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Getting to the ‘root’ of the problem - ‘Our Survey Said…’

Picture the scene : a Monday morning, a primary classroom, children busily writing. One child stops, ‘mid-flow’ of creativity and approaches the teacher.

“How do I spell ‘courageous’?” they ask.

The teacher smiles, encouraged by the fact that this writer is confident enough to want to include more ambitious vocabulary and is not deterred by their awareness that they are unsure how to spell it accurately.

“That’s a brilliant word you’ve chosen. How could you have a go at spelling it?”

“I can sound it out,” comes the reply and off they return to their work. When reading the finished piece, it is apparent that they have indeed used the ‘sounding it out’ strategy : couraijous. But they had had a go! Furthermore, they had made a ‘phonically plausible attempt’ (Teacher Assessment Framework at the end of Key Stage 1 for Writing 2017-18). Indeed, ‘sounding out’ can be a useful tool, and phonics knowledge can be key to early reading and writing, and of course measured in the statutory Year 1 phonics assessment. However, are we encouraging children to become over-reliant on this strategy? Indeed, the limitations of this approach are highlighted in this poem attributed to T.S. Watt.

I take it you already know

Of tough and bough and cough and dough?

Others may stumble, but not you,

On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?

Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,

To learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word

That looks like beard and sounds like bird,

And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead –

For goodness sake don’t call it deed!

Watch out for meat and great and threat

(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

Extract of poem attributed to T.S. Watt.

Found (Sept 2017) on :

Quoted by Vivian Cook and Melvin Bragg 2004,

by Richard Krogh, in D Bolinger & D A Sears, Aspects of Language, 1981, and in Spelling Progress Bulletin March 1961, Brush up on your English.

My research colleague and I are interested in finding out the impact of teaching children a wider range of strategies to support them in their learning of spelling and the patterns and complexities of the English language. We teach a range of strategies to help children succeed in solving calculations, so could this therefore be reflected in our approach towards the teaching of spelling?

The scenario described certainly appeared typical when having conversations about spellings over a cup of tea with colleagues in the staff room, from our reflections of our reading about the teaching and learning of spelling as well as through observations in our own classrooms. These thoughts therefore pointed us in the direction for the focus of our data collection. In carrying out surveys amongst teachers and children, we wanted to see whether our initial predictions were accurate: that ‘sounding out’ was a preferred strategy, for children and teachers alike. We were also interested in finding out what other strategies teachers teach and which ones children use. Would they match?

Although there were some limitations to reaching conclusions with a relatively small sample for the surveys, we were able to begin to identify some common themes and patterns. There is certainly a shared vision amongst colleagues across the Trust for wanting to support children to become successful in spelling and to find an approach that works. Several teachers made reference to the idea that they believe greater emphasis is needed in encouraging children to apply their knowledge of spellings into their independent writing and that results in the end of week spelling test are not necessarily a true measure of children’s attainment in spelling. Contrastingly, however, several of the children’s comments reflected their perception that the weekly test was the main purpose for learning spellings. Many expressed that their view of learning spellings was to practise their weekly list of ten words at home, often using the ‘Look, Cover, Write, Check’ approach.

It was interesting to begin to draw conclusions from the surveys and while some of the responses reflected our predictions, there were also some aspects which we had not particularly been expecting. We had anticipated that children may not have a positive view of spelling and this was also supported in responses from some of the teacher questionnaires. For example, our experience had been that in discussing future target areas in writing with children, improvement of spellings is a common response. However, the pupil questionnaires indicated that the majority considered that spelling, including learning new spellings, was relatively easy. The responses for both teacher and pupil questionnaires also gave us the opportunity to reflect on the questions we asked and whether unintentionally, we had asked ‘leading’ questions. This is an area for us to review when we plan to carry out another questionnaire later this year in order to draw comparisons.

The start of a new academic year has seen the introduction of a new spelling programme across the Trust; a programme which focuses on teaching a range of strategies, including visual, auditory and kinaesthetic approaches, and raising the profile of application of learned spellings. In introducing a new system, it was recognised the significant role ‘champions’ have and within each year group, a ‘champion’ leads the planning of spelling, using the new programme and building on what has been recognised as working well. There is certainly the shared motivation amongst teachers for improving children’s attainment in spelling, although also an awareness that there may not be a quick-fix solution; we are looking more long-term whilst still monitoring any short-term impact.

Clare Weatherstone

Hatton Park Primary School

Part of the Cambridge Primary Education Trust (CPET)

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