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Opinion: Spelling bee TV show doesn’t promote good teaching

The Great Australian Spelling Bee television series might promote the teaching and learning of spelling to podium status; however, testing children under pressurised entertainment conditions perilously skirts ethical boundaries and certainly does not constitute effective teaching.

Being able to efficiently and accurately spell is an important part of the writing process. My research has shown that competency in spelling is a strong predictor of success in compositional writing, more so than grammar and punctuation. Proficiency in spelling enables greater cognitive capacity for other important writing elements, such as vocabulary precision, syntax and text cohesion. It has also been found to benefit learning in other academic disciplines. For example, other research has shown that children who experience difficulty with spelling are unable to conduct web searches effectively when gathering subject-specific information in disciplines such as science or history.

Instruction in spelling can support the development of compositional writing, reading fluency and comprehension, as well as vocabulary knowledge. However, mastering the standard English spelling system is a complex and gradual process.

Expecting students to memorise lists of words in preparation for a weekly spelling test or for a spelling bee is not the most effective instructional method. This rote memorisation technique does not guarantee that learning will be retained in the longer term or that the learning will be accurately applied in compositional writing. In addition, research has indicated that a reliance on phonics instruction is also not an adequate instructional approach, particularly as children progress through the primary school years.

Proficient spellers do not rely merely on sounding out, yet it is common practice to instruct students who may struggle with the spelling of a word to have a go and sound it out. Usually, this is not helpful feedback. Rather, teachers should be responsive to specific linguistic skills and strategies that demand attention and this does not always require a sounding-out approach. Children need to build linguistic capacity so they can do what skilful spellers do. Like effective readers, effective spellers are able to draw on a comprehensive repertoire of strategies to spell less familiar words. For example, skilled spellers are aware that not all words in the English language can be ‘sounded out’ and they will often adapt their strategy according to the function or meaning of a word. In the hands of a knowledgeable teacher, children can learn to build a repertoire of spelling strategies, even from the early years of learning to write.

Teachers need to provide regular and ongoing opportunities for students to explore how words might carry different meanings, how they might be constructed in different social and cultural contexts, and how such contexts determine the way words and word parts could be manipulated in a written text. Therefore, effective spelling instruction requires teachers to have explicit and deep knowledge of the linguistic components that underpin the language. Learning to spell is a complex and gradual process of building autonomy in the co-ordination of three linguistic components: phonology (knowledge of speech sounds related to letters), orthography (knowledge of plausible letter sequences) and morphology (knowledge of meaningful word parts such as prefixes, suffixes, homophones and root words). Teaching students to co-ordinate phonological, orthographic and morphological thinking processes is fundamental.

Explicitly teaching the linguistic intricacies of spelling remains an important part of children’s education in the digital age. While teachers need to be equipped with linguistic knowledge in order to support student learning in spelling, parents can best help their children learn to spell by nurturing a love for reading, encouraging and valuing authentic writing, and providing opportunities for language-rich conversations at home.

Tessa Daffern is a researcher at the Research Institute for Professional Practice, Learning and Education, Charles Sturt University.

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