Remedial Spelling in EFL
Copyright © Johanna Stirling 2003
(for spelling practice activities click here)
(My book on Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners, info here)
This report will focus on the difficulties that some learners experience with spelling, particularly those whose general language level markedly exceeds that of their writing. As this often applies to Arabic students, we will explore their specific problems.The report sets out detailed recommendations for the teaching of spelling in various situations. It is arranged as follows:
Suggestions for Teaching Spelling in Low Level Reading and Writing Classes
I want you to teatch me how I can make my spilling moor beater. I prames you that I will do my best.
It was such cris de coeur that persuaded me that I needed to find out more about how to teach spelling to our EFL students, especially those whose oral and aural skills are considerably better than their written ones.(The quote above comes from a student who coped well in an upper intermediate class, until he had to write, that is.) Although poor spelling is not their only obstacle to better writing, it is a stubborn one that I feel is often brushed over. Many of these students, are intending to go on to British universities. They needto be able to spell. As a teacher I felt that it was an area that I knew very little about and one that is all but ignored in EFL literature. I confess I have been guilty of the worst kind of ‘teaching’: telling students that they are not very good at something and then not being able to really help them to improve. Colleagues expressed similar feelings of helplessness and guilt.
In the course of this project I researched EFL literature and materials on spelling, but also looked briefly at how spelling is taught to children in schools and to adults in Basic Education schemes (Adult Literacy). I interviewed some of our students at Bell Norwich who consider that they either are or have been poor spellers. Teachers also filled in a questionnaire on the subject.
First let us consider how students perceive the problem. I interviewed 7 students who confessed to being or having been poor spellers. Five of these were Arabs, the other two were from the Far East. All the students I interviewed claimed that spelling was no problem in their own language and they did believe that their English spelling was improving, but nearly all felt that considerable further improvement was essential. The main reason given was to be able to cope with future academic study in Britain.
Let us consider for a moment why we need to be able to spell well, in both academic and everyday life.
Accepting these reasons, my students complained that English spelling was so difficult. They perceived it as not representing the pronunciation of words; there are silent letters, and so many different ways to spell one sound (and ways to sound one spelling). This cannot be denied. Invaders from abroad and early printers have bequeathed us odd remnants of language that we have assimilated. We also have a rather inadequate alphabet, only 26 letters for about 44 sounds. However, English spelling is not as irregular as it at first seems, in fact it is generally estimated to be over 80 per cent regular (providing ‘regular’ is taken to mean that most words are constructed according to a rather complicated system of patterns relating to their sounds). Frustratingly however, it is the commonest words which are most likely to be irregular.
Another difficulty that relates specifically to learners of EFL is not being able to identify pronunciation distinctly enough to spell words. This is a particular problem with vowel sounds and other sounds that do not have direct equivalents in students’ own language e.g. /p/ and /b/, /l/ and /r/, or /f/ and /v/.
There are added problems of course for students whose languages use a different alphabet or have a non-alphabetic system, such as Arabic, Japanese and Chinese. They have a great deal more to learn than those who also use the Roman alphabet, but the latter also have problems where a letter has a different sound value, eg in German the letter v = /f/. Those with very phonetic languages such as Italian may over generalise about spelling based on phonetics.
Sometimes we cannot blame the language or the L1 difference, some students are just weak spellers. Margaret Peters, writing about native speakers, identifies two reasons for poor spelling, weak visual memory and weak auditory memory, and compares these with the performance of good spellers: [i]
Peters also identifies 5 kinds of error that poor spellers often make:
aspects of writing in English cause major problems for Arabic speakers,
and they should not be expected to cope with
reading and writing at the same level or pace as European
students who are at a similar level of proficiency in oral English.” [iii]
Arabic spelling follows a simple system and is virtually phonetic. One sound equals one letter. Arabic has 32 consonants and 8 vowels (including diphthongs), so a lot fewer vowel sounds than English and the short ones are almost allophonic. Meaning is carried by consonants and long vowels only. Arabic words never start with a vowel. In fact vowels are often not shown in Arabic writing (except for example in the Koran and in books for children). When they are shown this is by means of small marks above or below the word. For this reason Arabic speakers tend to confuse or gloss over short vowel sounds and as a consequence have problems writing them. The most common confusions are between /I/ and /e/ (bit and bet), / Q / and / O: / (cot and caught) , /eI/ and /e/ (laid and led) and /@U / and /Q / (hope and hop). If students cannot distinguish between these sounds orally and aurally they are unlikely to be able to write them. As far as consonants are concerned /p/ and /b/ are allophonic as are /v/ and /f/. /g/ and /k/ are often confused and / T / and /D/ (thin and that) may cause problems. In some dialects there is no / tS / ‘ch’ sound. In Arabic the /r/ is pronounced much more strongly so they may not hear it in English and therefore not write it. Some initial consonant clusters such as 'spr', 'str' do not occur in Arabic and students may insert a short vowel letter.
