Poor spelling is a consequence of uninformed teaching.
Misty Adoniou – Spelling It Out
I made some important discoveries this week in my learning journey as an English teacher. It’s always exciting when the puzzle pieces begin to fit together, but I feel more than just a little embarrassed that it has taken me so long to connect the dots when it comes to spelling. I’m sure that any English teacher worth their salt would probably be thinking “Really? You’ve never thought to use morphology and etymology as the basis for building vocabulary and spelling skills?”
Well, no. I’ve been one of the aforementioned uninformed teachers. A week ago I couldn’t discern between a free or bound morpheme. I couldn’t tell you much about the history of the English language either. I’ve mentioned before about feeling like a bit of a fraud (or a wolf in sheep’s clothing) when it comes to being able to expertly deliver content from seven different subject areas. It makes me wonder whether we really do need specialist teachers in middle primary classrooms? Because the fact is, doing my best has not always led to the best outcomes for students.
It turns out that, like many primary school teachers, I have relied on an overemphasis on phonics when teaching spelling. I’ve used morphology sparingly because I was ignorant to its importance. Etymology was a concept that students graduated to when they had systematically mastered phonics. I’ve been coerced by commercial spelling programs. I’ve never actually questioned this approach because that’s what everyone else around me was doing and most students showed growth and were able to build reliable phonological and orthological skills. Most students…
But I’ve had some intelligent and hardworking young bookworms pass through our classroom that just could not spell, and it has bothered me to not be able to adequately help them. Many students with learning difficulties, autism, dyslexia and dysgraphia have also passed through our care having made little to no progress in their spelling ability.
— Abe Moore (@Arbay38) August 9, 2017
I teach English, but I am not an English teacher, and I think there is an important difference. When I teach an HPE lesson, there is a natural flow. I can feel the lesson unfold. I can see the little details and make subtle suggestions that help move a student along in their learning. I can sense when to there is a need to redirect learning and when to let it run its course. The funny analogies, the sequencing of skills, the years of university training, and the decade of experience as a grade cricket coach make teaching HPE, not effortless, but easier. I equate it to being on. Being in-the-zone. In basketball terms, it’s akin to the much-debated theory of the hot hand. While it does happen in my other subject areas from time to time, it is far less frequent. These lessons usually feel more like a grind. As an HPE teacher, I might teach the same lesson 4 or 5 times in a day. As a classroom teacher, I’m more likely to teach a lesson once and only revisit it two or three years later. So for me, developing that same sense of flow is problematic. Spelling is one such subject area that I haven’t particularly enjoyed or excelled at teaching.
I recently read Spelling It Out by Misty Adoniou which provided a SMH reality check and critical critique of my practice. I’ve always tried to make spelling interesting and engaging. But “meh…” It’s spelling. I’ve individualised student programs based on data-driven diagnostic testing and used systematic sequencing to build skills, but learning has always been built around programs isolated from authentic reading and writing. Like a bad pyramid scheme, I’ve peddled word lists. Look-cover-write-check. Friday tests to see if the words actually stuck (mostly they didn’t). Our spelling program has mostly been tedious, boring and hard work for all of us. As one of my childhood cricket coaches would regularly tell me (about my batting no less…)
“Son, you can’t polish a turd!”
Well, this week heralded another shift in our learning. We spent the entire week pulling that spelling program apart. It was like dragging all the furniture out of the house onto the front lawn and then deciding what was actually valuable enough to carry back inside, and what needed to be tossed into the dumpster. I challenged our students (and myself) to forget what we know about spelling and to focus on what was actually going to help us to improve. We filled the dumpster up and set that sucker on fire.
Misty Adoniou (much to the chagrin of her detractors) refers to English as a “morpho-phonemic” language. She states that “purely phonics-based – or sounds based – approaches to spelling are doomed to failure.” She asserts that students are best served by strategies that attach meaning to words, particularly students who are low-achieving spellers. So we have attempted to become storytellers based on meeting students where they are in their learning journey. Spelling will no longer be taught in isolation, but like grammar and punctuation and language features, be integrated into our everyday writing.
We started our spelling journey with a single word: acyanopsia.
Our current crop of year 6/7 students is the first in a very long time to have been subjected to a systematic phonics-based spelling program for the entire duration of their schooling. The problem is, phonology, orthology and memory are pretty much the only skills this cohort have to rely on when spelling unfamiliar words. Given that there is some quarter of a million words in the English language, these skills did not help them one bit when dealing with the word in question. A couple of adults in the room faired no better. But as soon as we attached meaning (etymology) and broke the word down into its meaningful pieces (morphology) the task became far more manageable.
As presented in Spelling It out, acyanopsia means ‘unable to see the colour blue’. This is significant because one of our class members is colour blind (red/blue = purple). This immediately presented a meaningful story for students to remember. Then we dug into the three morphemes all borrowed from the Greek:
1) a – a prefix meaning ‘without’
2) cyan – a free morpheme meaning ‘a shade of blue’ Along with magenta and yellow, it is a familiar word when refilling printer ink cartridges.
3) opsia – a bound morpheme meaning sight (optic)
It makes sense, doesn’t it? It certainly did for our struggling young spellers. And while it is a very small sample size, most of them managed to recall the spelling of this word a few days later along with the previously impossible multi-syllabic words: subterranean; magician; encouragement; Echidna and titanium.
Perhaps I got more out of the book than anyone with a background in English would, but I cannot recommend Misty Adoniou’s Spelling It Out highly enough for elementary and middle school teachers. The book includes a brief history of the English language; a scope and sequence for learning from K-7; and practical resources for a transition from traditional phonics based systems to morpho-phonemic program tailored to individual student needs.
If you have made it this far you deserve some comic relief, so I present Sabrina (AKA @nerdyandquirky) to share eleven interesting word origins that had our class literally rolling around laughing. Butterfly will never have the same meaning for me ever again…
Part II of this post will look at what survived the dumpster fire and got put back into the house and how I started enjoying teaching spelling and became a word nerd.