Ditch the word lists to improve students’ spelling

One of Australia’s leading literacy researchers has urged schools to stop handing out weekly spelling lists for students to rote learn if they want to develop good spellers.

MultiLit Senior Research Fellow, Dr Alison Madelaine, said providing students with lists of words to learn – typically via the popular “look, cover, say, write, check’’ technique – was ineffective as it relied too heavily on memorisation rather than teaching the inner workings of the English language.

The warning comes after the latest NAPLAN results revealed that 37 per cent of Year 3 students and 29 per cent of Year 5 students are failing to reach proficiency in spelling.

Dr Madelaine said schools looking to improve students’ spelling should focus on explicitly teaching spelling rules and conventions.

“There is far more research evidence supporting language-based spelling instruction as opposed to methods based mainly on rote memorisation,” she said.

“Language-based spelling instruction involves teaching children about linguistic concepts, such as speech sounds and patterns, relationships between letters and sounds, and word origins and meanings.

“When children are taught to think about language and the internal structure of words, they acquire the knowledge and the tools needed to spell many more words than they would ever encounter on a spelling list – including new words that they might not have come across before.”

According to Dr Madelaine, teacher-led explicit instruction in spelling was important as it enabled student errors to be picked up in a timely manner.

Children should be given immediate feedback during teaching if we want to maximise their chances of success, “not days afterward as is often the case with weekly spelling tests,” she said.

Originating at Macquarie University, MultiLit is a leading researcher and developer of effective literacy programs, having worked with over 6000 Australian schools and training more than 9000 teachers each year.

After several years in development, MultiLit is about to launch SpellEx – short for “Spelling Explained” – a comprehensive, whole-class program designed to develop students’ understanding of the English spelling system by addressing the key areas of spelling: phonology, orthography, and morphology. Aimed at Year 3 onwards, Part A will be available from Term 4 2023.

Upwey South Primary School in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges was one of 10 schools participating in a nationwide pilot of SpellEx, and principal Damien Kitch said students’ spelling had improved considerably since adopting the program across middle years classes.

“We no longer ask students to memorise lists of sight words, having found it wasn’t an effective way to develop spelling,” Mr. Kitch said.

“Continuing on from the explicit and systematic phonics approach we take in the early years classrooms, we now teach students how the English spelling system works, such as the rules and conventions, and the improvement in their spelling and their writing has been phenomenal.”

The school’s latest NAPLAN scores show that 84 per cent of Year 5 students achieved in the top two proficiency levels in spelling and 94 per cent in writing, compared to 71 per cent and 78 per cent respectively across similar schools.

Dr Madelaine said similar to MultiLit’s InitiaLit reading program, SpellEx aligned with the evidence on how the brain learns by employing systematic, explicit instruction to ensure that all children are provided with the best opportunity to learn.

“Even in the era of the spell checker, good spelling is an extremely important skill for a literate person to possess – it helps readers to understand what they are reading, while inaccurate spelling can make it difficult to communicate ideas,” she said.

“Spelling is also important for reading, and vice versa. Reading skills such as phonemic awareness and phonics are necessary for good spelling to develop, and instruction in spelling can result in better reading.”

Find out more about SpellEx, the new whole-class spelling program from MultiLit, here.

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