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It's time to take a logical approach to teaching spelling

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 12, 2012

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It has been announced that, among boys in their final year at primary school, 20,000 had a reading age at or below seven. During my 30 years of dealing with this problem, and observing the relevant statistics, every child who could spell more than 130 words had a reading age above seven.

So, if pupils aged six could start to learn spellings at the rate of one per week, and continue for four years, they would achieve RA7 well before the age of 11.

I have been grateful to the editor of Western Morning News over recent years for publishing my letters on this subject, but this gave rise to a query from a good friend.

"If the Local Education Authorities of Cornwall and Devon all have special education advisers, why do they not confirm or refute your propositions?"

One answer may be that they have not studied the statistics for long enough to argue the case, but the sad truth may be that no one is sufficiently interested to consider an alternative approach, to remedy the unfortunate situation of sub-literate boys in early years at primary school.

For decades we have been aware that boys are under-performing, especially at reading and writing, the basics for most school subjects.

Now we are given to understand that fewer girls are taking A levels in physics, and probably mathematics also. Is it time for the teachers in early years classes at primary schools to adopt a less imaginative, more mechanistic approach to teaching reading and spelling, to correct both imbalances, and, perhaps, dispel the spectre of dyslexia?

In my experience, when these "failing" pupils can spell just 30 words, most will be of two letters.

For this, they need to be able to recognise and reproduce all the vowels and half the consonants. At the 60-word level, the majority will be of three letters, and usually of regular phonic pattern. This is because boys find it easier to understand how things work (mechanistic), and are confused by irregularities, so they could learn to spell short, phonically regular words if they were not expected to use them immediately in creative writing.

Now you need to look on the computer. The internet website Support for Spelling lists words by frequency of use, not by how helpful they may be in establishing phonic awareness.

Included in the first 20 words are "said, of, was", but none of these irregularities would be among the first 50 that poor readers might be expected to memorise.

Coupled with the demand for joined writing from the start (which is not the way the WMN and most books are printed) many boys find the effort is just not worth it, and give up.

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