Spelling trouble in our classes

By Brendan Manning - with Jenee Tibshraeny


Western Bay primary school teachers have been struggling to fit enough time for spelling into a constantly expanding curriculum.

Brookfield School principal and Western Bay of Plenty Principal Association president Robert Hyndman said spelling standards had been a challenge for teachers in the past few years.

Different approaches to teaching different subjects went in cycles, he said.

"You emphasise one point, a few years ago it was creativity and you didn't need to worry about spelling, just get them to get the ideas down. The ideas might improve but the spelling and punctuation goes the other way."

Spelling was constantly challenging to learn. While there was no less time in the day to teach, the curriculum had grown, Mr Hyndman said.

"It comes down to what the priorities are."

Research has found New Zealand teachers have difficulty finding time to teach spelling in a busy day and their initial training did not give them the skills to teach the subject proficiently.

University of Canterbury senior education lecturer Brigid McNeill said teachers typically used a memory-based strategy - spelling tests with pre-taught words - rather than concentrate on developing skills which would help children spell all words correctly.

"They need to teach children about prefixes and suffixes, to identify sounds within words, and about common spelling patterns in English. If they know how to spell a word such as define and they know the spelling of the suffix tion then they have a good shot at spelling definition correctly," she said.

Pillans Point Primary School principal Matt Simeon said that through end-of-year writing samples staff had identified spelling as something that needed attention.

"It's a balance between wanting accuracy and not hounding kids with spelling to the extent that they lose the expression in their writing," he said.

Tahatai Coast School deputy principal Jenny Griggs said the school did not have a uniform spelling programme.

"Teachers are individuals. Rather than trying to enforce set programmes, we like to give them options ... it's different with spelling as it's almost like a creative kind of learning," she said.

Number Works and Words Tauranga owner Leanne Rhodes-Robinson was confident teachers were doing their best.

"Part of the problem is that teachers have 30-plus students of different levels in their class," she said.

During her research Dr McNeill surveyed 405 primary school teachers from a variety of regions and schools of varying socio-economic statuses on their spelling instruction and assessment practices.

She noticed a large variation in practices, but most teachers focused on development through analysing spelling errors.

Teachers struggled to find time to teach spelling within the curriculum and lacked professional knowledge about English language structure.

"Many teachers also reported that their initial teacher education programmes did not provide them with adequate training in this area."

Dr McNeill said teachers needed to build their language structure awareness so they could provide explicit instruction in spelling.

Working on language structure awareness not only benefited spelling, but also vocabulary development and reading skills, she said.

New Zealand children were struggling more with writing than reading - with 32 per cent performing below national standards.

Although spelling was only one component of writing development, accurate and fluent spellers had more cognitive resources to focus on higher-order aspects of writing, Dr McNeill said.


- Bay of Plenty Times

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