St Catherine's student using a wheel to learn spelling, an innovative way.
23 May 2018

Phonemenon: How all students can become phenomenal spellers

​​​We all enjoy brunch on Sunday, we have stayed at a motel, we have wondered about Brexit, we listen to podcasts, and we hate smog. These combo words, or portmanteaus as they’re known, are so useful. So, we’ve made one of our own to describe our innovative approach to teaching spelling at St Catherine’s: phonemenon.

It’s a bit of a mouthful, we know. It’s a deliberate mash-up of phoneme and phenomenon. ‘Phoneme’ means the sounds that we hear in English and ‘phonemenon’ refers to how all students can become phenomenal spellers.

So why do we need to shake things up? English is an alphabetical language where we use letters to write words. But it is not a phonetic language – there’s no easy match between sounds and letters. We have 26 letters in our alphabet, but we have 44 sounds, with hundreds of ways to write these sounds down. While phonics is important when learning to spell, teaching sounds alone is simply inadequate. In too many schools, phonics-based programs limit students. If the only tool we give young children to spell is to say, “sound it out”, we are making a phonological promise to them that English simply cannot keep (Misty Adoniou, ‘Why some kids can’t spell and why spelling tests won’t help. The Conversation, 2013).

We need to dispel the myth that good spelling comes naturally. Children need to be taught to spell in a way that suits their style of learning. Good spelling comes from good teaching that caters to the strengths of the child.

Learning to speak is an innate skill. As infants, we mimic the language of our parents and mirror the way their mouths move when forming sounds. However, reading, writing and spelling are taught skills. As research has shown us, spelling ability is not a measure of intelligence. We need to identify a child’s strengths and learning style, and then teach to those.

Most spelling errors I encounter in Stage 2 and 3 made by ‘poor’ spellers show a dependence on the ‘sounding out’ strategy. As only 12 per cent of words in English are spelled the way they sound, our students are set up for failure. I have taught students who have had excellent reading skills, creative writing abilities or an incredible capacity for critical and creative thinking, but they have been poor spellers. We need to stop and analyse the reasons why this is an anomaly, as it is clearly not a result of the child’s intellect.

At St Catherine’s, teachers have been designing innovative ways for students to access and unpack spelling. We want to teach all students to become phenomenal spellers.

So how do we do it? English is a morpho-phonemic language. It is the combination of the sound, the history and the meaning of the word that influences its spelling. The four cornerstones of the English language are orthography, phonology, morphology and etymology. By analysing these four threads, we can truly unpack the spelling of words.

So what does this look like in the classroom? As educators it is our role to nurture a curiosity about words so that students can understand the logic behind the way words are spelled.

This is how we do it:

  • We start with student strengths. By doing this we can identify if something doesn’t quite add up with their achievement in other subjects.

  • We look for meaningful ways to spark the conversation around linguistics and vocabulary.

  • We use explicit teaching of true linguistics, highlighting the importance of teacher and student knowledge.

  • We use quality literature and embed spelling across the curriculum.

  • We integrate technology by using online dictionaries, apps such as HP Reveal and Interactive IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). We mirror student work to the TV to promote peer feedback and use websites like Kahoot! so they can create their own spelling quizzes to apply and evaluate their understanding.

  • We adapt models of thinking to challenge all learners and ensure we are extending our high-potential learners in a mixed-ability classroom.

  • We give students a choice about how they document their work. They can use the whiteboard tables, poster paper or record their work neatly in their writing books. No one-size-fits-all workbook!

  • We teach students the IPA to help support their understanding of pronunciation or difficult spelling choices.

  • We have a strong focus on staff development, collaboration and mentoring. I run in-class demonstrations, provide team teaching opportunities and run lunch time and after school workshops. This ensures a consistent approach to spelling across the junior school.

How will this help your daughter? Teaching spelling effectively supports reading and writing development. Improved understanding of vocabulary aids reading comprehension, which enables a use of broader vocabulary in her writing.

Teaching spelling is complex and it is often a lack of word knowledge and an understanding of linguistics that causes teachers to shy away from teaching spelling in a creative way. Teachers are more inclined to test spelling, rather than to teach it. If we shift the literacy paradigm, if we teach spelling in a holistic manner, focusing on the four cornerstones of linguistics, our students will flourish.

image of phoneme spelling with letters replaced to spell phenomenon

spelling specialist Ms Katharyn Reid
Year 4 teacher Spelling specialist
B Ed (Hons) Primary