They also have the challenge of reading from left to right and when writing they may transpose two or more letters e.g. 'tow' for ‘two’ or 'waht' for ‘what’. In addition, students often experience problems keeping their writing on the line, which makes it more difficult to recognise if the word is the correct shape.
The aspects of spelling that the Arab students I interviewed said they found particularly difficult were:
§ all vowel sounds,
§ /p/ and /b/,
§ double/single letters,
§ digraphs (eg -ch, -ph “in my language c is c and h is h!”),
§ silent letters,
§ the letters g, c and k.
Several Bell Norwich teachers answered a questionnaire on how we could help students with spelling.
Most teachers felt they did not or could not give enough systematic help to weak spellers, as a result some students reach a high level class without being able to spell. Several very experienced teachers admitted that they did not know how to go about teaching remedial spelling (myself included). Teachers felt strongly that they needed more training in this area. There was also a need, many felt, for more self-access materials, though it was pointed out that sometimes the students with the most serious problems were the least likely to use them. The idea of special low-level reading and writing options was also felt to be useful. One further suggestion was displaying posters with spelling rules on classroom walls.
In order to be able to spell well a number of language processing skills are needed.
1. Students need to know the alphabet and sounds that letters represent, discriminate between similar looking letters and be able to copy.
2. Students need to be able to hear and probably pronounce the word they want to spell. However research suggests that deaf children spell better than hearing children of the same reading age as they rely more on strategies of visual perception. This is encouraging news for our students as poor listening is seen as a handicap to spelling.
3. Then learners have to remember the phonemes in the right order and the which letters represent those phonemes. They have to call to mind ‘rules’ about spelling patterns. Good spellers recognise the probability of letters occurring in certain sequences. Plenty of handwriting practice reinforces the ‘muscle memories’ of these letter sequences.
4. If the phonemes can be represented by alternative spellings learners have to decide which to choose for a particular word and learn these.
5. There may be irregularities, such as silent letters, that they need to learn. These spellings just have to be memorised, an onerous task as they include many of the most common words. Students therefore need to employ strategies to remember these just as they remember names, perhaps symbols in their own written language (eg Chinese) or any other information.
6. They often need to think about associated words they know with the same root or a similar meaning and be able to consider the affixes separately. In other words students need to learn to look at the internal structure of words.
7. The appropriate spelling of homophones is needed for the context: Too is a correct spelling of /tu:/ but not in I have too brothers.
Most of the Arabs I spoke to said that they had learnt spelling in their own countries by memorisation rather than any rules or cognitive strategies. One Japanese student said she had had a similar experience but when a private teacher had later explained some rules to her, her spelling improved greatly. Experience suggests that we mainly spell by memorisation but refer to rules we have learnt when we cannot remember. This seems to be the key to learning spelling.
A multilingual general English class usually comprises a mix of learners with different levels of spelling and varying needs. So below I will outline some general methodological hints I have gleaned from my research that we might usefully apply to all classes.
All the points above should be borne in mind, but as there will be a much greater emphasis on developing spelling skills and assuming that all the students in the class struggle with English spelling, here are some further points to consider.
In conclusion then we can see that although there are plenty of problems facing our students when it comes to spelling, there is also valuable help that we can give them. We must first endeavour to identify and understand their problems and recognise that we can teach them to develop this important skill. A wide range of strategies for improving spelling should be introduced. To back this up we can show that there is some degree of regularity to the patterns that we find in English words, although the students will meet a disproportionate number of irregular spelling in very common words. These patterns or ‘rules’ can be taught as a fallback for when other strategies fail. While unfortunately there is rather a shortage of material for teaching spelling in EFL, we can employ and adapt many of the techniques we use in other areas of our work to enliven spelling lessons and make them more effective. Some of the methodology and techniques can be used with general English classes to teach spelling more explicitly to all. There are many more which will be of great use with low level writing classes, where development of spelling skills is a priority and more time can be devoted to it.
This, coupled with guidance in how to use effective self-access materials, shows our students that we take their spelling problems seriously and that they can overcome this obstacle to their progress and ambitions.
[i] Peters M, Spelling: Caught or Taught (Revised) Routledge and Keegan Paul 1985
[iii] Swan M and Smith B, Learner English CUP 1987
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