21st Century Spelling - Digital Literacy Dover

Sunday, 7 May 2017

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 way 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 where screens are ubiquitous, 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 via text with others in a digital environment is commonplace. Even more critical, people who misspell in these environments are generally assumed to be less intelligent, less articulate, and despite their possible intelligence/experience, any perspective they offer is then likely to 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...

Critical considerations:

  1. 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... The corollary to this is the simple fact that the skill of knowing or suspecting that a spelling is wrong is an essential aspect of learning how to spell, especially in a world where checking a spelling is as easy as 'searching it up' in Google, or just asking your smartphone to spell it for you. 
  2. 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 'approach' 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 traditional '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. 
  3. 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 excess 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 will need to use.
  4. 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.
  5. Listening matters just as much than looking (Riesenhuber, 2013). If you can see the word before you spell it, then you're not learning how to spell, you're practising short term recall. Listening is also essential for checking spelling, now computers have the option to speak any word you can type, select the word and have the computer read it out loud, is this the word you were trying to spell?
  6. 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, (or better still: listen say type look) 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'. We see words like faces? Yes, believe it or not, this is exactly what neuroscience (McCandliss et al, 2003) has taught us, more on that phenomenon below... 
  7. 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. After all, what is the point of learning how to spell a word if you don't know how to use it? 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.
  8. More recognition of the kinds of spellings that are particularly tricky in a screen centred writing environment, this means a greater emphasis on distinguishing between words with similar sounds and different patterns, homophones, homonyms, homographs and heteronyms.
  9. Making smarter use of digital tools to facilitate this kind of practice, while spelling games that are built on skill drill using pre-set wordlists are useful, but you should also 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, more on this below...
  10. Use any text app or word processor to spell check, before using a teacher. This could be a simple as a notes app on a mobile device, this will enable students to check spellings without the tedium of using a dictionary. Then a far more appropriate use of teacher time is to review spellings for careless mistakes, or more likely mistakes resulting from misconceptions about phonetics/word structure, especially spellings that alter the meaning of a sentence. 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. Even better, if this list is 'situated' or cloud synced (Google Doc, iCloud Notes) they can access, add to and augment that list from home or school. 
  11. 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
  12. Digital technologies are changing which words are traditionally understood to be "tricky" words/sneaky spellings… so for example any word typed in a text environment will automatically switch the 'ie' in a word like receive. These old-fashioned spelling rules just further complicate matters. “I before e except after c” works for only a handful of words. It has so many exceptions (like the words “science”, “sufficient”, “seize”, “weird” or “vein”) it is another rule and laborious chore we could do without.

Don't teach, facilitate

Neuroscience over the past decade* reveals fascinating insights into the way our brains learn words. Studies indicate that we use the same parts of brain (both left and right) to process face recognition that we use to process word recognition. So much so in fact, that as we move from early childhood into adulthood and become more proficient in word recognition, our capacity to recognise and process faces is diminished—such is the veracity of the connection. 

The parts of our brain (The Visual Word Form Area) that recognise and process faces are the same parts that recognise and process words. This emphasises the fact that spelling is primarily visual and aural, so a rote learning, rule based model is less effective than building an awareness of the unique formation of every word through familiarity, not drilling lists.

Even more fascinating, the VWFA area, "when volunteers listened to spoken sentences, all their brains showed similar responses." When we read, we recognise words as pictures and hear them spoken aloud, we literally “hear” written words in our head (Dehaene & Cohen, 2011).

Words are fundamentally processed and catalogued by their basic sounds and shapes, through visual and aural practice. Think of the way we learn to recognise faces, and pronounce words—certainly not by processing and practising lists of them, we learned them through exposure, and continued feedback, and it just so happens that screens are ideal for immediate, context specific feedback, in way that spelling on paper can never hope to provide. Provide lots of opportunities for students to learn how to spell through this kind of exposure, not through drilling them in lists that have little or no relevance to their own reading, writing, listening or speaking experiences. 

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.

Further reading




A summary of the neuroscientific research is available here, with links to the original sources.

Chevillet, M. A., Jiang, X., Rauschecker, J. P., & Riesenhuber, M. (2013). Automatic phoneme category selectivity in the dorsal auditory stream. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(12), 5208-5215.

Dehaene, S., & Cohen, L. (2011). The unique role of the visual word form area in reading. Trends in cognitive sciences, 15(6), 254-262.

McCandliss, B. D., Cohen, L., & Dehaene, S. (2003). The visual word form area: expertise for reading in the fusiform gyrus. Trends in cognitive sciences, 7(7), 293-299.

1 comment:

  1. Looking great work dear, I really appreciate you on this quality work. Nice post!! These tips on Types of Sentences based on Structure and Function may help me for future. I’ll personally suggest to my friends. I am confident they will be benefited from this web site.