Being in a frivolous mood today so I have decided to start a new series of posts on lesson planning. As, truth to tell, I am a little bored by being boring about spelling – which could explain the minor 18 month hiccough in posting.

Where the idea came from

This one came to me by accident. My normal practice in the computer room when estimating how long any activity may take is to think of a number and double it. Lost passwords, no sound on the computer, Web 2.0 etc etc. One day though, the unthinkable happened and everyone logged on, didn’t confuse their hotmail account with their Facebook account and then did I what I intended them to do. Problem. There was that awkward little 10 minute gap before the end of the lesson and the computer room isn’t the ideal place for the jaunty and impromptu little communication activity.

The idea

Devilishly simple. Just let them do what they want for 10 minutes on the computers. What’s going to happen next? Do they

a) go on to their Facebook account?

b) look at the football scores?

c) continue playing with one of the language sites I’ve introduced them to?

Answers on a postcard show that around 75% do the educational thing without any prompting, the other quarter waste a further 10 minutes of their time.

Does it work?

For me, yes. For me the ICT lesson is almost invariably the self-access learning lesson too. It’s a chance for them to find different ways to explore English in their own time. It’s very rarely a homework sort of lesson, simply because context dictates that not everyone has access to the net and not everyone likes/sees the point in learning via computers. They can if they want. Strictly not compulsory.

What they do

What happens in that 10 minutes? They get to choose to be independent learners. They use the net in the way almost everyone does use it outside the classroom – hopping from one site to the next. Seems a reasonable use of 10 minutes. In PPP terms, I class this as the free practice stage.

What I do

Oh, I do the teachery sort of things. I help, assist and advise. Most of all though I observe. I get to see what has worked about my lesson and what hasn’t. If they go to the sites I’ve been using with them earlier, that is the most informative and positive feedback I can possibly get. If they don’t? The feedback is rather less positive but just as informative.

This is one of things I’ve never felt quite sure about. Instinctually, I feel that reading a text and listening to it simultaneously is, or can be, a good thing. In most staff roms where I’ve worked though (and there’s been rather too many for my own liking), it’s typically one of those “of course nots”. And it’s not just other people, there’s some part of my brain that accords. A part of me believes it must be on the same level as dictation and grammar/translation. Let’s see.

Why it’s not a good idea – listening

It’s not a good listening activity. You stop listening and start reading instead. You don’t have to listen out for all those nasty little schwas. You’re not going to train your brain/ear to associate sounds with words. You become a lazy listener.

The flipside is that on a second/third listening it can help students to see not just what they misssed, but why they missed it. The tape transcript is a real tool there.

Why it’s not a good idea – reading

It’s not a good reading activity either. Where’s the skimming and scanning? You are forced by the listening to read at a certain pace. More than that, you read every word. I certainly don’t do that and extrapolating out: it isn’t an authentic reading exercise.

Here again, I see some justifications. One would be it can help slow readers move more quickly: it can help train the eye to move along the page and not get stuck on one word.

Why it surely is a very, very good idea sometimes – spelling

I remain undecided on the reading/listening front. Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t. It all depends on your teaching/learning goals. The more I think about though, the more certain I become it can be a super idea for spelling:

  1. you see the word
  2. you hear the word
  3. you associate the sound with spelling
  4. you match the spelling to the sound

This is good spelling practice. It may not be perfect but it is one more tool in the spelling teacher’s arsenal.

Where to do it?

This is my real reason for writing this. I love Words in the News, it’s my all time fave resource site. It’s also a reading/listening site. I need to find a justification. This is it.

A footnote

This is passive spelling of course. I like that. It’s learning to spell by doing other things: reading and listening. To make it work, it’s going to need to be repeated lots. This is one reason why Words in the News is such a good resource: you can keep on going back there and still find new things and there will be something there for anyone.

This one is a cinch. You take a computer, a student or two and a cloze test and what do you get? A spelling activity of course. But not just any old spelling activity, it’s one of those stimulating ones that blends the spelling process into language learning. I’m already all in favour of it.

How it works

One of the limitations of the computer is that it only accepts correct spelling. Just today I googled “interent” and I somehow don’t suppose that I was the first person ever to do that. Clever old marketeer that dreamt up that name. It may be  a limitation in everyday life but in the EFL classroom it can also be a strength – why not use the computer as a spelling test machine? Give the students an exercise online and make them type out the answers: only correct spelling will be accepted.

Making it really work

This is an appropriately dull idea for the Really Boring Blog. Is it possible to sex it up at all so that students might quite enjoy the torture? Just perhaps. Here’s one possible solution:

  1. offer the students a series of texts to choose from to read online (this is why God created the BBC to create Words in the News)
  2. let them talk to each other about what they have read
  3. they can look up words they don’t know (Macmillan do a nice line in online dictionaries)
  4. copy paste and go to this online cloze maker
  5. sit back and watch the fun

Why it works

In fact, what happens in practice is that the students get confused about why their word doesn’t fit. What do they do? Go back and look at the text again. That’s brilliant. They’re reading – closely and in a way that rarely happens with a book in class. Better than that for the spelling they are looking at words – magical, as that’s they way you learn to spell.

Postscript

Curiously, the spellchecker doesn’t really work that well as a spelling activity. There are various limitations but the most serious is that you need to be able to spell the first 3/4 letters of the word right in the first place . Read Johanna Sterling on this. (Did I just misspell her name?)

