there has been a greater emphasis on spelling and grammar in the marking of GCSE English papers. From September 2012 5% of marks on GCSE papers in the key subjects will be awarded for spelling, grammar and punctuation and this could make the difference of a grade: End for GCSE modules and spelling, punctuation and grammar marks restored to exams

So what can you do to help your child become a better speller?

1) Always correct misspelt words.

2) Highlight to your child that the letters of the alphabet can be arranged in many different ways to make different sounds and that the same sound can be made using more than one combination.

3) Avoid teaching one letter has one sound.

4) Pay attention to homophones, check these regularly and find ways to remember these.

5) Encourage children to look at whether a word looks right, make the link between reading and spelling, use a dictionary (even an online one) to check words that children are not sure how to spell.

6) Try using a pneumonic to remember tricky words because baby elephants can’t always use scissors easily.

7) Try writing the word in different colours (rainbow spelling) friend

At Kip McGrath Scunthorpe we believe that an over-reliance on phonics is jeopardising children’s abilities to spell proficiently at an early age thereby detrimentally impacting on their life chances. With an increased emphasis on spelling at GCSE level and a steady decline in spelling standards being seen nationwide amongst the adult population it is essential, for both the economy and children as individuals, that students are given all the tools they need in order to become proficient readers and writers. At Kip Mcgrath Scunthorpe we support parents through the use of proven tutoring methods to equip our students with everything they need to read, write and spell accurately and fluently, giving them the best possible start in life..

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