The case for teaching good spelling


Go on – have a laugh!


Was it you, or your brother, who was killed in the war?

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Appropros of my mention of Spoonerisms in my last post, a short sweet article here about Spoonerisms in the light of the gaffes on Radio 4 last Monday morning.

Sameness is tiresome; variety is pleasing. Twain

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Still thinking about spelling (I do this more than is altogether sane), here’s the full quotation from Mark Twain:

I don’t see any use in having a uniform and arbitrary way of spelling words. We might as well make all clothes alike and cook all dishes alike. Sameness is tiresome; variety is pleasing. I have a correspondent whose letters are always a refreshment to me, there is such a breezy unfettered originality about his orthography. He always spells “Kow” with a large “K.” Now that is just as good as to spell it with a small one. It is better. It gives the imagination a broader field, a wider scope. It suggests to the mind a grand, vague, impressive new kind of a cow.
(Mark Twain, reported in the Hartford Courant, May 13, 1875)

An article, Widening our Perceptions of Reading and Writing Difficulties, describes research in Italy to show that,

even in Italian, in which it is relatively straightforward to convert sounds into letters, children still have difficulties in spelling. Younger children with dyslexia generally performed worse than proficient readers; however, the older ones showed a more selective impairment when spelling words, suggesting that knowledge of vocabulary may be more important in spelling than previously thought.

The same link explains the relatively common phenomenon called, in the UK at least, Spoonerisms:

Another study, from Tel Aviv University, Israel, provided the first systematic description of a type of reading disorder called “attentional dyslexia” in which children identify letters correctly, but the letters jump between words on the page, e.g., “kind wing” is read as “wind king”. Teachers and neuropsychologists often notice that children substitute letters when reading, but in this type of dyslexia the substitutions are not caused by inability [sic] to identify letters or convert them to sounds; they result from migrations of letters between words. The findings showed that letters would mostly migrate to the same position in another word, so the first letter of one word would switch places with the first letter of another word.

The article goes on to recommend an intervention to help this letter migration: present a ‎single word at a time, e.g., with the help of a word-sized window cut in a piece of cardboard.

The trouble with such a tactic is that the context disappears: the reader is no longer aware of all the cues other than single letters within the text that lead to understanding; s/he is solely dependent on decoding. At times this may well be an appropriate technique but it needs to be used cautiously I would think, especially as there is a strong coneection between effective encoding and knowledge of vocabulary, as cited in the first study.


Spelling Matters

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Bill Boyd has, once more, presented me with something to think about in his recent post on spelling.

I have actually used the misspelled text described in the video to illustrate to non-specialist teachers that spelling is not as crucial as some people may believe.

Actually in my experience, most teachers are fairly relaxed about poor spelling as long as the student presents learning legibly and intelligently. They understand and teach the distinction between formal and informal writing. They try to ensure that their students are aware of the importance of a well presented piece of writing in certain circumstances. They are tolerant of ‘text-speak’, the use of images and symbols and other personal abbreviations when notes are being constructed.

However, numerous youngsters themselves seem to be very hung up on getting it right first time. This always strikes me as odd as I am sure the message that perfection is the only option is not conveyed by any but the most hidebound of teachers.

Spelling is of course the activity which causes most difficulty for learners with dyslexia and for them it is even more paramount that they are enabled to get their message across without any inhibiting factors.

Making the distinction between composition and transcription is the most effective strategy. This reduces the overload on the memory which occurs when a writer is trying to use interesting ideas and content while remembering the secretarial skills of spelling and punctuation. This is well nigh impossible for most dyslexics.

So, planning a piece of writing using key concepts and much imagery and colour is the 1st step. Then you might be able to get some poor schmuck to scribe your brilliant ideas for you if dictating it straight into an MP3 or video file or making a presentation  is not an option.

Word retrieval, fluency, of processing, difficulties with sequencing and directionality are at the heart of the problem for learners with dyslexia. Poor spelling is a mere casualty of the different wiring system in the brain. But all contribute to huge amounts of stress if not recognised and catered for.

A good speller can see the trees; a learner with dyslexia can see the wood.