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by Beverley Paine, Nov 2004

Many people confuse the learning processes involved in reading and writing, and then later, writing with spelling. Are they separate skills, learned in a continuum, or are they learned congruently, each one relying on progress made in the other?

April was writing well before reading 'stories' - but the very act of writing needs some ability to read what has been written. I first realised she could read when, at three, shortly after she began talking in sentences, she announced, to our amazement "Woolworths" as we drove past the store. Then she asked the what the signs on the public toilets said. After that she often tried to read signs. By three and a half she was writing her name, backwards! We wisely ignored other parent's warnings about dyslexia...

Spelling came naturally to April, but then, she was a 'sight' reader - she learned to read by just looking at the words and comparing them to what she heard. She learned to read mostly from an Alhberg rhyming book - 'Each Peach Pear Plum'.

Whenever she read aloud it was interesting to hear her pronunciation of new words. She did her best with whatever tools she had assimilated in learning to read, which was mostly by herself. She only needed to hear the word once to have it down pat. We often mispronounce words as a joke - more a way of life really - and it doesn't confuse any of the children.

For example, we pronounce 'people' - pee-op-pull - more often than not! Roger used to spell the word three or four different ways, and I did correct him a few times, only to see that the next time he'd have another go, spelling it differently yet again, relying on his own strategies, not mine. I have come to trust this strong sense of independence and experimentation, and now respect the children's own self correcting methods.

Eventually, after a couple of years of mostly non-writing behaviour, he suddenly could spell the word. I am sure our home grown pronunciation didn't help or hinder at all - he used to spell it peepul, peopull, and a lot of other ways - he used sight, phonics, you name it. Eventually he started writing it the way it looked in the books he had begun reading more. Conformed to convention, you might say.

Spelling is interesting in the way it develops, especially with that wonderful stage of 'invented' spellings. I love the way my then six year old friend Madeleine would write, and the confidence with which she read her words aloud to me. Her sentences often took quite a bit of deciphering by us 'English' writers! Within a year her spelling began to take on more of a traditional appearance, and the speed with which she could read her own writing improved. By this time Madeleine was a competent reader of all manner of texts.

I have seen toddlers as young as two repeatedly, and with amazing accuracy, decode scribble as elaborate sentences. Are they reading and writing? Or just remembering, using whatever cues lie on the page, meaningful only to them? I prefer to interpret this activity as reading. As the scribbles eventually develop into rounded shapes and lines it becomes apparent that these young people are writing, and wanting to record their thoughts, just like older people. If the motivation for recording is there, then it is writing. If what is recorded is interpreted by the writer and others, then it is reading! But spelling is another matter. That is a convention of writing, like grammar and punctuation. These are the mechanical aspects of writing we can all learn over time, and it does take time to learn them. Why should there be such a hurry to master them?

At the age of four Thomas wrote strings of capital letters, mostly repeating the letters A, I, N, E (from our surname) and using lots of circles and lines. By five he was able to write words, having learned how to write all of the letters of the alphabet. These words were always spelled out to him. Back then he had no way of reading what he had written, except for the words that had most meaning to him - dad, mum, love. This continued until about age nine, although his word list had grown to around two dozen words. Progress from there was slow. At twelve Thomas can sit at the computer and type a short story, use the spell checker with some accuracy, and need only minimum help. The sentences are simple and reflect what he can read by himself. He still asks for help to spell words, and tends to choose words he knows he can attempt to spell.

Roger was a different story, reflecting that all learners are individuals, and you can't expect them to learn from one method alone. At five he was introduced to the idea that sounds make up words, and that letters and combinations of letters make up sounds. This was to be the basis of his learning to read, write and spell. A year or two later and Roger was clearly confused with his spelling, and then went on his merry way, pulling together whatever strategies he had accumulated to help him spell a word. He wouldn't spell the same word the same way twice - each time the word would be met as though he was seeing it for the first time. This progressed until he was around nine years of age, and even now, at sixteen I see evidence of his brain trying out different approaches. I now know that the more Roger reads the more able he is to spell correctly - naturally working out and following the convention.

I think spelling is clearly a function of writing - and I also think that good readers generally make for good spellers. But this isn't always the case. One young school friend, who read a lot of fiction in her spare time, and generally did well at school, was a hopeless speller until her mother gave her some intensive instruction on spelling strategies over a two month period before she entered high school. Before that age spelling lessons seemed to be so much wasted time. I see that kind of effect in Roger and his writing/spelling ability. For these writers I feel that age and maturity, rather than exposure to print and a reductionist approach to spelling, is of more benefit in the long term. At least in Roger's case, being homeschooled, he was able to develop his spelling skills without being labeled as a 'poor speller', and his self confidence in his style and approach to spelling encouraged rather than diminished his self esteem.

