I have a confession to make; I can’t spell and have carried this burden all my life. Primary school was a series of disappointments because I never received ‘spelling’ jelly beans (our teachers rewarded students who spelt their words correctly three weeks in a row). I felt helpless; even when I recognised a word was spelt incorrectly, I couldn’t remember how to re-assemble the letters. To solve the problem, my teachers recommended extensive reading. However, since I was already a book worm who rarely had her nose out of a book, the advice was not helpful.
It wasn’t until many years later that I realized why voracious reading was not an effective way to improve my spelling – I see images rather than individual letters (so those ‘joke’ paragraphs that use a jumbled letter sequence are easy to read). Having identified my problem, I devised other ways to manage my ‘condition’.
I am vigilant in checking my spelling. I also have a deep empathy with students learning to spell, particularly those who find it challenging. I am open about the fact that I find spelling difficult and ask students to check the spelling of all words I write on the board. My students seem to enjoy the opportunity to ‘correct’ their teacher and actively search my writing for potential mistakes. This demonstrates that I expect all writing to be checked before it is ‘handed in’.
Now before anyone recoils in horror at a teacher who may make a mistake when writing on the board, I need to state plainly and clearly, I believe spelling is extremely important. To my way of thinking, taking the time to spell correctly and use grammar appropriately (in other words careful proof reading) shows respect. Correct spelling demonstrates respect for your readers and respect for your ideas. It also shows that you respect the rules of your community and perhaps more importantly, it conveys respect for yourself. So, even though I am a poor speller, I am an effective proof reader. This is the skill I model to my classes. I show them it is ok to make mistakes but, it is very important to correct them. When I ask my students to ‘check my spelling’ I am purposefully doing three things.
1 – I am empowering students within the learning situation. I am asking them to help me identify problems in my writing, which I then correct. We follow the same process when checking their writing. This creates a shared learning opportunity – students learn they are an active part of the learning process. Learning is an exchange rather than a one way presentation. Therefore, when I correct their work they view it as an opportunity to improve their writing, rather than seeing it as ‘marking’ or ‘judging’.
2- I am checking student’s level of engagement, if I find a spelling mistake before they do, they know, I know, they have simply copied information from the board without actively participating or thinking about what they are writing. In these cases we discuss the learning process before we progress further.
3. I am modeling the drafting and editing process. This demonstrates to the students who feel dejected about their spelling ability that a spelling problem can be overcome. They learn, when spelling is difficult, I expect them to use a dictionary or the spell checker on their computer, to edit their work.
I encourage my students to write fearlessly. Therefore, first drafts become a creative opportunity for raw thoughts to ‘flow’ onto the page. Then, in subsequent drafts, these ideas can be organized coherently and cohesively. As drafts reach final stages, they need to be proof read for spelling and grammar errors.
In my experience, adopting this approach actually improves student literacy (and spelling). They learn to self correct and, equally importantly, they are not held back from expressing themself. Rather than assuming spelling skills define their ability to write, they learn that creativity and perseverance have a greater influence on the success of their writing. Spelling is a mechanical process that simply requires a writer to check their work. However, magic happens through creating a message which is entertaining, persuasive or informing.
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