Friday, 31 October 2014

21st Century Spelling

Spilling had never bin maw impotent

Spelling has never been more important, as my example above attempts to illustrate. In an age dominated by screens, misspelling is tantamount to an admission of idiocy—but the ways we teach spelling needs to evolve to take advantage of the unique affordances and challenges of spelling in a screen environment. Please note that none of the words in the title are actually misspellings, but mistakes they are, and a right twazzock you will look if you spell in a way that is overly reliant on proofreading tools as a safety net. It's time we took account of the fact that in a world dominated by screens the ways we teach spelling needs to evolve to take advantage of the unique affordances and challenges of spelling in a screen environment.

These days the likelihood of interacting with others in a digital environment is an extremely commonplace scenario. Even more critical, people who misspell in these environments are generally assumed to be less intelligent, less articulate, and despite their possible intelligence/experience, their perspective will be dismissed or demeaned if it is littered with misspellings. It has never been more important to master the ability to spell correctly. Unfortunately most schools, despite the criticality of spelling in the 21st-century, still rely on 19th century strategies to teach spelling. This really does need to change. So, with that in mind...

14 critical considerations:

  1. Spelling should be managed within the context of writing, and not as a separate "subject", For that reason keeping a separate spelling book is discouraged; a better practice is to think of and learn about words and misspellings and sounds within the context of writing, so for example words that are encountered that are challenging to spell should be recorded at the back of a student's writing book, not in a separate spelling book.
  2. Less is more, more frequent opportunities for kids to think about spelling, but for much shorter periods of time (10-15 minutes per day)
  3. Make direct connections between spelling and handwriting, the actual physicality or skill of the formation of the letters as they are literally connected is meant to reinforce the way the sounds are connected, and builds a visual reinforcement. The idea is to combine physical visual, oral and aural practise to reinforce the feel, the shape and the sound of a word.
  4. Children (and adults) can only spell words they know, sounds obvious, but so many of the spelling lists that are used with students contain words they do not know, so could not possibly be able to spell, other than through guesswork, which leads us to...
  5. There is a much greater validity to the skill of being able "guesstimate" in a TELE (technology enhanced learning environment), and ‘phonological awareness’ is more essential than ever, as an accurate phonetical estimation is relied on by computers to substitute for a correct spelling. A student who cannot phonetically 'attack' a word is unlikely to be able to approximate something that a computer can correct. Related to this is the critical importance of being able to spell the first half of a word correctly, most modern computing devices can now auto complete a word if a student is able to spell the first half of it correctly. Apple's 'QuickType' in iOS 8, and apps like "SwiftKey" utilise this approach very effectively, and the power of Dictation (speech to text) has never been greater, but it will still struggle with homophones (same sound different spelling and meaning). An alternative approach in a 'spelling test' context is to award 2 marks to each word, one mark for being able to spell the word phonetically correctly, or for spelling the first half correctly, and 2 marks if the word is perfect. 
  6. Stop using spelling tests for whole classes with lists of words, this is a nonsensical approach, considering the sheer quantity of words in the typical English dictionary, somewhere in the region of 400,000 words. The words that children learn should be unique and curated from their own literacy life, related to their own writing, reading and speaking, and viewing and listening experiences, or related to specific vocabulary that they are using/used (not will use) in a current unit of study.
  7. Wordlists curated by students should be seen as a source of vocabulary expansion, not just for spelling. Becoming a personal thesaurus/glossary that they should review regularly when writing to enhance the richness of their prose; use it or lose it.
  8. Less reliance upon "spelling rules" which are very rarely consistent, and in many cases can lead to a great deal of confusion. Like when students are asked to note the position of a certain vowel in a word and its impact upon other vowels or consonants within that word, also using acrostics like 'big elephants can always understand...' you get the idea, and of course they only work for one word… Instead focus on more reliance on building familiarity with the way words look and the way words sound, so 'look say cover write check' still works well as a useful skill/drill practice, but with fewer words, more often. This is strongly related to the student's reading life as a synergetic enabler in their spelling life. This becomes a context where students are encouraged to see words as 'friends' and building a large community of 'familiar faces' ie, the more they see these words the more likely they are to be able to spell them, or arguably just as important in the 21st-century, to recognise when the word is not spelt properly, ‘it just doesn't look right'.
  9. Skill drill tasks (practise makes permanent) should also be related to an activity that reinforces their comprehension of the meaning of the word, so ideally students should also invent (not copy) a sentence that uses the word, or even better, more than one of the words in the same sentence, that clearly demonstrates that they can use the word/s with an understanding of it/them. For some students it might be better for them to make an oral recording of them speaking the sentence rather than writing a sentence, if the writing is a challenge to reluctant writers, as the focus is on understanding meaning, and oral recall can be just as effective for building meaning, this is especially important with homophones.
  10. More recognition of the kinds of spellings that are particularly relevant to a screen centred writing environment, this means a greater emphasis on distinguishing between words with similar sounds and different patterns, homophones, homonyms, homographs.
  11. Making smarter use of digital tools to facilitate this kind of practice, discourage spelling games that are built on skill drill using pre-set wordlists, Instead, encourage spelling drills that are built on individually curated wordlists. However these kinds of Apps are not very common, but at least one that does this very well is Squeebles SP.
  12. Use a word processor to spell check, before using a teacher. This could be a simple as a Notes app on a mobile device) to enable students to check spellings without the tedium of using a dictionary. Then the teacher reviews the spelling for careless mistakes, or more likely mistakes resulting from misconceptions about phonetics/word structure. Students need to be empowered to build habits of capturing/collecting words that they know, but cannot spell in their curated lists. The point is, it is better for the student to attempt to type the word in a text application and have the computer suggest corrections than it is for them to try and search for it in a dictionary. While the latter is still helpful, the former is a better cognitive process for learning the spelling of a word, and is also more relevant/likely as an activity or skill set in the 21st-century. Very few adults look up words in a dictionary, most rely on the prompt given by the computer in a word processing environment.
  13. Encourage students to learn how to use the "define" search term in Google, effectively turning any Google search window into a handy Dictionary, eg - define: magnificent
  14. Digital technologies are changing which words are traditionally understood to be "tricky" words/spelling Demons/sneaky spellings… so for example any word typed in a text environment will automatically switch the 'ie' in a word like receive, but will not be able to distinguish between homonyms.

