I've been pushing for an early years Synthetic Phonics program at one of the schools I work in, but sadly I'm just a far-too-busy part-time contractor and outsider, who doesn't get to go to the meetings where such things are decided, so I haven't succeeded.
Oh well, I guess it means they'll always generate plenty of work for a Speech Pathologist with literacy expertise (she said, through gritted teeth).
The literacy program they've chosen to use is called Words Their Way, which in the early years essentially puts a layer of initial and analytic phonics over what remains at its core a Whole Language program.
People I know and respect say it is better than the standard "give them a bath in written language and they will magically catch on" Whole Language fare, but its conceptual framework still sees literacy as natural and developmental and a bit mysterious, to be "facilitated" as it "emerges", not an artificial skill to be pulled apart and actively and systematically taught.
Words Their Way calls anyone aged one to seven who is writing random marks on paper, drawing pictures, doing "mock linear or letter like writing" or writing random letters and numbers an "Emergent Speller".
Actually, I call someone aged one who is making any sort of recognisable marks on paper a baby genius. Most one-year-olds are more likely to suck the pencil or throw it at you.
On the other hand, anyone in our education system who can only write random letters at age seven is well behind, and probably well aware of this, and highly distressed about it.
Words Their Way assessments for "Emergent Spellers"
Words Their Way's assessments for "Emergent Spellers" first examine their ability to identify rhyme and alliteration, and circle pictures that begin with given letters. This is all good, we know that little kids who start school with awareness of initial sounds, rhyme and letters are ahead of the game on literacy.
The assessment also requires children to spell little words like mat, nap, kid, log, jet and gum. Of course, an "Emergent Speller" who is writing random letters will not be able to do this, and is by definition not an "Emergent Speller" at all (more on this later).
A "Concept of word" assessment teaches children to memorise the rhyme Humpty Dumpty (which most children from mainstream backgrounds will already know, bad luck if your family is from South Sudan and you haven't heard it before) and then checks, one by one, whether they can "read" it themselves, by pointing to each word as they say it. The teacher is expected to score this pointing on a scale from 0-6 where 0 is going backwards and forwards and all over the shop, 3 is "points to words for each rhythmic beat or syllable, getting off track" and 6 is accurate pointing. I'm not going to try to unpack the construct validity of this assessment, except to say that it makes my "what's the point?" meter go off like a rocket.
The assessment goes on to ask individual children to read particular words from Humpty Dumpty, firstly in the verse itself (this is called Word Recognition in Context) and then on a list – on, Humpty, put, horses, sat, men, king's, wall, had, fall – which is called Word Recognition in Isolation.
Most of this just makes me want to cry – it simply makes no sense from a linguistics point of view, it's basically assessing initial letter-sound skills (which have already been assessed) and visual memorisation of words as wholes (which if used exclusively as a strategy soon leads to literacy failure). I despair at the idea of a whole lot of lovely teachers and kids I know spending hours on such tasks, instead of things that do make linguistic sense.
Words Their Way program for "Emergent Spellers"
The teacher of Emergent Spellers is advised to "talk with and read to students and share the sounds and meaning of language", "build vocabulary with concept sorts", "develop phonological awareness with picture sorts, songs and games" and "enhance alphabet knowledge with games, matching activities, and sorts".
In practice this means a lot of memorising whole words, reciting rhymes and jingles while pointing to the text, initial phonics of the "a is for aardvark, b is for badger" variety, vocabulary and concept picture sorting, discussion of vocabulary, dictation (without prior explicit teaching of the relevant spellings), finding named letters in text and shared reading.
There is some rhyme sorting, as well as some rhyming games like bingo and concentration, which at least acknowledge that there are letters in words beyond the first one. But these still don't break words right down into phonemes and graphemes and really teach children how to put them together and pull them apart.
Right from the beginning, tiny children are presented with written multisyllable words like "triangle", "animal" and "vegetables".
Words Their Way stories
The first story in the Emergent Spellers book contains not just simple, one-letter-equals-one-sound spellings, but also the "ee" in "peel", the "a" in "banana" (sounds like "ar" in Australian English), the "y" in "my", the "u" in "put", the "th" in "the" and the "ow" in "bowl". That's just in the first verse.
In the next two verses we also meet the "a" (which sounds like "o") and the "sh" in "wash", the "pp" and "le" in "apple", the "a" (which sounds like "i") and the "ge" in "orange".
