Trilingual childhoods, B-E-A-U-tiful, and more. In this episode, Andy, Emily, and Adam discuss the point of spelling tests. Are they essential? Are lots of random words the best way to learn? Plus, hear Emily speak of the importance of root words and phonics.
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hello? I'm Emily Guille-Marrett.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is The School of School Podcast. Welcome to The School of School Podcast.
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Hello everyone. So today, we are going to be thinking about spelling tests, and I'm really intrigued about this in the moment. It's something I pay a ridiculous amount of attention to both, for professional reasons, but as a parent as well. So I'm intrigued by the fact that children still come home with lists of spellings that they should be learning. And, whether this is just something that is essential and continues and has been around for a very, very long time and should continue, or whether there's in fact a better way of doing it? So I feel very lucky to have you. Adam, today. Because I'm going to ask you some of your thoughts on the old spelling test. Previous times we've talked about routines and in many schools, the weekly spelling test seems to be a pretty major event for all age groups I hasten to add.
So the two things that I'm interested in is, are spelling tests essential? Do children need to be tested on their spellings? If they are essential, are we using the teaching, the spelling and then testing the right things? And that is because of the change in the use of phonics. So children, if they're blending, if they're segmenting for spelling, having random lists of long words without any kind of, I guess, sense of them being together to help the children practice a particular say graphine or something like that, is that the best way of doing it? I don't know. What do you think Adam?
Do you know, this is really interesting, so I work primarily in mathematics education. That's what I read about more than anything else. And, when you ask me about this, I'm immediately freaked out because I've got, I think a conscious bias because my spelling's not very good. I am probably the world's fastest with a dictionary, genuinely. I sit with a dictionary and I flip through diction words at a phenomenal rate. More, more than like, yes, there's spell checks, but I'll often consult the dictionary, right? So I struggle with this a little bit because I can talk to [inaudible] come home about, the multiplication tables on a Friday and those sorts of things, but the spelling tests. So I used to remember the little notebook I had at primary school in the seventies, that had the words and I'd always get words like beautiful, wrong.
And there was a television program called Hart to Hart, and it was spelled H-A-R-T on the telly. And, so I got that wrong in the spelling test, because that's not how you spell heart, but I was thinking, yes, it is. I've seen it on the telly a hundred times. This is exactly how you spell heart, so stuff like this. So I've got this funny relationship with spelling. And I think that my experience can't have been as good as it should be, because I'm an avid reader. And, I just assume that there's an absolute correlation between reading a lot and seeing words often and the ability to spell them well. And I think that it must be governed by focusing on the patterns and words or understanding, not just word, as a series of, however many symbols that you just memorize and spit back out, because if you memorize them wrong, like I did with beautiful, I'd always get 9 out of 10 and you always had to do the word that you got wrong the following week.
So I'd be beautiful all the way around, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Because that's how I memorized it to start with. I was on a hiding to nothing before I even started. So, with these things, I think, and I'm liking this when I was talking about the multiplication tables. I think if you used and you understand why you are learning them and how they can be utilized elsewhere and how they can help you access new learning and how they can help you spell heart and beautiful, well then perhaps there's a place for them. But, if it's just memorizing something for one day, there's a lot of words in the dictionary, and I'm not convinced that without spotting patterns and understanding how words are constructed, then I think that we are missing a trick. Andy, you are smiling. Go on, tell me what about you and spelling?
Yeah, look my spelling is horrible, right? And, I'm ashamed of it, right? But, is it my fault that my spelling is like that? I don't know. That's kind of an interesting question, but, if you want to of make me feel really stupid, just point out that I used the wrong spelling or maybe I use the wrong there, you know, as spelled in T-H-E-R-E when I should have put in T-H-E-I-R. And, it's not that I don't get it or that I don't know when to use. It's just sometimes you just you make a mistake, right? And it just sort of happens because, you're busy thinking about what you're trying to say, not how to spell the word or whatever.
I don't know, but it's an interesting question. Is it important that people know how to spell words? Well, look, it's a convention and we should all agree on the convention and we should all try to use it. It's important that we all agree that this is how you spell this word, otherwise, that never used to exist by the way. It's like, okay, this is how you spell this word. That's great. Does it matter if you get it wrong? I don't think it really matters, as long as people know what you're trying to say. You can make the same argument by all kinds of different things like addition tables or multiplication tables. Does it matter if you don't know what seven times eight is off the top of your head? Is that really important?
Of course, you want people to know what it is, right? Because it's helpful. Of course, you want to know how to spell a word because it's helpful and it's useful, but is it worth making somebody feel stupid about? That's a different question and maybe a more profound one, right? I don't know the answer to this. I really don't. All I know is that, my wife has impeccable grammar and spelling and very, very important to her and it's always been important and it's important to everyone in her family and it's super important and they're all so good at it. And I'm jealous.
