This latest DCSF publication pulls together much traditional thinking about how spelling has been taught in British schools for over a hundred years without providing any evidence that anyone learns to spell as a result of it.
From the very beginnings of the development of our compulsory schooling system, spelling was identified as a major obstacle to the development of literacy. This was in the days before teacher training colleges and university departments of education had been thought of, and long before any really serious scientific studies into important areas such as child development, learning theory, pedagogical techniques, etc.
Those concerned with teaching literacy engaged in what seemed most obvious to them, i.e. a top-down, intellectual analysis of how English spelling had developed into the standard forms enshrined in Johnson’s Dictionary. They looked at areas of study that were available to them such as: historical influence – Germanic, Romantic and Greek sources of spelling patterns; morphological and etymological knowledge – roots, prefixes, suffixes, compound words, etc; phonetic knowledge – differences between long and short vowels, spelling conventions, homophones, etc; and phonological knowledge – syllables, rhymes, etc. (See the Introduction to Support for Spelling, pages 2, 3.)
What this over-complex approach betrayed was: a complete lack of thought and understanding about what knowledge and skills primary-aged children bring to their schooling; how accurate teaching methods could support and develop to optimise their literacy development, particularly in terms of accuracy of spelling. This was not surprising given that the scientific disciplines involved had barely started in the 19th Century.
Over a hundred years later this is no longer true, but our rapid increase in knowledge about learning theory and child development appears to have by-passed many teacher training institutions, as well as the policy wonks in the DCSF, where there is little evidence of any re-thinking about educational strategies for teaching literacy.
If we take a step back and look at the list above, it is quite obvious that in the main it outlines a curriculum for academic teaching about grammatical structures and the evolution/history of the English language – both spoken and written. In their place and at the right time, some aspects of it have a proper place for teaching our children about their language and extending the range of their vocabulary. However, such an approach could only ever have a marginal bearing on the accuracy of spelling of a very few pupils. Virtually all of the difficulties in the area of both spelling and reading stem from the inaccurate literacy instruction most pupils receive from the first day of their schooling.
So, how should we be teaching these two most important of aspects of the school curriculum? I will be posting more on this in a few days.