Parents: Spellings are NEVER simply wrong!

A strange title you may think but if we want to motivate children to write and prevent many children from becoming reluctant writers, schools need to think more deeply about their approaches and responses to childrens’ spellings. Spelling is a developmental journey – a very long and arduous journey for some children who struggle to spell. So children need all the help and reassurance they can get along the way as they negotiate all the twists, turns and barriers that they come across. This is why I disagree so strongly with marking spelling attempts either right or wrong.

No child’s spelling is completely wrong! All attempted words are partly right. A young child spells ‘rides’ as ‘rds’: and is three fifths there, having got the consonants right. An older child spells ‘conversation’ as ‘convirsaishun’, and has represented each of the four syllables, as well as the sounds within each syllable. Okay, so the suffix is wrong and the vowels between are incorrect but when we study the child’s strategy, is there not just as much right with the word, as there is wrong with it? This child has got eight out of twelve letters right, and has used knowledge of vowel digraphs and syllables to make a phonetically-based, plausible attempt at this multi-syllabic word.

There is no greater put down for children than to mark spellings in tests simply right or wrong and then give children with low marks a poor percentage result. A child once said to me, ‘I’m rubbish at spelling,’ because he had such a low mark. Yes, there were odd letters wrong on the majority of words BUT overall, the fractional success (four out of five, or seven out of nine) of each word was high. If we wish to motivate children to write and encourage them to keep going on their spelling journey, then the approach has to be personal to each child. It is not just a matter of the class learning a list of spellings that may, or may not be used and remembered. It is a matter of each child knowing where he is at with spelling knowledge and what the next developmental step is, then heading for it: strengths and weaknesses on an individual basis. Older children can take responsibility for their spelling weaknesses – once they know what they are.

So how can parents help? Firstly, get the right message across to your child: that the ultimate destination of ‘perfect spelling’ may take many years to master. Secondly, be sensitive to your child’s attempts: point out correct letters in words before you say anything else. The words ‘well done’ go a long way. Thirdly, try not to give spellings to your child: encourage him to use phonic knowledge to try words first. Practice does, eventually, make perfect but children must keep on trying to spell before they get it right. Trial and error is a major part of the process.

In my view, spelling attempts are NEVER simply wrong, partly because the road to correct and perfect spelling, for many children, is more rocky than smooth. Spelling for some children is not a simple process.

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