Is interesting that you were saying about your wife. So she's a speller. It really matters. I wonder how she was taught with the spelling and I wonder whether sometimes, you know, we've talked before about cognitive load, but, whether teaching the spelling test of just thousands, millions of individual words, whether actually testing more substantial chunky rules, if you like, would be a smarter way of doing things? So, for example, we talked about, understanding the root words a bit later on like the root words, and then you've got your prefixes and your suffixes and knowing what the rule is. So you don't have to worry about learning the whole word, like unsuccessful, because you know, you've learned success, so you know what the rule is and you're not be taking off an S to add F-U-L or you're not going to ever add F-F-U-L. There are certain rules that if you apply those, you only have to learn once.
And most of the time completely, it works. And, actually it would be more useful to assess people progress based on their understanding of the conventions of it. And, for younger children, I would say maybe ensuring that they've nailed their phonics, in terms of their spelling, their segmenting to spell and that they know that what are the different ways that you can write a-i, a-y, for may, pay, day, a split digraph e for cake and understanding, because then you're not going to have a situation where you, once you've learnt those rules, there's always exceptions to a rule, but you can generally apply them.
And there's one which I learned that I just absolutely love, which most words that, where you need to protect the short vowel sound, you have double letters to shield. So words like carrot, you'll never spell wrong again, because to have a, you would have to do C-A double R. The double R makes the a ah and not a, and then O-T. Doesn't work for everything, but like pallet, or I don't know, it doesn't work for everything, but it's just such a useful thing that predominantly, that kind of thing works. And you think if we could help have some useful things like that, it would be really helpful.
So, okay. I'm going to just throw a twist on that, what you just said there, Emily. So, for me, when I grew up, my dad spoke to us in Greek and my mom spoke to us in French and they spoke to each other in English. I don't think I even noticed that, I don't think I even consciously knew that those were three different languages, till I probably went to primary school. And the only reason I went to English primary school, was because the Catholic French School wouldn't have us. Because, my father was Greek Orthodox. It was the only reason I went to English school. So this is, we're going back now. This is like the sixties that we're talking about here, right? So things were different.
They can't see my face. So, Andy has just clarified.
No, that's just the truth of it, right? But anyway, so like all those things, none of them applied to my reality because those rules are all different in different languages. So there's no logic to any of it. So I couldn't make any sense of it. And I always joke when people say, oh yeah, whatever. I'm like, yeah, I'm not very good at spelling or whatever, but yeah, I can spell three languages, but I'm not very good at any of them, right? And that's kind of my sort of, ha haha moment. But, rules based around spelling is kind of tough one for me because there's so many exceptions and it's just too many rules to remember, right? Do this except in this instance. And in that instance do it this way, but that doesn't apply in French or in Greek. So to me it's kind of just random nonsense, right?
But, if you were to go to school and let's say you were learning English, because in that school, that was the subject that you were learning. I can't help you with the French and the Greek, Andy, they will have their own rules. I do not know what that is. But in terms of, as a child, if a child's going into a school and they're learning English, I do think that predominantly there are more rules, shall we say patterns, I liked the word that Adam used, patterns and certain conventions and structures. And, there's linguistical things that you can understand where the words come from, actually can assist in checking out like chef being, the 'ch' makes the 'sh' sound, there's not that many words that do that. What are they, where do they come from? And, having that discussion.
I think that it's easier to teach, the core not easier, but it's helpful to teach those and, there's less spellings that you have to learn based on the majority of the rules and fewer exceptions than if you have to sit down each week. I think this is not tested as far as I know, but trying to go and take every word and learn it and just learn to spell it just randomly without any kind of information, I think there's a chance to have more of a mastery of the spelling process so that you can actually put it together.
Look, I agree. If I was to rewind time, I'd love that way of learning spelling, I'd love to have a crack at it, I would. Because, it's not like I grew up in a word poorhouse. My dad's a journalist. His dad was a journalist and editor of a newspaper. My grandmother used to play games that always centered around words. So, it wasn't like words weren't important in my place. They were gold, but, I think that the way we learned it was, here's your list for the week, here's your list for the week, here's your list for the week. And, when the spelling, punctuation and grammar test came into schools, it freaked me out.
I was in senior leadership at the time, because I'd never been taught at school. I don't know if it was a thing in the seventies, in New Zealand or whether it was just our school, but, my dad can teach me and say, that sentence works that sentence doesn't. That's his job. He's done it for 60 plus years, but never once have I heard him utter any of the grammatical descriptions, the phraseology that's in the spelling, punctuation and grammar test. And I just think, now, I have to work really hard at spelling. I know I work hard at it and it's just, that's the norm, but, I would love to have a go and if I could rewind time, it's something that's well constructed and teaches me those sorts of things.
And, I found that again, I only relate it to learning a language because the grammatical structures, I don't identify as easily. I can speak some languages, but they're very kind of street language, like I've just picked it up from people speaking it as opposed to, this is the grammatically correct way to do it. And, I would reach a plateau. I would stop. And people who had that grammatical knowledge found it easier to go on, because they could understand the rules in certain languages and related it to other languages where I was just probably just memorization. I just learned it in this way, because I'd heard it often enough and so I could speak it, but, it was brute force learning.
