Monday, June 13, 2016

English Spelling: Making Sense of the Chaos (Part 2)

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

Teaching English spelling can be almost as daunting as learning it. Since I’ve started teaching an intermediate-level spelling class, I’ve learned a lot about how to teach spelling to international students.

Lesson #1 – Students Need to Know Why
Students whose L1 has a more regular sound-spelling correspondence are baffled about why English spelling is such a nightmare of random letter combinations and exceptions to the rules. They often seem to want the teacher to make sense of it all, for us to provide them with a tidy reason that will help them sort it all out. So, the short answer to the question “Why?” is: History. There is a great video on YouTube called “Why is English Spelling so Weird?”  It’s a pretty fast-paced lecture, but my intermediate students seemed to really enjoy learning that there is a logic behind English spelling peculiarities, even if it is buried deep in British history. In short, English spelling is a product of foreign invasions and changing English pronunciation. In my experience, once students learned this, they could stop asking “Why?” and could focus on the task at hand, learning to spell.

Lesson #2 – Students Need to Hear the Sounds
Duh, right? But, I hadn’t realized just how much of a challenge this would be for my students until I was trying to cover all the spelling patterns for the /iy/ sound and the students couldn’t even differentiate between /ɛ/ and /iy/. It was at this point that I realized the spelling text books written for native-English speakers weren’t going to work for my ESL students. Students often have trouble hearing sounds they don’t have in their L1s, but books for English speakers don’t have any sound discrimination activities. I quickly grasped that we needed to practice distinguishing between similar vowel sounds like /ɛ/ and /iy/, /ʌ/ and /a/, and /æ/ and /ey/. Some of my students also had trouble hearing the difference between tricky consonant sounds like /p/ and /b/ and /r/ and /l/. So, the second time I taught the class, we started every single lesson with exercises that gave students experience with differentiating between potentially troublesome sounds. Sometimes we breezed through that bit, but sometimes that was the most important part of the lesson. After all, you can’t spell what you can’t hear.

Lesson #3 – Students Need a Good Word List
Another problem I encountered with both the text book I used and the supplemental materials I found online was that the words the students were learning to spell were not super useful. For instance, when learning the “oa” pattern to spell the sound /ow/, the students had to work with words like “croak,” “moat,” and “foal.” While I can see these are great examples of the “oa” spelling, it irritated me that I was spending class time explaining that a “moat” was a body of water that surrounds a castle. I mean, when is my student who wants to study engineering or my student who wants to be a nurse ever going to need to know the word “moat”? It would be much better, I think, for them to learn words that are actually useful. To that end, I turned to the Oxford 3000 Word List. According to Oxford University Press, the Oxford 3000 contains the 3,000 most useful words in English. It just made more sense to have students work on increasing their vocabulary with words they might actually need to know than to spend time wondering what a “foal” is.

Lesson #4 – Students Need to Notice
The first time I taught the spelling class, I explicitly taught the “tips” and then we practiced them. But, as the semester progressed, I wondered if that was really the best way to go about things. The second semester, I tweaked things a little. Rather than tell the students what the “rule” was, I showed them a PowerPoint slide, and had them work with a partner to guess what the “tip” was. For example, rather than teach the students explicitly that the spelling patterns associated with the sound /aw/ are “ou” and “ow,” I showed them this slide and they were able to quickly deduce it.

Students Need to Notice

This isn’t a groundbreaking approach. In fact, Schmidt (1990) has been talking about noticing for ages, saying that in order for something to be learned, it has to be consciously registered. One way to facilitate this is for students to have time to think about words and their spelling patterns.

Lesson #5 – Students Need Lots of Repetitive Practice
Again, this is kind of a given. But, even though this makes sense, I frequently underestimated how much practice students needed the first time I taught the spelling class. So, in the spring, I created word lists for students to do for homework. If the idea of word lists seems old fashioned, it’s because it’s a page out of how I learned to spell a bazillion years ago when I was a primary school student. The teacher sent us home with a word list every week that we had to learn by heart. I remember my mother quizzing me on Sunday night so I would be ready for my spelling test on Monday.

Well, my students’ mothers are not available for spelling review, so I created lists of target words pulled from the Oxford 3000 Word List with a column for translating and 2 columns for copying. The first time, students were supposed to read the word and copy it, but the second time, they were supposed to look at the word and the fold over the paper and then copy it without looking. The spelling lists looked like this:

Spelling List

We also did dictations regularly, both in class and for homework using Canvas, our school’s learning management system. Plus, we played a bunch of spelling games to help students remember spelling patterns (see part 4 of this blog series for some activity ideas). I believe that this repetition is really useful for students. I know it was for me when I was a child.

But, there are still things I am not sure about in terms of teaching spelling. For instance, I am not sure which set of vowel sounds to cover first. The relative or short vowel sounds (/æ/, /ɛ/, /ɪ/, /a/ and /ʌ/) are easier for students to spell but harder for students to hear than the alphabet or long vowel sounds (ey/, /iy/, /ay/, /ow/ and /uw/). Also, should students learn the pronunciation of the sounds or just how they sound? I had assumed that learning how to say the sounds would help them to hear them more easily, but a speaker at TESOL 2016 shared her research which indicates that incorporating production actually decreases perception. Yikes!

Clearly I am not an expert. These are just lessons I have learned over the past few months. Have you had any similar experiences? I’d love to hear from you about your spelling lessons learned!

Baese-Berk, M. (2016). Learning in the Lab: Interactions between Perception and Production. Presented at TESOL 2016, Baltimore, MD.
Schmidt, R. (1990). The Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning. Applied Linguistics, 11, 129-158.


Pingback from Teacher Talk » English Spelling: Making Sense of the Chaos (Part 3)
June 21, 2016 at 11:20 am

[…] #2 – Vowel Sounds are Hard to Spell As I said in a previous blog post, one of the hardest parts of spelling with vowels is getting students to actually hear the vowel […]

Pingback from Teacher Talk » English Spelling: Making Sense of the Chaos (Part 4)
July 11, 2016 at 1:00 pm

[…] struggles with spelling, I described the class I have been teaching for a year, I shared some hard-learned lessons about teaching spelling to international students, and I listed some of the key elements to an […]

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