Spelling It Out (Part II) – Creating Storytellers

According to Misty Adoniou, spelling is not a measure of intelligence, but performing poorly in spelling can affect achievement in other aspects of learning. Students are less likely to take chances with their writing (or avoid it altogether) when they feel unsure about their spelling, which can result in an over-dependence upon phonetically regular words they feel safe with.

At HCSPS, this is our first group of year 6/7 students in a very long time to experience a systematic phonetics-based spelling program for their entire school life. They have been bombarded with phonology (sounds) and orthology (rules) and generally, as a cohort, perform well in spelling. However, as always, some students have slipped through the net. Might the reason for this be that we have only been giving them half of the story? There has been little to no focus on etymology (origin/history) or morphology (the meaningful parts of words) which may have left many lacking the strategies they need to attach their own meaningful stories to words.

By attaching authentic meaning, Adoniou suggests all students can become powerful spellers. Students with processing issues, dyslexia, dysgraphia, autism, and English As Additional Language (EALD) learners can all benefit from a morpho-phonemic spelling approach. At our school, and many others I’m sure, when students have struggled with phonological spelling, we’ve doubled down on the strategy and enrolled them in intensive, phonics-based intervention programs. Many of us have taught spelling in isolation from reading and writing, to the detriment of our learners. Adoniou suggests that:

Informed spelling instruction not only improves vocabulary and reading comprehension but also helps teach underlying concepts.

If we want our students to become confident, effective and persuasive writers, then surely we need to be informed enough to provide them with the strategies to be able to control and manipulate language. Given that 80% of modern English has been borrowed from other languages:

Phonology is just one part of the story. If we rely on sounds to spell, we are relying on a phonological promise that English can’t keep.

This past week, our students have pulled our classes spelling program apart. We have assessed what is valuable enough to keep, and what is dead weight. We’ve endeavoured to become researchers and storytellers. And what stories we have told!

We explored Vikings and Norman invaders, mythological Greek gods, Old English texts, Shakespeare, and even an American General and a French Trapeze artist. It has been fun, collaborative, and most importantly, successful. All without a spelling list in sight.

We created a shared bank of words based on interesting origin stories from Spelling It Out, technical vocabulary we are currently using in Maths and Science, and words of interest from students. It took a couple of days to streamline the process and be able to eliminate information that whilst interesting, was irrelevant to help decipher and retain spelling of specific words. The scaffold we are using to collect information is attached below.

In the future, we will use authentic errors from our writing or specific vocabulary from genre writing or other subjects. Students will pull apart words and attempt to attach meaning, origin, rules, sounds or visual clues that will help them remember each word. We will create spaces to share our newfound morphemic and etymological knowledge and tie it to our existing phonological and orthological understanding.

My wife has a neighbour in her native Montreal who delights in sharing his knowledge of the history of the English language. As a French immigrant in Quebec, he possesses rich stories of Latin and Norman links to our modern day English. He is an entertaining storyteller who I always enjoyed listening to and learning from. This is something that I now aspire to be, and wish for my students. To become informed and entertaining storytellers.

We began by tackling the unfamiliar acyanopsia before moving on to more frequently used words with interesting pasts.

What, where, when and why are among the most frequently used words in the English language. But why do they begin with the ‘wh’ pattern? Because in the Northern British Isles in around 1000AD, the guttural ‘h’ sound before the ‘w’ was a reflection of the pronunciation of the time — ‘hwat’, ‘hwy’, hwen, and ‘hwer’. Suffice to say there has been many a heavily pronounced ‘hwy’ thrown around in the classroom this week. Keeping the ‘h’ became necessary when English standardisation occurred around the year 1200. This is also true for other Old English words where the original pronunciation sounds have been retained such has the ‘l’ in folk or the ‘w’ in sword. Many of the surviving Old English words that continue to be used today (around 20% of Modern English) are mostly single syllable words like house, wife, drink, rain and storm.

We spent some time trying to discern any recognisable words from the original Beowulf which led to some interesting discussion and even more questions about how English evolved into the language we use today.

We discovered the stories of Greek gods Echo and Narcissus. Echo was a cursed nymph who could only repeat the words of others, including her love Narcissus who eventually fell in love with his own image and drowned trying to touch it. Pan, a half goat, half man shepherd god led us to the history of the pan pipes, his instrument of choice. He also provided insight into the word panic, which is hwat the locals would do when Pan roamed the fields scaring and tricking people.

Ambrose Everett Burnside, an American general famous for his distinctive facial hair, gave new meaning to the origins on sideburns. As did Jules Leotard, the French trapeze artist who wore skin-tight costumes for safety during his death defying performances. Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands provided a story about the effectiveness of advertising for the now iconic swimwear during nuclear testing which, to this day, leaves the island uninhabitable.

We learned about the influence of the Flemish who are responsible for the ‘h’ in ghost and ghastly based on their influence as printing press workers. Velcro. Siesta. Courage. Would/should/could. Subterranean. The list goes on.

These are just a handful of the stories we shared. We also played with words like magician. Or as we like to call him, Magic Ian, from the Latin, he who does jobs. Electric Ian. Physic Ian. Music Ian. Ian has many jobs apparently. We discovered hwy magic is spelt with a ‘c’ rather than a ‘k’. This is because of the flexibility of ‘c’ to make a soft ‘shwa’ sound heard in magician.

Suffice to say, spelling came alive for us last week. It is no longer tedious or boring. It has become a giant treasure hunt. Every student ventured down their own rabbit hole chasing words of interest to them. They created meaningful connections to those words which they then shared with peers, and most importantly, were able to recall and spell (as manipulated variations) later in the week. We said good ye the bye to look, cover, write, check and hello to the hwyhwen and hwer of spelling instead.


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