Boston — In English-speaking classrooms around the world, spelling is poorly taught. Most spelling programs (and teachers) assume that all pupils are visual learners and hence expect spelling ability to come from "picture" memorization.
But only a minority of us have "photographic memories." (Unfortunately for the teaching of spelling, most teachers are visual learners.)
Most of us learn through hearing and feeling and want the sound of a word to carry the spelling, or to have our memories impressed through writing, tracing, and feeling.
Seventy to 80 percent of the English words we must learn to spell in school do have a direct sound-spelling relationship, and oral learners need teachers who can help them make these connections.
And it's really quite possible for a teacher with a visual memory to teach phonics. What is required initially is that the teacher diagnose each learner's needs correctly.
Then the teacher needs to feel the sound-spelling relationship and so help students make similar connections.
For pupils who need to feel their way through the correct structure of a word , some special training is necessary. Teachers must learn how to use a tray filled with sand for practicing the form of letters. They must guide pupils in writing with wax crayon on overhead projector transparencies.
Felt boards should be used, along with the tracing of words written boldly.
Now, it isn't easy for teachers with photographic memories to think their way through how others learn to spell. Not impossible, just not easy. And so every teacher needs some helpers.
Children who learn best by hearing should be the ones to help the less mature spellers who learn by the same method. Research shows that when children teach children, particularly children having a struggle to learn, results are better for both; that is, the one doing the teaching learns better how to spell (or whatever subject is chosen), as does the one being taught.
What doesn't work -- and hasn't for the past 200 years -- is asking good spellers to help the poor spellers. The problem is, the "good" ones only know visual methods, and the "poor" ones are poor because they don't learn visually.
So the alert teacher finds the kinesthetic learners, has them help those who must trace and write to learn, and asks oral learners to help those needing phonetic clues.
Most spelling books, unaccountably, since visual learners are in the minority , cater primarily to visual memorization. Don't throw away all those spellers, but use them only with visual learners.
And develop dictionary-based spelling lessons that lead the majority of pupils to visualize from what they hear and what they feel as they talk and write their spelling lessons. Next week: Teachers and physics