Category Archives: spellings

What kind of knowledge is needed for good spelling?

A lot has been written by philosophers and in Dilbert cartoons about different types of knowledge.

Often these are described using terms like “explicit” versus “tacit” or “declarative” versus “procedural” knowledge. What matters most for spelling?

Declarative versus procedural knowledge

Explicit, declarative knowledge is theoretical information about a subject e.g. that we use a base 10 number system, and that our Solar System has 8 planets (sorry, Pluto). Libraries, databases and the internet are full of it.

Procedural knowledge is often harder to describe (more tacit) and more practical. It’s knowing how to do something, like tie up a shoelace, play the guitar or ride a bike.

I have quite a bit of explicit, declarative knowledge about how to play brilliant tennis (yes, the Australian Open men’s final is on, but we love both Roger and Raffa, so who to barrack for?!) but despite years of trying (our tiny country town didn’t have enough kids to field a team without unco asthmatic me), I never managed to convert this into much procedural knowledge.

I’ve been nerdily immersed in spelling books lately, and have realised that most books about spelling are full of explicit, declarative knowledge, but aren’t necessarily much help with the “how”, or what we should be doing to build tacit, procedural knowledge of spelling. Continue reading

Upcoming training in synthetic phonics

I’m on the Professional Development committee for Learning Difficulties Australia, so have been madly researching quality training in synthetic phonics currently on offer in Australia.

My theory is that the more we can publicise other people’s good training, the less we’ll need to run ourselves as volunteers, in our copious (not) spare time.

I’ve discovered there’s quite a bit of training about sounds and their spellings available, if you know where to look. Some is very focussed on phonemic awareness and phonics, the biggest gaps in teacher training. Some also covers vocabulary, comprehension and fluency, the three other Five Big ideas in beginning reading instruction. Continue reading

Levelled books for guided reading

The books young children are typically given at school are called “Levelled Books”, which are used in class for “guided reading” or “shared reading”, where a teacher and a group of children read a book together, and discuss it. They’re also used as home readers.

Teachers typically encourage children to use a range of different strategies while reading these books, including guessing words from picture cues, first letters and context (e.g. “what word would make sense there?”), plus sounding words out, though often only as a last resort (perhaps thanks to the lasting influence of Dame Marie Clay, author of Reading Recovery and the Observation Survey still widely used in schools). Continue reading

Christmas writing

Little kids (and quite a few bigger ones) are often keen at this time of year to write Christmas lists, letters to Santa, cards or do other seasonally-adjusted writing.

They are often less enthusiastic about continuing to do structured spelling work.

It’s the silly season, so fair enough. It’s great to find a writing task they’re still keen to do, in between all their parties, concerts and swimming.

I often give up on the structured spelling work at this point of the year and just go with the silly season writing, aiming to give kids enough guidance for them to sound out all the words they want to write, while making sure I prevent spelling mistakes.

The first encounter with a written word matters, and spelling it correctly maximises your chances of getting it right again next time.

There’s no need to give up on sounding out words for this activity, and revert to visual copying or reciting letter names.

Instead, you can give kids the spellings they need for any words they can’t spell independently, and ask them to build these words before writing them. Continue reading

What’s the difference between short and long vowels?

Phonics teaching materials often talk about "short" and "long" vowels, as though the latter are just extended versions of the former.

The five vowels usually called "short" are:

  • "a" as in "cat",
  • "e" as in "red",
  • "i" as in "sit",
  • "o" as in "not",
  • "u" as in "bus".

The five vowels usually called "long", and which children are told "say their (letter) name", are:

  • "a" as in "paper",
  • "e" as in "be",
  • "i" as in "find",
  • "o" as in "go",
  • "u" as in "human".

But are we talking about sounds here, or particular spellings of these sounds?

Continue reading

Spelling list signal to noise ratios

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.

Continue reading

The Great Australian Spelling Bee

There was an interesting interview on Radio National about spelling today, inspired by new TV quiz sensation the Great Australian Spelling Bee.

In the GASB (as I’m sure we’ll all soon be calling it), children aged 8 to 13 start off spelling words like “lousy”, “voyage”, “kelpie” and “gravel”, which get progressively harder, till the live audience goes mad ape bonkers at their brilliance, they can spell cretaceous! OMG.

the Great Australian Spelling Bee

GASB has tension-building music, a “Spelling Gate”, timers, a leader-board, Challenges, a Pronouncer/Judge who leaves long, hold-your-breath pauses before intoning “CORRECT” or “INCORRECT”, dinosaurs, tasers, hugging, tears, you name it, and of course lots of interviews with adorable, clever children with butterflies in their tummies, who while being fiercely competitive wish each other the best of luck and want to be friends forever. Everyone simply loves it.

I’ve only been able to watch it from between my fingers, because I find game shows excruciating (sadly I’m more of a Radio National type), and because I suspect the extreme excitement about children being able to spell might be partly because children, or people generally, who can spell really well are the exception, not the rule. It’s (IMHO) unarguably the most undervalued and poorly taught key skill on the curriculum, and has been for a long time.

Continue reading

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