[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Spring 1980 pp18-19]
[Alun Bye: see Journals, Newsletters.]

A Multisensory Approach to the Teaching and Learning of Spelling,

by Alun Bye.*

*Northampton, Eng. Presented at the 2nd Inter. Conf. on Reading & Spelling, July '79.

Apart from the obvious irregularities and inconsistencies in our writing system, the main reasons for spelling disability seem to be poor visual memory for words, poor visual imagery for words, poor auditory analysis, poor muscular-memory, inappropriate handwriting style, poor self-image as a speller, and unsystematic teaching. These essential subskills are rarely, if ever, taught through the medium of the weekly spelling list, and too often the latter is mistaken for a methodical teaching system.

The student with a weak visual memory is easily spotted by his tendency to spell as if all words possessed phonic regularity. Despite seeing the correctly written versions many thousands of times, he continues to write them the way they sound. Written corrections by teachers are to no avail, and only confirm the student's depressing view of himself as a weak and never improving speller.

It is pointless for a teacher to write comments on a student's work exhorting him to improve his poor spelling. He probably already knows that his spelling is poor, and may even grow ashamed of it. What he needs is a sympathetic and insightful teacher who can systematically show him just how he can improve his spelling and enable him to remember difficult and awkward words. His spelling miscues may be a plea for help which pass unrecognized by an insensitive and unimaginative teacher.

It is wrong to assume that all children are born knowing how to study word spellings, and how to remember them, or that they will develop appropriate strategies for themselves given time. Many never do, and many cannot without careful guidance.

Training should begin by showing weak visualisers what to look for in words, by emphasising their spatial, acoustic and semantic components. A word's configuration may be studied for its number of double or treble letters, for the number of words within a word, for its balance of beginning against ending, for its pivot point, etc. Students who are very young or very weak visualisers may benefit from verbalising the shapes and spatial elements of letters, perhaps by referring to round letters, tunnel shaped letters, reaching up or dangling down parts, or ascenders and descenders, and letters with dots on, etc. When a word has been studied thoroughly in this way, it should be written from memory by the student, and this version compared with the original. Such comparisons aid memorization, and the word should be rewritten, again from memory, until the word is correctly spelled. At this point the word should continue to be written as many times again as there were trial attempts. This ensures that the word is practised beyond the point of bare mastery, and provides an opportunity for it to be embedded in long term muscular or finger tip memory.

It is important to avoid merely copying out a difficult word several times, for this makes no demands upon visual imagery or visual memory, and both faculties remain unpractised. There may also be little virtue in copy-tracing the word in the air or on sandpaper. Unless an effort is made to memorize and visualize and vocalize at the same time as tracing, there may be little real benefit apart from a pleasant tingle at the finger tip. It is far better to trace in sand, where the combined feel and appearance of the word may be appreciated. Attending to the acoustic properties by exaggerating the tricky syllable's sound can further help to stamp it into memory. When practising writing the word, it is useful to use a fibre-tip pen and sugar paper, for this combination increases the kinaesthetic feedback. The piece of paper may be folded before each attempt, thus concealing the previous effort, but permitting immediate comparison, recognition of error and knowledge of results. The benefit of the kinaesthetic flow is enhanced if the child learns as early as is practicable to join his letters together using the correct, efficient entry and exit points for each letter.

Poor spellers should be required to attempt a word of whose spelling they are uncertain before they consult the teacher or a dictionary. This creates a positive mental attitude towards good visualisation. Sensitive teaching can improve a poor self concept by praising for correct letter sequences and presenting for practice only those words which the student can reasonably be expected to spell without excessive difficulty.

As well as teaching children how to study word configurations, we should also provide tips on how to remember tricky words, especially those hoary perennials which we, as experienced teachers, know are likely to cause some problems. Surely this is move in keeping with the teacher's true role of distributing admonishments. Students should be encouraged to use their ingenuity to formulate their own mnemonics and to share them with one another. The more imaginative students may help the less creative brethren.

Contriving an element of meaningfulness into an otherwise arbitrary list can be very beneficial. For example, spelling families may be more effectively learned by stringing them together in sentences, such as: A thirsty bird chirped with mirth as he spied the pond from the first fir tree; or A curly haired nurse lost a purple fur purse in D'urbeville Church; or I eat beans and meat at meals.

Such homophones as beech/beach can be learned by linking beech to tree and beach to sea-side. An awkward word like 'necessary' may be linked to the need to wear one collar (one /c/) but two socks (two /s's/), or two ships sailing on one sea (c). Deriving 'argument' from 'argue' may be remembered as being stuck in an ar-gum-ment. The tricky word 'definite' and its 'ite' ending may be better remembered if it is visualised as 'defin!te'. And to end on a moving note, how about locomotive?

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