Poor spelling is a consequence of uninformed teaching.
Misty Adoniou — Spelling It Out
I made some important discoveries this week in my learning journey as an English teacher: I’ve been an uninformed teacher. I feel more than just a little embarrassed that it has taken me so long to connect the dots when it comes to spelling. I’m sure that any English teacher worth their salt would probably be thinking “Really? You’ve never thought to use morphology and etymology as the basis for building vocabulary and spelling skills?”
Well, no. A week ago I couldn’t discern between a free or bound morpheme. I couldn’t tell you much about the history of the English language either. It turns out that, like many primary school teachers, I have relied on an overemphasis on phonics when teaching spelling.
I’ve used morphology sparingly because I was ignorant to its importance. Etymology was a concept that students graduated to when they had systematically mastered phonics. I’ve been coerced by commercial spelling programs. I’ve never actually questioned this approach because that’s what everyone else around me was doing and most students showed growth and were able to build reliable phonological and orthological skills. Most students…
But I’ve had some intelligent and hardworking young bookworms pass through our classroom that just could not spell, and it has bothered me to not be able help them unlock spelling. Many students with learning difficulties, autism, dyslexia and dysgraphia have also passed through our care having made little to no progress in their spelling ability.
I recently read Spelling It Out by Misty Adoniou which invited me to take stock of what I value in my teaching practice. I’ve always tried to make spelling interesting and engaging. But “meh…” It’s spelling. I’ve individualised student programs, used diagnostic testing and systematic sequencing to build skills, but learning has always been built around programs isolated from authentic reading and writing.
I’ve peddled the Monday morning word lists, Look-cover-write-check, and the Friday tests to see who did the work and if the words stuck (spoiler: they didn’t).
Misty Adoniou (much to the chagrin of her detractors) refers to English as a “morpho-phonemic” language. She states that “purely phonics-based — or sounds based — approaches to spelling are doomed to failure.” She asserts that students are best served by strategies that attach meaning to words, particularly students who are low-achieving spellers. So we have attempted to become storytellers based on meeting students where they are in their learning journey. Spelling will no longer be taught in isolation, but like grammar and punctuation and language features, be integrated into our everyday writing.
We started our new spelling journey with a single word: acyanopsia.
Our current crop of year 6/7 students is the first in a very long time to have been subjected to a systematic phonics-based spelling program for the entire duration of their schooling. The problem is, phonology, orthology and memory are pretty much the only skills this cohort have to rely on when spelling unfamiliar words. Given there are about a quarter of a million words in the English language, these skills did not help them one bit when dealing with the word in question. A couple of adults in the room faired no better. But as soon as we attached meaning (etymology) and broke the word down into its meaningful pieces (morphology), the task became far more manageable.
As presented in Spelling It out, acyanopsia means ‘unable to see the colour blue’. So we dug into the three morphemes all borrowed from Greek:
1) a — a prefix meaning ‘without’.
2) cyan — a free morpheme meaning ‘a shade of blue’. Along with magenta and yellow, it is a familiar word when refilling printer ink cartridges.
3) opsia — a bound morpheme meaning sight (optic).
It makes sense, doesn’t it? It certainly did for our struggling young spellers. And while it is a very small sample size, most of them managed to recall the spelling of this word a few days later along with the previously challenging multi-syllabic words: subterranean; magician; encouragement; Echidna and titanium.
Would highly recommend Misty Adoniou’s Spelling It Out highly to all elementary and middle school teachers. The book includes a brief history of the English language; a scope and sequence for learning from K-7; and practical resources for a transition from traditional phonics based systems to morpho-phonemic program tailored to individual student needs.
Spelling It Out (Part II): Becoming Storytellers is also available to view.