Spelling and the SPAG test

The SPAG test introduced this summer split opinion amongst teachers with some saying it was a good way for pupils to be able to show their skills whilst others railed at the usefulness. There was some confusion as many teachers decried its ability to raise standards when in fact it’s there to assess standards and only raise them by providing a raised benchmark, akin to the expectations of the new national curriculum.

Of most concern to teachers who took a peek at the children’s tests was the lower than hoped for performance in the spelling part of the test and how to overcome this in the future.

Learning English spellings, especially for those pupils for whom English isn’t their native language, can be tortuous as the language has probably the largest number of spelling anomalies of any language. So what are the best methods for teaching and learning spellings?

That depends on the child. Some will prefer to learn them by rote but the difficulty there is that you’re not going to encounter every word in the language and so will encounter words that you won’t be able to spell.
Learning the spelling rules is the widely accepted method, beginning with phonemes and graphemes and moving on to letter patterns in families of words. By this method though, you’ll fail to encounter the anomalies and so, later on in school life, rote learning of them will still be necessary.

A parallel method and one considered by theorists to be the ideal way of assimilating spellings is simply by immersion. Reading a wide range of books with every increasingly challenging vocabulary is said to embed spellings in student’s minds. It can be reinforced by writing down unfamiliar words in a student’s own dictionary in a loose version of say, cover, write, check, using this for reinforcement.

The natural outcome from this method is that students can often recognise incorrect spellings, even if initially they can’t recall the correct spelling. The first base to achieving success in this is to use a word processing package with a planned script which has errors in it. You can begin by leaving the red underlining in so the students know immediately which words are incorrectly spelt and ask them to right click for a list of alternatives, choosing the correct word from the list to replace it.

Extending this, you can pre-edit the passage, choosing to ignore the incorrect spelling thus removing the red underlining. The students should highlight the words they think are incorrect then retype the word alongside it. If correctly identified, a red line will now appear. They can then use the right click to find the correct word. Finally, simply give them a list of an appropriate number of spellings on the board, some spelt correctly, some incorrectly and ask them to edit it.

Games in class such as ‘Give me a Letter’ where a word is spelt by the class; one child giving one letter before moving to the next is a great way to involve everyone and you can still differentiate by choosing who has to give which letter.

Anagrams are another good way of seeing how the letters form a word. Whilst this used to be popular and easily done, many students struggle with the concept. Begin by giving them the first couple of letters in the right order before increasing the challenge. A natural progression from this is to play Scrabble.

Encourage spelling games at home, perhaps a family game of Scrabble with dictionaries to hand to check accuracy. Watch out for incorrect spellings in the media or in the high street and do a display in class of howlers.
The key to spelling success, as with everything, is practice but it’s more difficult with spellings if it’s not to be dull and lifeless. Instead go for a variety of approaches but use them regularly.

Dave Lewis

Primary teacher

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