Penny Slater is Assistant Lead Adviser for Primary English at Herts for Learning

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There is no denying the fact that the National Curriculum 2014 has catapulted spelling at KS2 into the literacy limelight, and the latest interim assessment framework document, which states the importance of correct spelling, has further intensified the focus of attention on this somewhat contentious element of the English language. I for one am thrilled about this. For far too long, spelling has had to play second fiddle to its bolshie rivals, sneaking under the feedback radar in favour of a focus on sentence construction and grammatical accuracy. This side-lining has led to a skewed perception of spelling as an add-on to the process of becoming literate, rather than an integral part of it.

‘Bad guy’ reputation

My suspicions have been confirmed during recent Continuous Professional Development sessions when I have begun the training by asking teachers to rate their feelings towards different aspects of language and learning, using a 1-10 scale (10 indicating that the person holds very positive feelings about this aspect; 1 meaning the opposite). I asked teachers to rate the following areas accordingly: poetry, grammar, history, spelling, literature. Sure enough, a discrepancy often appeared, with – you’ve guessed it – a love of spelling languishing behind the other disciplines.

Following on from this activity, I then try my very best to convince teachers that their dislike (and let’s face it – distrust) of English spelling as the ‘bad guy’ of English is unjustified and illogical. Here’s how I put it: if you have a penchant for history then you should love spelling. It is, in fact, the living embodiment of history, right there, in front of you, staring you in the face. With just a little nudge, it is not hard to conjure up an image of a medieval scribe, bent over his parchment, quill in hand, faced with the arduous decision of how to represent the long vowel sound in the much used word of the time: ‘stake’.

After much deliberation, he opted for the split digraph (e.g. a – e as in ‘stake’). And so it was decided: the split digraph would be the way of marking a long vowel digraph. Job done! Or at least that is what he must have thought. Just imagine then, the heated discussion that must have arisen several hundred years later when scribes were faced with the same sounding word, entering the language from Nordic parts, to describe a piece of meat. What were they to do? Keep the same spelling? That, of course, could lead to confusion. So the decision was made that when new words entered the language, and they sounded like existing words, they would be spelt differently, hence the introduction of the long vowel sound represented by two adjacent vowels (e.g. steak), and the birth of the homophone. And so the variations began.

How to capture the interest

So what value does this information hold when it comes to the task of inspiring KS2 children (and sometimes teachers) to enjoy spelling? David Crystal (British linguist, academic and author) puts it like this:

 

Explaining why words are spelled the way they are can help us remember them. The stories behind the spellings are often fascinating, and interest adds motivation.

 

In my experience, providing a narrative, a rationale for why our spelling system might have ended up the way it is, gives spelling acquisition a new edge. Helping the children to imagine the real people, who had to make those real decisions that ultimately shaped our language, can make the information more tangible and relevant. Ultimately, it brings a subject, that – let’s face it, can be as dry as dust – to life.

I am not suggesting for one minute that we all need to become scholars of the English language in order to teach spelling well. I am not an English language scholar myself – far from it. As a teacher, our mission in acquiring knowledge has a very specific purpose. We want to know enough of the juicy bits to light the fire of interest for the children. We must know enough about our subject to stimulate their interest and imagination. Our aim must be to make the nugget of information we are imparting juicy enough to stick. This information then acts as a magnet, attracting more and more information. I know enough therefore, to make the subject come alive for the children. Acquiring knowledge of the juicy bits isn’t as hard as you may think. Once you know a little, you become intrigued and then you want to find out more. Here are a few tasty morsels to get you started:

 

Did you know that …?

The letter string ‘ii’ is, apparently, an ‘unacceptable combination’ in English spelling. This is why we see apparent exceptions to the ‘change the y to an i before adding the suffix’ rule when adding vowel suffixes (cry + es = cries, but not cry + ing = criing; instead we retain the ‘y’ = crying). Apparently, this is because, when handwritten in connected script, this can look too much like the letter ‘u’. In my reading, I have come across this term ‘unacceptable combination’, on many occasions, and I don’t know why, but I like it. I like to come across a rule that is so solid, so undeniable, so irrefutable, that scholars feel confident enough to use words like ‘unacceptable’! I like sharing this term with the children. I usually find that this makes the knowledge stick! What I then love is when an inquisitive child (or teacher) offers the heckle: ‘What about skiing?’ The cognitive effort that must have gone into seeking out this exception is worthy of praise in itself, and as a teacher, this is surely worthy of a mini fist-pump moment. After all, making the children think is what we are all about. This is, of course, a true exception, along with ‘taxiing’ which they are probably less likely to offer. True exceptions like this are to be noted and celebrated. If we can get the children to enjoy and delight in finding those words that don’t follow the rules, rather than be affronted by them, I feel we have won half the battle.

 

Top Tip

When I have supported schools to develop their subject knowledge and skills in teaching spelling at KS2, I have urged them to introduce a spelling ‘Wonder Wall’. Here is where the children can ask those spelling questions that are puzzling them. These can be wild and wacky; precocious and pretentious. It doesn’t matter: the most important thing is that they are asking them. You can start the ball rolling with a few of your own puzzlers:

What has ‘secret’ got to do with being a secretary?

Why is there a ‘w’ in ‘two’?

Which is correct: spelt or spelled? (All of these questions are answered in our training, by

the way: ‘Y5/6 Spelling: the fine detailSee here for further details).

Although a seemingly small – and seemingly gimmicky – addition to the classroom wall, I feel that a spelling ‘Wonder Wall’ represents a mind-shift in our approach to teaching spelling. It represents a shift from a fearfulness about spelling and its myriad of apparently arbitrary and confusing exceptions, to an acknowledgement that our spelling system is fascinating and intriguing and worth exploring, as well as an awareness that the answers to many of our spelling queries are out there, hidden somewhere in the murky depths of our history. We just need to have the inclination to both ask the questions, and seek the answers. Fundamentally, we are not denying that there are odd things at play within the English spelling system, but instead we are helping the children to see that there is some method to the madness, and where there is no method, there is at least intrigue and a good old yarn to discover.