I’m tearing my hair out again about the spelling lists some of my students are being asked to learn for spelling tests.
They’re all noise and no signal.
A spelling list should help students learn something about spelling. They should demonstrate a clear pattern students can apply to their reading and writing.
Because teachers are not usually taught much about spelling, the main message their spelling lists often send to students is that spelling is very difficult.
I wish teachers designing spelling lists would identify a single, clear spelling signal for each list, and then choose words which focus their students’ attention on this signal, and minimise background noise.
Example spelling lists
For young children, such a list might go like this: quads, squad, swamp, swan, swap, swat, wand, want, was, wasp, wash, watch.
This list makes the spelling point that after the sound “w”, the sound “o” (as in “got”) is spelt with a letter A.
The teacher would probably want to remind students that we write “qu” not “kw” or “cw” in English, so the letter U in these words represents the sound “w”.
For older students who know such basic spelling patterns, a spelling list’s signal might be the “ai” in “samurai”, and contain the following words: Aikido, bonsai, Dubai, haiku, Masai, Nairobi, samurai, Shanghai, Sinai, tai chi, taipan, Taiwan. This is a syllable-final vowel spelling typically borrowed fairly recently from another language, such as Japanese and Chinese.
You could add the word “Thailand” to the above list, or save it up for a list that teaches “th” as in “Thomas”, containing words like: discotheque, Esther, Kathmandu, Lesotho, Mathilda, Thailand, Theresa, Thomas, thyme. Beethoven and Thames could be added if these were known vocabulary, and the funny “ee” and “a…e” weren’t going to throw too many students off-signal.
Names contain all kinds of spelling complexity, and names of people, places and things (e.g. brand names) are words students have to read and spell just like words in the dictionary. I don’t see why they aren’t considered fair game for inclusion on spelling lists.
Most of the spelling lists my students show me aren’t what I call spelling lists at all. They’re vocabulary lists. They teach topic-related vocabulary, but nothing useful about spelling.
Here’s the sort of list I mean: asteroid, celestial, cosmic, eclipse, equinox, gravity, inertia, lunar, meteor, orbit, satellite, solstice.
This is an astronomy vocabulary list. It makes no point about spelling. There is no shared spelling pattern.
Sometimes, such lists contain a few words that have a shared spelling pattern, but usually there aren’t enough examples to make the pattern really clear.
For example: adaptation, embryology, evolution, extinction, fossils, frequency, genetic, gradualism, migration, selection, species, vestigial.
Some students will notice that five of these 12 words end with the noun-forming Latin suffix “tion”, typically pronounced “shun”.
Other students will miss this pattern unless it is explicitly taught.