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Getting to the ‘root’ of the problem

The notorious Friday spelling test. I can remember practising my spelling words all week as a child. I even slept with my spelling list under my pillow once or twice, hoping that somehow the words would magically transfer by osmosis into my brain. Yet primary teachers around the country continue to experience the same well-known phenomenon. Those children who earn full marks on Friday’s test then misspell the same word in their writing on Monday. The question arises: did the children really learn how to spell each word?

With the recent introduction of the Interim Teacher Assessment Frameworks for Writing, and with it the shift to a "secure fit" approach, pressure on both primary teachers and children continues to intensify. In order to be deemed as "working at the expected standard at KS2 in writing”, a child needs to be able to spell most of the Year 5 and 6 words correctly – a list that includes words such as “accommodate”, “neighbour” and “possession”. Is it fair that a child who is highly creative, imaginative and grammatically accurate in their writing will be told they are “working towards the expected standard” purely because of their spelling? Through carrying out this research project, we hope to support our children to be successful spellers within this framework.

It’s fair to say that we feel we have not yet ‘cracked’ the area of spelling – a feeling which I know resonates with other primary colleagues. When given the opportunity to visit other primary schools or meet other primary teachers, one of the first things I am keen to find out is ‘How do you teach spelling in your school?’

In all honesty, when beginning to search for ideas for our research question, we were rather overwhelmed by the vast area of spelling which greeted us. For several weeks, we flitted between various points of focus including homophones, engagement and the use of ICT in spelling - yet the more we read, the harder it became to pinpoint a key line of enquiry. And when an article entitled, ‘The effects of chewing cinnamon flavoured gum on spelling acquisition’ popped up on the screen, it was then that we realised the sheer quantity of approaches that have been tried and tested to raise attainment in spelling. However, we drew some comfort from Creswell’s (2008) proposal that "the hardest part of any research project is to identify the specific question which will act as the sole focus of your enquiry".

Our lightbulb moment came during a conversation about an article we had both separately read (McQuirter Scott, 2004). As we turned the pages, we both found ourselves nodding in agreement with the findings as they seemed very familiar to us and matched experiences in our own classrooms. Consequently, we decided to focus our research on the ‘Meaning-Derivation’ stage in spelling and investigate the extent to which it can impact children’s attainment in spelling.

Key points from our reading instigated further reflections:

  • Children often rely on the ‘sounding out’ strategy or visual memory for more complex words which are composed of prefixes, root words and suffixes – an approach which will not always provide them with the answer.

e.g. irreplaceable

Could the teaching of meaning-derivation alongside word sorts and word building support children to spell words like this with greater success?

place > replace > replaceable > irreplaceable

  • Children can struggle to make connections between words that are related in meaning and have a common root.

e.g. muscle

If children were to give greater consideration to word families and meaning, could this support them to spell words like this with greater success?

the silent c in ‘muscle’ can be remembered if it is associated with ‘muscular’

We look forward to exploring how approaches such as these can support our children with spelling and raise attainment across our Trust.

Beth Allen Year 6 Class Teacher Histon and Impington Junior School Cambridge Primary Education Trust

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