The older struggling spellers I work with often have one parent who is good at spelling, and one parent who isn’t. No prizes for guessing who inherited whose spelling-related genes.
The three of them often come to our first session. After we’ve done some assessment, we often have a conversation that goes something like this:
- Me: ‘When you’re writing long words, you seem to be thinking a lot about what the words look like, but not much about what they sound like. You don’t seem to be pulling words apart and saying them the way they are spelt, to help yourself remember the tricky bits, like the “or” in “doctor” and the “oi” in “tortoise”.’
- Student: ‘There’s no “oi” in “tortoise”‘.
- Me: ‘Correct, not when we’re talking normally, but when we’re spelling long words we have to write them one syllable at a time, and if you say each syllable the way it is spelt, it helps you spell the word correctly. It’s also a great way to remember tricky words like “Wednesday” and “business”, you say them as “Wed-nes-day” and “bus-i-ness”.’
- Parent 1: ‘Oh yeah, I always do that, I say Wed-nes-day and bus-i-ness, and Feb-ru-a-ry and “bea-u-ti-ful. I thought everyone did.’
- Parent 2: ‘Really? I never do that.’
- Parents: ‘Maybe that’s why only one of us can spell.’
“Cat”, “dog” and “phoneme” are abstract ideas
Everyone knows phonemic awareness helps spelling, but we tend to focus a lot on the auditory aspect of phonemic awareness, and not much on its articulatory or kinaesthetic aspect – feeling the sounds in our mouths.
Cats and dogs are all different, but with language and world experience children develop an abstract idea of what a cat is, and what a dog is, which allows them to differentiate these animals in the street (on the basis of size, shape, movement, sound etc, plus knowing that if it rolls its eyes and walks off, it’s a cat).
Likewise, actual productions of phonemes are all slightly different, and children need to develop an abstract idea of what a /p/ is, and what a /b/ is, in order to differentiate them when meeting them in the speech stream.
These abstract ideas are based on what /p/ and /b/ sound like (acoustic properties), and how they’re produced (articulatory properties). We start developing these abstract ideas when we’re babies, or we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the words “pea” and “bee”, but we don’t naturally develop conscious awareness of these individual sounds.
The easiest speech to slow down and feel is one’s own
When we start to learn to read and spell, we must become consciously aware of phonemes (i.e. develop phonemic awareness) in order to link them to the graphemes which represent them in our writing system. It helps to become conscious of not just how phonemes sound and look, but how they are produced in the mouth (see here and here for relevant research, and here for videos of my excellent niece saying each phoneme in Australian English).
Learners can’t easily slow down other people’s speech to make the individual sounds easier to discern. They can slow down their own speech, making it easier to identify each sound and feel how it’s produced, and see in a mirror, and decide whether it’s (figuratively speaking) canine, feline, leonine, vulpine or lupine (a great list of animal adjectives is here).
Many kids don’t like saying the sounds in words as they write their spellings. If I had $100 for every time I’ve said, “I can’t hear you” during a say-and-write spelling activity, I’d be richer than Croesus. The usual objection is that saying sounds while writing seems weird and/or babyish.
Kids can’t hear our internal speech
If we want kids to say words slowly, feel them in their mouths and think about their sounds when spelling them, it’s a good idea to model saying sounds/syllables/words as we write them ourselves. If kids see adults doing this routinely, they won’t think it’s babyish or weird.
Conversely, if adult behaviour makes skilled writing appear like a silent, visual task unrelated to speaking, many kids (and sadly some adults) will believe that’s what it is.
I’d like adults within earshot of young children to consciously and routinely sound out/say words as they write them: on the whiteboard, the shopping list, the calendar on the fridge, when filling out forms, wherever. The internal speech good spellers use when writing is not accessible to kids. We need to put it out where they can see, hear and imitate it.
Develop your “Spelling Voice”
The authors of the Sounds-Write program have the perfect term for this say-as-you-write behaviour, though they use it mainly in relation to spelling multi-syllable words: using your “Spelling Voice” (see p21 of this document).
If learners aren’t saying/hearing any sounds, how can they be linking sounds to letters/spellings? Saying words slowly while writing them should be expected and praised learner behaviour.
Once you know the main sound-letter relationships, you can use this knowledge to “over-pronounce” words with unstressed vowels (flow-ER, act-OR, coll-AR, murm-UR, del-I-cAtE, rest-AU-rant etc), in order to remember how they are spelt.
I like to tell students that using their Spelling Voice is a bit like talking like the Queen. The Queen would never dream of saying “choclit” like us plebs. She says “choc-o-late”. She pronounces things like the “t” in “often” and “soften”, and the “p” in “raspberry”.
Unlike my generation, lots of today’s kids have never heard the Queen speak, and the younger Royals’ speech is, sadly, less studiously posh. So maybe it’s better to tell kids that they should speak like a robot when spelling. After all, robots always pronounce the /i/ in “exterminate, exterminate” and the /i/, /o/ and /er/ in “philosopher”.