Spelling lists should make a point about spelling

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Here’s a May 2012 spelling/vocab list from a mainstream Victorian secondary school: “text, question, reason, persuade, introduction, conclusion, action, technique, body”.

These words are closely related by meaning, but not by spelling.

They’re a mixture of one, two, three and four-syllable words. Some have tricky spellings, like the “u” in persuade (also in suave, cuisine, suite, language, iguana, penguin, squirrel, Ecuador and quick) and the “que” in technique (also in mosque, cheque, torque, boutique, critique, Mozambique, oblique, unique and queue).

“Technique” is doubly tricky because of its Greek “ch”, also found in anchor, bronchitis, character, chemist, Christmas, echidna, mechanic, school, scheme and the common names Chris, Nicholas, Michael, Lachlan, Chloe and Zachary.

Learners with good phonemic awareness and basic sound-letter knowledge will probably notice the words “question”, “action” and “introduction” have final syllables that look the same, and sound nearly the same (“chun”, “shun” and “shun”), while “conclusion” looks and sounds similar (“zhun”). But apart from that, there are no spelling patterns evident in this list.

Random spelling lists

Some of the reasons teachers tended to back away from tradtional phonics were reasonable, like the use of boring kill and drill activities, and incomprehensible spelling rules that don’t work reliably anyway.

However, most kids’ spelling lists these days seem to be far too random to make meaningful or memorable points about English spelling (other than “English spelling is pretty random”, which is far from accurate).

Better spelling lists

Better lists and spelling activities would focus on a single spelling pattern and provide a goodsized posse of exemplars drawn from learners’ spoken vocabularies, e.g. “action”, “lotion”, “station”, “emotion”, “plantation”, “introduction”,  “patient”, “quotient”, “cautious”, “infectious”, “initial”, “martial”, “Martian”, “venetian” and “inertia”.

These would direct the learner’s attention to the key spelling “ti”, and provide them with an insight about spelling which they could then generalise (or US generalize) to hundreds of other words.

Tights are not pants and vocabulary lists are not spelling lists

Yes, switching to lists based on spelling patterns would usually muck up the theme-based nature of lists, but a list should really only be called a spelling list if it makes a point about spelling.

If it’s really a vocabulary list (and they’re important too), that’s what it should be called. Let’s not say we’re working on spelling when the materials used are more likely to exacerbate spelling confusion than elucidate.

In search of the super-spelling list

I’ve looked high and low for a book or website that contains all the words in the dictionary, sorted by spelling pattern and put into a logical teaching sequence, from simple to complex.

I was really hoping there’d be one in Australian English, or at least not just an American English one, with “r” sounds after vowels, spellings like “color” and “center”, “faucets” instead of “taps” and “daughter” rhymed with “hotter”.  Failing that, a British English list would have vowels like Aussie ones, which are the trickiest part of spelling.

Such an uber-list would make it much easier to devise carefully graded spelling goals for my students, and then locate or make suitable activities.

I work with older students with language and literacy difficulties, who need to learn about spelling in a way that is phonetically accurate (so they learn to trust their own senses), highly structured and contains tiny steps to permit fast, errorless learning.

These kids are really sick of getting stuff wrong, and they won’t persist if the work is too hard and they’re making a lot of mistakes.

There are a lotta, lotta spelling lists out there, but there doesn’t seem to be one that starts at “at”, “up”, “pat” and “but” and works all the way through to “paediatrician”, “herbaceous” and “tourniquet”.

Phonetic accuracy of available lists

Many lists end up conflating several sounds that share a spelling e.g. brief, chief, die, friend, fries, grief, lie, priest, shield, sieve, skies, tie. Again, no single pattern is represented frequently enough for my students to really grasp it. Often their phonemic awareness is so poor that they don’t notice the sound patterns in such lists at all.

I’d rather start with “by”, “cry”, “dry”, “fly”, “fry”, “my”, “shy”, “sly”, “spy”, “sty” and “try”,

then move onto “cried/cries”, die, dried/dries, flies, fried/fries, lie, pie, shied/shies, spied/spies, tie and tried,

and then “brief”, “chief”, “field”, “fiend”, “grief/grieve”, “priest”, “shield”, “shriek”, “spiel”, “thief/thieve”, “wield” and “yield”,

and lastly the unusual spellings in “friend” and “sieve” (well, the UK pronunciation of “lieutenant” is like “friend” and “Liechtenstein” is like “sieve”, but let’s not go there with beginners).

Personalising lists and teaching materials

Carefully sequenced lists of course underpin high-quality synthetic phonics programs such as MultiLit, Little Learners Love Literacy, Get Reading Right, Jolly Phonics, Sounds Write, Read Write Inc and Lindamood-Bell Seeing Stars, but often aren’t easily adapted to include relevant words like family, classmate, teacher, pet and place names, and words from film, TV, the footy and the local shops.

Nowadays the internet and digital cameras make it easy to personalise worksheets, to make them more relevant and interesting to learners, so why not?

Making the uber-spelling list myself

I finally gave up looking for the sorted-dictionary list, so I am making it myself (here), and putting it and associated teaching materials on this website.

I’ve been right through the Macquarie Dictionary, and now I’m working my way through the Australian Concise Oxford. After that, as time permits, I’ll probably work through some baby name lists, the AFL player list, Victorian place names, brands in major supermarkets, car names, and we’ll see where we go from there.

Printed words are everywhere, and the words in the dictionary are just part of what learners need to be able to read and spell.

The aim is for the list to stay current and relevant, and provide plenty of word choices to suit all types of learners, from littlies with lisps to big, disgruntled blokes in the justice system, far too many of whom can’t read well enough, and can’t spell.

If you’re not confident about where to slot in your local vocabulary, feel free to email me your words, and I’ll put them in my list as time permits – spelfabet@gmail.com.

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