The main thing to remember is that all learners are individuals. I have three very different children, who learned to read, spell and write in their own individual ways. I tried the same approach with each of them in turn, and as time passed, many other approaches. I could be blamed for being inconsistent, choosing as I did from the smorgasbord of approaches, and maybe giving up too easily on some of them. However, as I said before, time seems to be an excellent approach in itself. My children really do learn better, faster and easier as they get older, which flies in the face of the 'best to learn early' myth.

A lot of people become hung up on the 'correct' spelling merry-go-round, believing that invented spellings are dangerous and an indication of laziness. Invented spelling has been shown time and again to be a stage that is passed through. With guidance and support all children will progress to using conventional spellings.

When my children present me with invented spellings I say, "That is an interesting way of spelling that word. I've always spelt it differently, but your way looks like it might be more sensible - how did you come to spell it that way?" and "Most people spell it like this. What do you think?"

This opens up quite a lot of discussion and doesn't make the kid feel 'bad' for getting it 'wrong'. Instead they become involved in a discussion about the origins of our language and how it is recorded, and how it is dynamic, changing over time. As they grow and write more they conform, naturally and easily, because they see the sense in doing so. Not because they 'have to', or because it is 'right'.

I have never worried that invented spellings may become a habit, simply because if I see my child consistently spelling a word in the same way over and over again I point out the difference, or make sure they get to see that word more often as it is correctly spelled. Some days I use the spell checker for this, rather than me, when Thomas is on the computer. Coming from the computer seems to be less worrisome to Thomas than having his work constantly corrected by a more expert writer. The computer is neutral and doesn't judge or label him as a bad speller.

I also correct incorrect spellings, but only when it is 'safe' or appropriate to do so - generally only in published writing or in draft writing that will see an audience other than self. The homeschooling newsletter has been a good way to encourage Roger and Thomas to write for wider audiences, and they understand the importance of editing in this medium. It all helps. Word games such as scrabble and word card games are a great way to help, because the dictionary gets used a lot, not only for spelling but to find words that will fit the spaces.

We were careful to show the children that the dictionary is a lot more than just alphabetical lists of definitions. It is relatively useless as a spelling aide though, unless you already know a lot about how to spell. Personal dictionaries are a much better idea. All of our children had a book, either a purchased or home made one, where their most commonly used words are recorded. I'd take these words from the children's homeschool journals, or letters, or any of the writing they had done. When they were really young we pasted in pictures to go with the words. But that was in our 'school at home' days.

Most of the bad spelling habits I have seen have come from children in schools, where the teacher doesn't seem to care or have time to care to help the children progress beyond the invented spelling stage. This is very rare in a home environment, where attention from an adult is more available to the child. Because we care we watch and help in a positive way that doesn't make the child feel that spelling is far more important than the content.

A lot of the concern expressed about children learning in schools, or not learning certain things at certain ages, tend to disappear in the home environment. The elaborate educational strategies to teach these things are usually unnecessary in the home. Long hours of specific lessons in many subject areas, like spelling, are reduced to 'on the spot' attention when the child is writing. In many cases a child will learn so much faster, only needing to be shown once or twice, at the right time, whatever is needed. Picking the right time is the key to this kind of learning success, and comes with intimately knowing your child's learning needs, something most teachers couldn't come close to.

Long before I read any teacher manuals or texts on the subject of spelling I used my own brain to think about the whole spelling debate. The use of invented spelling just makes sense - it is an exercise in problem solving. Children are excellent inventors and lateral thinkers until we stuff it up with our 'correct' ways of doing things. Just think of invented spelling as the children approximating, an excellent skill in itself to promote in young learners.

If we look at babies learning to eat for the first time, we see them picking up the spoon in many inefficient ways and stuffing food not only in their mouths but on their cheeks, on their chins, their bibs, just about anywhere! Sure, we often guide the spoon, and turn it over, and scrape the excess off, but mostly we give up and let them get on with the business of feeding themselves. Only when we needed to impress important guests, did we feed our children in a tidy and pleasing manner, or insist on a display of 'manners'.

Learning to spell is a bit like that. We let them get on with the business of writing when they need to write, but when something is written for an audience other than for themselves a special show is put on to make it look tidy and presentable, conventional. Here we help our children to do this, and eventually they can do it all by themselves. No one has to continue to spoon feed a child with a bib throughout childhood, do they?