The next story is about circles, and contains the word "circles" five times, but the lesson plan seems to contain no explanation for children about why the letter "c" sounds like a "s" the first time it appears in this word, and a "k" the second time.
This story and the next one contain more digraphs and spelling overlaps – the "a…e" in "make", the unstressed "er" in "paper" (introduced before the stressed "er" in "her" and "term", so children will think the sound for this spelling is "u"), the "ir" in "bird", the "ey" in "monkeys", the "a" in "water" (sounds like "or"), the "wh" in "everywhere" and also add trigraphs – the word "air", the "oar" in "board" and the "ere" in "everywhere".
In story number four we meet a highly irregular spelling – the "oe" in shoe (like canoe, Donohoe and if you know of any other words like this, please tell me and I will add them to my spelling list). The regularly-spelt "oe" word "toe" is also in this story, but there seems to be no point in the lesson at which the teacher tells children that we ordinarily say "oe" as per the word "toe" (see this list), not as per the word "shoe".
Being an American program, there are rhymes in Words Their Way that don't work in an Australian accent like "I Can't Said The Ant" (I can't said the aunt?), and I think I had better stop there, you get the idea.
"Developmental stages" of spelling
Saying there are developmental stages in spelling is a bit like saying there are developmental stages in learning to cook, fix a car or program a computer.
None of these things are in the slightest bit natural or developmental. If you put a child alone on a desert island with paper, pens and pencils, a fully equipped kitchen, a car and a motor mechanic's shop, and the most whizz-bang computers available, you could come back and assess them as often as you liked, but they probably wouldn't write a story, a word or a line of code, scramble an egg or fix the simplest breakdown.
If you hung around with them on the desert island for a few years, writing and reading, cooking, fixing and programming, and they watched you, most of them would learn at least the basics, but some would not. If you want someone to be a good cook, motor mechanic or computer programmer, you start them off doing simple things and then gradually and systematically teach them harder and harder stuff, till they are as proficient as you (or if you fix cars and program computers as well as I do, you get someone else to teach them).
Our usual system for teaching beginning spelling, however, seems to be a weird combination of let-them-hang-around-and-watch, and actively setting about a quarter to a fifth of children up to fail, by requiring them to do linguistically and conceptually hard things well before they've mastered much easier ones.
Instead of talking about "developmental stages" of spelling, spelling programs for beginners should actively teach the simple and common spellings in all word positions first (like the spellings in the words mat, tip and rug), then the more complex ones (like "wh" and "er" and "a…e"), working from short to long words, along the way pointing out any tricky spellings from which they should not try to generalise patterns, like the "oe" in "shoe", the "ai" in "said" and spelling nightmare words like "choir" and "sure".
What's wrong with teaching correct spelling straight up?
As mentioned above, a Words Their Way "Emergent Speller" who can spell little words like mat, nap, kid, log, jet and gum is not in fact an Emergent Speller at all, so I went looking through Words My Way for their stage.
The second stage is called "Letter Name – Alphabetic Speller". These children, aged 4-9 (!), are writing "mine" as M, MN or MIN, "drive" as JN, JV, JFR or DRIV and "send" as S, SD, SAD and SED. Heaven help the nine-year-olds, I say. If you haven't cracked the spelling code by age 9, all the research on long-term outcomes suggest that you are in serious, serious trouble. Unless someone comes along with a seriously effective intervention, you probably won't learn to read and spell very well, ever.
For a program to suggest that it's OK for nine-year-olds to be writing "mine" as "M" is, I think, frankly scandalous.
The third stage, children aged 6-12 (the pedagogical and accountability implications of these blurry age groupings will have to be the subject of another rant, another day), is called "Within Word Pattern Spellers" and here children write "seat" as SETE or SEET, "nail" as "NALE" and "rope" as ROAP. So they are getting the idea but are still not expected to spell correctly.
I can't tell you what stage a child aged 5-12 who can spell mat, nap, kid, log, jet, gum, mine, seat and nail is in. Words Their Way seems to have an underlying assumption that all children will make constant mistakes in spelling, and adults' job is to assess and record and accept these, while trying in a gentle, oblique way to facilitate their development away from them.
The problem is that if you practice a spelling mistake often enough, it becomes a habit, and hard to undo.
A first-and-fast, explicit phonics teaching methodology is the way to avoid encouraging children to practice spelling mistakes, but getting schools to recognise this and start using it is a lot harder than I expected.