Hey Adam, can I ask you a question? Let's put you at the chalk face, right? So here you are. And you do a lot of professional development. You teach teachers a lot, right? Now, you're standing at that chalk board and you've got to write beautiful down and then you're not really sure how to spell it, because for all the reasons you said, and then you write it and then how do you feel?
Yeah, I'm quite upfront about, like I will say, if people often in training, oh, Andy, you shouldn't listen to this. In training, I'll often say, I'm about to have a crack at something. Just tell me if I get it wrong, because, there's a chance that I'm going to. And even when people tell me, they start to say, spell it like this. And even they're telling me the letters, it still doesn't quite fit properly. I have to really, with certain words, not all of them, but I'm quite at home about it, because, I don't want to be seen as an excuse. That's the other thing. I don't think you need to work hard at these things. Because, I think it, you should do your best and not just say, well, I can't do it. Therefore, that's my level. But, none enough, I was about to write beautiful. Yeah. I'll tell a crowd, a I'd be like team, we're going into dangerous waters here, just keep an eye out, because this could go horribly wrong. So if it does just sing out for sure.
So good for you. You're super honest about it, right? In terms with that-
Absolutely. Yeah totally
That's great. Yeah see, I feel horribly ashamed and I will scribble it deliberately so that it's illegible so that no one notices that I misspelt it.
Oh, I've been there too, though.
I guess a coping strategy for me, when I do that professional development and kind of thing. I'm like, well, I'm not sure I know how to spell this word. So I'm just going to write it really messy. Make it look like I'm in a hurry. So no one can read what I wrote.
It's good for the vowels. The vowels are often for me, the ones that, I wonder why that is. I wasn't sure if it was an I or an E.
Yeah, exactly. But, my point is, I feel terribly ashamed and I try to hide it, right? Now, I'm not saying that's right. But that's just interesting, right? I don't know. So, let's go back to the question. So what's the point of a spelling test? Is it to shame people who can't spell or is it to teach them spelling or what's the purpose? I can tell you what the outcome is, if you give me a spelling test, I'll be terribly ashamed at how many words I can't spell properly. That's how I feel. Even as an adult, I can only imagine when I was a child, I would've probably felt the same way. So what is the point of a spelling test?
I can only assume it's motivation, that it seemed as a form of a motivation. Would it motivate me? Would it make me spring out of bed and want to oh, let's get spelling? No, because I was always desperate to get 10 out of 10 and flipping heart and beautiful would rear their ugly heads. It was always been nine. Oh God. And, I worked so hard. So, I think they can only be seen as a form of motivation. Otherwise, unless it's just the motivation, it would suggest that there's no writing going on in class where you can't see it in the wild. Because, if you can see it in the wild and words are being used or there's a specific set that have a specific reason to know that this is a part of a program, but I'm thinking of the spelling in the notebook on a Friday afternoon. I think, it's that one, that unless it's well constructed and designed, then it's kind of the motivation to get you to practice.
Go on, Emily. Come on, tell us, you're the wise one here.
No, I'm really not. And, there's plenty of words that I don't spell correctly, but I think, you just started to hint on something there, Adam, and that was around... I think there's something about maths mastery, which is why I was always quite intrigued by it, as someone who generally, literacy is that you have your spelling test. Let's say you are keen Emily and you get up and you've learnt that week, your spellings, but A) Are you going to spell them correctly in four weeks time? Or a year's time, if you get 10 out of 10? B) If you don't get 10 out of 10, how do you feel and what you're going to do about it? And what's the basis with learning? Is it purely by rote C) Do you actually comprehend the word that you've got there? Would you know how to use it in context? Would it have that-
Can I jump in on one thing there? Can I jump in? I just sort of realize something, that might be to slightly different between say doing a math test at the end of the week and doing an English or spelling test at the end of the week. Often, when we are writing, we choose our own words, right? In a mathematical situation, if we didn't know, three times six, we might come across a problem that is based around three times six, right? But if I get a word and I spell it wrong and I know that I spell it wrong and it's the perfect word, so and so was tenacious. That's the word, it's a killer for me. There's too many i's and o's and u's and all that sort of carry on in amongst that, right?
If I was to use that the dog was tenacious or the person was tenacious, would I choose to use it? If I know that it's just going to be pointed out that the spelling's wrong or would I use the word keen that roughly means the same thing in a roundabout sort of way in the context I use them, I'd use keen because I can spell it. And, I think that maybe is something that I'm sure that there's parallels with mathematics. I'm sure that there are, but I just think that, I don't know with English, we do have a lot of choice in the words that we use. And there's a lot of words that we can substitute, even if they're not ones that we really want to use.
But, that's when then you get into dissecting the things that you're trying to master for want of a better term for the purposes of this, but like vocabulary, what is it you're trying to get, because your vocabulary there was off the scale. Well done Adam 10 out 10 for vocabulary, but the spelling was a challenge.
Thank you for joining us on The School of School Podcast.