We may not place an emphasis on correct spelling in the early years, but there is an overall expectation that children will conform as they grow and develop. It important to have and display this expectation. Children will live up to the expectations of others. They have an instinctive need to impress, especially important, people in their lives. I believe that expectation it is a huge part of the how and why our children learn. I have an expectation that my children will write at a satisfactory level by age eighteen. They know that and will live up to it, with my help, of course. It is a shared goal, a shared expectation. They know that it is important in our culture to know how to read, write and spell with reasonable proficiency by this age.

In many home educating families the opportunity to practice writing and therefore spelling rarely comes up, unless the child has a special interest or writing activities are specifically introduced. Generally we lead active, busy lives, doing so much more than simply reading and writing. These skills are an aid to many things in life, but are background skills, like social skills. It is easy to invite a child to practice reading without resorting to books - printed matter is everywhere in the world, needing to be read, like recipes, labels, instructions. But what about writing? How can we introduce more writing into our lives in a natural way, in order for our children to practice their skill at spelling, and the other conventions of writing?

Writing is generally done in our house when there is a need or a want, never before and rarely contrived. Hence opportunities to practice spelling are very rare. I used to worry about this, and even resorted to school type activities and exercises to bring writing into the home more. But over time I noticed that with hardly any writing practice at all my boys improved their spelling - simply by living. There were months of no practice, a minimum of writing, but still plenty of improvement. This happened mainly between the ages of ten and fourteen, and I had to wait until ten years of home educating to really see the importance of this. I have yet to see an adequate explanation in the teacher manuals on learning to spell in this way. Perhaps because only a homeschool like ours allows children to develop spelling skills naturally.

It made me ask the question: "How much in our 'teaching' do we harm or duplicate the natural learning processes at work?" And yet another: "How important is it for young children (under teens) to be writing, unless of course they want to?"

It seems to me that we are asking, prompting, or pushing our children in this direction because of our own highly schooled backgrounds and the emphasis that the educational system placed on it. As home educators we have the opportunity to leave this way of learning behind - the evidence of its failure is all around. We could fool ourselves and say that teachers aren't correctly or consistently implementing methods of teaching spelling, reading and writing, or blame curriculum programs, teachers and schools. Or we can look at the whole system of learning, as it has been built up in education for over a century, and see that it isn't geared to catering for individual learning styles, and therefore can't educate individual children to their full potential. Home educating environments can.

Another aspect of spelling ability needs to be explored. I can write using 'good' spelling, and this usually occurs when I am in a literary mood, or writing for a specific purpose and audience and it is important to impress that audience in some way or other. At other times, when in a more relaxed mood, I spell however I like, so long as the designated reader can understand it. My spelling on draft copies, or for note taking is appalling. The key for me is whether or not my writing can be understood by my audience. Of course, it goes way beyond spelling, but spelling is the start. Spelling, reading and writing are ultimately about communication.

It is interesting to note that only those people who can spell, and spell well, are usually the ones to make the largest fuss about the need to spell well. Many of these are university graduates, well versed in the education system and happy with its elitism. This has the effect of making the less than perfect spellers feel inadequate. Not a good scenario. Many people get by in life quite comfortably with less than perfect spelling. And nowadays, with emphasis placed on service industries providing employment opportunities, access to services which can produce professional documents are readily available. The need for all people to accomplish perfection in many basic traditional learning areas is diminishing.

However, spelling is a prominent issue in schools, and is often quoted as a determinant in whether students are considered literate or not, especially by the media. It certainly is an emotive issue.

As a society we judge our children's academic performance more on their spelling ability by a certain age than by anything else. No matter what schools try to do to correct the appalling literacy rate of young school children, they will get it wrong according to popular thinking.

Different approaches come and go almost every decade or so, and still spelling remains an issue. Literacy is still quoted as being at the lowest rate ever!

I believe this is because schools and teachers are continuously trying to teach a skill, spelling, long before many children are capable of mastering that skill. It seems so much easier for many children to accomplish this skill after eight years of age, if they haven't been confused by fragmented, reductionist approaches by then. The ones who can master spelling sooner, will, if spelling, reading and writing are valued in their homes and school environments. Valued, not 'pushed'.

Perhaps it is time for home educators to try different approaches, and to document them, to let others know that the entrenched school dominated way of learning is not the best, or only way, that learning happens. After all, most of what we do in our home learning environments is prompted by direct feedback from meaningful learning moments, not from rigidly adhered to curriculum frameworks or teaching methods. We are lucky to be able to practise truly flexible education in our homes.

Educational researchers and theorists all over the world are looking for examples of 'best practice'. Perhaps if we, as a group or as individuals, recorded our children's learning, and published our methods and outcomes, we may contribute to the entire spelling debate in a positive, child friendly way.

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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