It can be challenging for young children to navigate the complex minefield of silent letters, rules (“I before E except after C”) and anomalies of the English language. As adults, many of us remember memorising word formations in preparation for dreaded Friday afternoon spelling tests. International schools in Singapore are now taking a more collaborative approach. We spoke with AMY PAUL, Assistant Head of Elementary School at The Australian International School, about the school’s three-step approach to spelling.
Step 1: No-pressure phonics and fun
Spelling at AIS is taught in stages, and each child works through these stages at a different pace. Children are assessed individually to determine their competency. Spelling exercises are then tailored to their skill level.“Becoming a competent speller takes time. It’s important we don’t place too many expectations on children to reach certain milestones at certain ages,” says Amy.
She suggests first focusing on phonics and mastering the 44 different sounds of the English language. This isn’t easy, particularly for those students who are transitioning from a non-English speaking environment. Songs and rhymes help children build phonemic awareness.
Once phonics are mastered, children learn how letters and sounds are combined to make words. Words are broken down into sounds, and children identify the sounds at the beginning, middle and end of a word. They look for patterns and identify letter combinations that form specific sounds, such as ch, sh, all, ate and tion. Students then sort and categorise words based on the letter and sound patterns they observe.
Step 2: Building confidence and curiosity
The AIS Elementary School curriculum follows the framework of the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program (PYP) which encourages inquiry-based, student-led thinking. How does this translate to spelling lessons? For starters, teachers focus more on encouraging children to “have a go” at spelling unknown words rather than pointing out errors. Amy explains that this builds confidence and ensures children don’t develop a fear of making mistakes.
“We avoid teaching rules when it comes to spelling. We understand that children need explicit instruction in some instances, but we always try and balance this with an authentic application of the skills learnt,” says Amy. Children sort words according to their own observations, and they discuss the patterns they identify with their teachers and fellow students. To encourage curiosity, teachers talk about new words and their meanings, leading to discussions on how these words are spelled.
Step 3: Helping out at home
There are many ways that parents can support children at home, and none of these involve spelling tests! Spelling and reading go hand in hand, so read with your child regularly and discuss words and word patterns. Use old newspapers and magazines for word finding games, for example highlighting every word that ends with “ing” or that starts with “ph”. It’s also helpful to keep a dictionary in the house (or use an online dictionary) to confirm the spelling or definition of unknown words.
Word games such as Boggle, Scrabble and Hangman can be great for developing vocabulary and spelling skills. Build these into your family nights as a way of having fun and learning at the same time. Letter fridge magnets, found at most toy stores, are another great way to teach spelling. Form a word with the magnets, then take some letters out or scramble them around for your child to unscramble.
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