You’ll be familiar with hangman of course – it’s one of those great little filler activities that wake the students up. It’s fun and stimulating but thought through it can also be a real learning activity too.

Why it might not work

SS start off by choosing a letter naturally. The question is what letter do they start with. In my experience, they will choose letters almost at random. That’s a mistake if they want to win the game, more importantly it’s a mistake if you want to help them spell. If they play this way, there is little probability that their spelling will improve.

How it can work – vowels come first

Here’s my solution: insist that SS start off by choosing vowels. Why? Put simply, every syllable in English words must contain at least one vowel (including “y”). This is a simple insight that many Arabic language students miss due to their first language background.  What happens is that after the first few guesses you will have something like this on the board.

i_ _ o_ _ a _ i o _

If you like, concepts can be checked by asking how syllables the word has. Though that may not be necessary. SS tend to see for themselves how English words are constructed around vowels. Discovery learning in action.

How it can work – letter combinations

Once the vowels have been elicited, what comes next? This will very much depend on the word of course, but there are still intelligent game play possibilities. Let us suppose we have this on the board:

e _ _ _ a _ a _ i o _

The question to ask is “What do you think the las letter is?”. If they don’t choose “n”, it’s time to do a little teaching. The next question is “What is the 8th letter?”. Again, they need to choose “t”.

The rules

For what it’s worth, I have my own fairly individual set of rules. After I have introduced the concept of vowels first, I penalise with 2 lives any consonant chosen before any vowel. Likewise, if there is an obvious letter combination eg “-ing”, I penalise SS for not picking “n” when they already have “i” and “g”.

Online

There are several excellent online hangman sites to choose from. My personal favourite is at Spelling City, where they have a very politically correct Hangmouse game.

Spelling is a function of the written language, not the spoken language and it should be presented in class as such. To me, this is self-evident. Could be right, could be wrong. If I am right, however, there is a fundamental problem. At some stage you will probably want to test your students spelling. How do you do it? How do you present a word in  class in a spelling test if you don’t say it? If you write it down, it’s not much of a test really, is it? In point of fact, there are some relatively simple solutions.

Don’t say the word, describe it

Solution number one is to not say the word, but describe it. “I am thinking of a job. The person who does this job designs buildings.” You haven’t said the word “architect”, but they should know enough to write it down. This works from a number of points of view.

  1. The students see the word in the head and do not associate spelling with pronunciation
  2. Spelling is associated with general vocabulary development, not as an independent activity. This tends to be much more engaging.
  3. You can only test the spelling of words you have introduced in class. Again, this is a fundamental precept for me. It is counter-productive to ask students to spell words they are unfamiliar with.

Error correction

The other likely variation is to write a list of words on the board. Some are spelled correctly, others not. Students have to correct the misspelled words. There are two reasons why this approach makes sense:

  1. Students see spelling as a writing, not a listening activity
  2. Spelling is treated as an error correction activity. It seems to me that’s how it is in real life out there.

Correcting the test

What do you do when students get some spelling wrong? Tell them it is a matter of right and wrong. Of course. Or of course not. My approach is to use the spelling test as a teaching tool. How? You can ask students questions if they get the spelling wrong. The idea is to get them to see the word visually:

  1. How many letters does it have? or It has 8 letters
  2. What is the third letter? or The third letter is c
  3. How many syllables does the word have? or The word has 3 syllables

This works as it involves the students in the process of self-correction. The key word in that last sentence being “involves”.

Which is easier: to correct your own mistakes or to correct someone else’s mistakes? Which is more fun: to correct your own mistakes or someone else’s? If your answers are the same as mine, then this is an activity worth looking at. Its basis is that a huge proportion of spelling mistakes are avoidable and are caused by poor writing technique as much as lack of knowledge – error correction is one key to better spelling.

How it works

There are any number of ways to work this, but this is the variant I like. It’s really nothing more a chain writing exercise where each student has 60 seconds or so to write a sentence before the paper is passed around for the next student to continue the writing as best they can. The simple variation is this the next student down the chain has to read and correct any spelling mistakes before they start writing. And so the process continues until they get their original back.So the apostrophe in the title is correctly placed – by the end of the activity they have the opportunity to read/correct all their neighbours writing.

Why it works

It can be  a really fun and competitive activity for one. More than that, the students get involved in the writing process and need to think about how they can complete/follow the previous sentence.

It’s a real reading/looking activity. The students need to read carefully before they start writing in a way they would not do if they were writing one continuous passage by themselves. This reading/looking is excellent for the spelling/error correction process.

The spelling/error correction is done on a sentence by sentence basis. It is intrinsically easier to correct mistakes in a shorter passage than a longer passage. In my experience, it doesn’t work to ask students to correct after they have completed a large chunk of writing. It’s psychologically all wrong and tiresome.

How to work it

The eye can deceive. We see waht we ecpxcet to see. So I like to get the students to check their writing with pen in hand, stopping to look at each word and not let their eyes run on too quickly. It really does seem that more mistakes are found this way.

A second point is they can of course look for other mistakes than spelling. Indeed, it would seem strange not to insist on this. This is a writing activity after all, not a spelling game and I believe it helps not to isolate spelling from other aspects of language use.. I would only comment that  it often helps to limit the range of mistakes they look for. Error correction is tough. Error correction can become really, really tough if it is “find all the mistakes you can”. Where do they start? But if the instructions are, “look at the articles” or “look at the tenses” etc, then something remarkable happens: they both can and do find and correct mistakes.

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