Children don’t need to know how to spell, do they?
I am not averse to the teaching of spelling. I believe in synthetic phonics and the quality first teaching of spelling to ensure children can make appropriate spelling choices. However, since the implementation of the new curriculum, I am frustrated with the emphasis placed upon spelling, often at the detriment of creativity.
I think we need to step back and consider the following:
1. Locating words
Yes, dictionary skills are important, leading to faster word location. Unfortunately, during an independent writing activity Connor has spent 10 minutes procrastinating, 35 minutes writing and 15 minutes looking up ‘beautiful’ in the dictionary. He has written 9 lines. He does not have time for this.
2. Statutory spellings
I appear to have managed adequately without excellent (although with reasonable, often technology assisted) spelling ability. When I used to teach year 1, we laughed heartily (with a slightly hysterical edge) when we saw the end of year expectations.
3. The way that we teach
There are still settings out there using teaching methods which only allow spellings to be stored in short-term memory, including traditional tests. My favourite ‘best practice’ spelling tips are to always ask children to try then ask for a spelling. Incorrect spelling can then be discussed together.
Application is the key. I like structured schemes that allow children to work at their own level, not progressing until keywords are mastered. For more top tips on teaching, spelling see here.
4. Spelling in context to tick a box
We’ve all been there. In recent years, clarification has been provided to say that we can use tests:
‘A pupil’s standard in spelling should be evident throughout their writing. However, a school’s spelling tests can provide additional evidence of pupils’ independent spelling’.
Thus, suggesting that words that they can no longer spell (as they only learnt them for the test) is still evidence. This doesn’t sit well with me but ultimately, if this amendment allows me to tick the box without a 3-hour search for a specific word pattern, I will still be able to sleep at night.
5. Generational usefulness
What do I do when I need a spelling? I Google, I spellcheck, I ask Alexa. It takes me 10 seconds to locate the correct spelling. How will our current year 2 find a spelling as adults? They will probably not need to, as no doubt ‘speech-to-text-software’ will soon be the norm.
6. What are they allowed to do?
According to the KS2 guidance 2018, Writing is likely to be independent if it: is produced by pupils who have, if required, sought out classroom resources, such as dictionaries or thesauruses, without prompting to do so by the teacher’.
Therefore, they are allowed to copy from a word bank or use a dictionary in place of being able to spell well. In light of this information and playing devil’s advocate, forget teaching them to spell, just teach them to copy keywords correctly from a word mat. They can easily ‘seek out’ a word mat which is 50cm their faces and copy a spelling correctly. I appreciate that in reality, they can’t do this either.
7. Help I can’t find my spelling!
Spellings that children require for more adventurous words often do not appear in school dictionaries. In a piece of independent writing, if the spelling is not there, children are still unable to ask or look it up by another means. This would equate to either an incorrect spelling, a poorer word choice or wasted time.
8. It’s ok though …
… because, ‘Some of the listed words may be thought of as quite challenging, but the 100 words in each list can easily be taught within the four years of key stage 2.’
The person who wrote this has never taught actual children in an actual classroom!
9. Useful clarification
‘While a pupil’s writing should meet all the statements within that standard,’ ‘teachers can use their discretion to ensure that a particular weakness does not prevent an accurate judgement of a pupil’s overall attainment being made.’
Phew! However, after 4+ years of this new curriculum, I’m not convinced that children as a whole, can spell any more effectively.
10. Are the expectations realistic anyway?
English is notoriously difficult. There are so many rules and exceptions to bamboozle the average primary school child that spelling is fraught with challenges. There are exceptions to every rule as only 75% of words follow the rules. You can’t rely on phonics alone.
The 2018 guidance states, ‘Writing is not independent if it has been produced with the support of electronic aids that automatically provide correct spelling, synonyms, punctuation, or predictive text.’
An electronic spell check for every KS2 pupil would be a huge positive and indicative of how we should be forward thinking with our curriculum. No more time wasted searching through dictionaries during a writing task. If they can get a word from a mat, then why not a spell checker?
Those with style, maturity and grammar will still shine brighter. Fewer children will have their flow inhibited by their lack of spelling ability or dictionary use during an assessed task.
Finally, teach good quality spelling lessons, teach dictionary skills, promote good quality spelling home learning and advocate the concept of future proofed, technology assisted spelling for independent writing to the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency in order to support children in becoming more efficient and effective independent writers.