Squeebles Showcase

Squeebles Spelling - multimodal drill and practice
I'm not usually one to emphasise a tool, but from time to time a tool emerges that has affordances that are ridiculous to ignore, Squeebles Spelling is one of those. Digital tools like Squeebles can transform spelling practice by making traditional equivalents pale in comparison, consider the following:


Click to see Squeebles in action in 2BSc! 
Kids can 'masquerade' as a parent or teacher to curate their own lists, careless errors are mitigated by the built in spell check—obviously this feature is not activated when they are actually practising! Alternatively, there are a wide range of built in word lists to choose from that cater to all skill levels.

Multimodality and meaning

It's not enough to spell a word, they need to know how it sounds and understand the meaning. In Squeebles kids can record the sound of the word, as well place it in a sentence, eg "Pear. I like the taste of a pear better than an apple. Pear." Better still make it fun by having the kids make up silly sentences, as long as it shows they understand the meaning anything goes! This makes the activity aural and oral - this way the kids say the word, hear the word, and see the word. 

Immediate feedback - differentiated

No need to wait for a teacher to collect in all the spelling tests, then wait a few days to get them all back, even then, actually acting on the spelling errors is a chore, never mind tracking these over time. Squeebles provides immediate feedback, but even better keeps a record of any errors in a collection called 'Tricky Words' that reflect the words that this individual is struggling with.


Last and maybe least, Squeebles 'gamifies' the successes into mini games, so kids feels a tangible sense of reward, over and above the real reward—improved spelling.