The campaigner, the Ministry, and the schools. JUDE BARBACK considers the different stances when it comes to addressing remedial spelling in schools.
As someone whose livelihood depends on the ability to spell correctly, I find it hard not to wince at glaring spelling errors.
While many others share this bugbear of mine, there are a great number of people who think spelling is not important. After all, a phonetically spelt word typed into Google will usually render the correct result, so in this digital age, who cares whether the ‘i’ comes before the ‘e’, and what is that about a ‘c’?
Craig Jackson, an educational and child psychologist, is concerned that the Ministry of Education holds similarly complacent attitudes to the teaching of spelling. Now in his seventies, Jackson has tirelessly campaigned for years for more attention to be given to spelling.
In the late 1980s, with the help of funding from Vote Education monies, Jackson developed Fonetik, a remedial spelling system for students, based on a phonetical approach. Studies in the early nineties showed Fonetik was making a positive difference for many students. A 1993 New Zealand Council for Education Research study found students made a 39 per cent gain in correct attempts at spelling. A 1994 study at Newlands Intermediate found the system resulted in a 48 per cent increase in correct spelling.
However, despite the fledgling evidence, the Ministry did not choose to promote the programme and has not wavered from this stance. In 2004, Jackson called for a parliamentary inquiry into the way spelling is taught in New Zealand schools, stating that the Ministry of Education and the Education Review Office (ERO) should be held accountable for “serious dereliction of professional responsibility” to many students who cannot spell by the time they reach high school.
Not to be deterred, Jackson continued to make regular contact with the various Ministers and Ministry officials regarding transferring the copyright of his resource to the Ministry of Education – a request that was repeatedly declined on the grounds that in New Zealand’s self-managing schools environment, schools should make their own decisions about which interventions are best suited to the needs of their students, which programmes to use, and which resources to purchase.
In spite of the lack of Ministry support, Jackson, passionate about the cause, ploughed more of his own time and money into the Fonetik remedial spelling programme, developing it into a computer-based resource. Ezispel is the result.
Ezispel is the online vehicle for the Fonetik programme, which is described by Jackson as a ‘rescue package’ for those students Year 4 and above who are struggling to master standard spelling. The system works off the principle that any word, spelt just as it sounds, syllable by syllable in phonetic “chunks” is readable and decipherable. Students require two skills to master the programme: the knowledge of all sound to letter linkages and to be able to nominate the correct number of syllables in each word.
Jackson maintains that correct spelling is still the main aim. He says that students “get to” correct spelling from phonetic spelling in a variety of ways, including peer group proof reading, use of electronic hand-held phonetic spell-checkers, and speech-to-text dictation systems.
Until recently, the Ministry remained sceptical. Terse exchanges in The Dominion Post emphasised the Ministerial opinion. Former curriculum, teaching, and learning manager, Mary Chamberlain, stated that while phonetics certainly has a place in learning , it should be used among a variety of ways of teaching spelling, according to the strengths and needs of the individual child.
Certainly, there are a variety of remedial spelling programmes out there from which schools can choose. Among them is Steps, a literacy software programme that can be customised for any learner or school and is designed to support The New Zealand Curriculum. The programme, which is owned by The Learning Staircase, features wordbanks covering sight vocabulary, spelling rules and patterns, and word families. Like Fonetik, Steps has data to support its success in schools with a three-term trial at Grey Lynn Primary School revealing dramatic improvements in children’s spelling ages.
Then there are the multitude of programmes that incorporate remedial spelling as part of a more holistic approach to improving reading, comprehension, and spatial awareness. Lexia, Cross Trainer, and MultiLit are all resources that have been praised by schools and Resource Teachers of Learning and Behaviour for their good results with students. The 4D For Dyslexia programme and SPELD NZ are also useful resources for helping students with dyslexia, dyspraxia, or other learning disabilities.
Various educational bodies have shown support for such programmes, but they are usually careful not to offer endorsement. Peter Simpson of New Zealand Principals’ Federation and Frances Nelson of New Zealand Educational Institute, the respective presidents at the time, each wrote letters to Australian education officials showing support – if not direct endorsement – for Jackson’s programme.
Some schools that have used Fonetik have been positive about its outcomes. Lyall Bay School principal Dennis Thompson speaks highly of the programme, stating that the early field trials of the system helped his son, then aged eight, improve his spelling. More recently, Makara Model School principal Gail Dewar said Ezispel had proved to be “very successful” for the students who had used the website.
“It really has helped a number of students,” says Dewar.
It has also received praise from abroad. Peter Westwood, one of Australia’s foremost educational experts on spelling, was complimentary about Fonetik, declaring the website “well constructed” and the video “an excellent training medium”. Westwood, who refers to Fonetik in his books on spelling and remedial teaching, believes the programme is useful to show to children as well as teachers and parents.
So will the New Zealand Ministry continue to dig its heels in over a system that has the praise of overseas experts and schools?
The Ezispel website has recently been listed on the Ministry’s TKI website, suggesting a softening in the Ministry’s stance to the Fonetik programme. However, Ezispel sits alongside other TKI English Online resources aimed at helping develop effective literacy practice in students. The Ministry has clearly invested a great deal in developing its own resources to support the Curriculum. The Literacy Learning Progressions, a comprehensive guide for schools that describes how to meet the reading and writing demands of the Curriculum, is a key example.
Jackson’s campaign for more attention to be given to remedial spelling is to be applauded, but it comes back to schools’ autonomy, the right and ability of schools to choose the most appropriate resources for their students.