There’s more in heaven and earth…when it comes to spelling

I submitted the following to The Australian by way of response to the following article on spelling:,20867,19975952-13881,00.html

Justine Ferrari quite rightly highlights the importance of a balanced approach to teaching reading and spelling (Spelling fad costs kids 14pc drop in results, 1/8/06).

However, what has not been established by those who criticise ‘faddish’ approaches such as whole language is whether in fact the explicit teaching of phonics and spelling ever really did disappear from the nation’s classrooms. Certainly, syllabuses in all parts of Australia have for decades emphasised the importance of direct instruction and students developing both graphological and phonological processing skills. 

Labelling as ‘plausible’ the untested hypothesis that ‘whole language’ was universally adopted by teachers in the 1980s and 1990s at the expense of other teaching practices and despite the ‘balanced’ approach laid down in syllabuses is injudicious speculation.

What strikes me as interesting is the way that those who criticise ‘whole language’ never enter into serious consideration of whether in fact this approach ever actually did force other more explicit or ‘traditional’ teaching approaches out of classrooms. Syllabus documents have emphasisied for decades now the importance of a balanced approach, incuding explicit teaching of phonics and a variety of spelling strategies.

It will be interesting to follow up on the data, methodology etc of the paper named in the article. Without wanting to enter into the ‘crisis’ discourse The Australian is running, what I find interesting is that the report, without saying it is doing this directly, focusses on the first two years of schooling. My initial reaction, and personal experience as a father, suggests this is an incredily complex time in schooling, and beyond the type of instruction they receive, students will bring a myriad of other social experiences to their learning which influence their progress.

The pace of social change in recent decades suggests to me that researchers might have to be looking outside of the classroom for causes of variations in students’ ‘test’ scores. I don’t know that change in the classroom has been as marked.

My daughter has just started school this year. She has a very experienced teacher, who must be close to retirement. My daughter is getting a balanced teaching approach, which includes a good deal of explicit instruction. She is making good progress and enjoys reading.

I find it hard to believe that her teacher, Mrs C., has swung back to the ‘tried and true’ after the wilderness years of being a totally unreconstructed ‘whole language’ teacher in the 1980s and 1990s. And I am sure that she is not so different to teachers of Kindergarten and Year One around the nation.

There are more things in heaven and earth, psycholgists, than are dreamt in your ‘science’.


One Response to There’s more in heaven and earth…when it comes to spelling

  1. Ms M says:

    Hmmm — there’s a lot to be said for the old ways of teaching spelling by rote. It wasn’t until I became a teacher that my spelling went down the gurgler. Many kids won’t use a dictionary — even if you tell them to, they refuse to learn spelling words, and only a few seem to understand “spellcheck”. Phonetics don’t seem to apply to them as they don’t understand the basics of the concept of pronunciation. Surely a wholistic approach that encompases many methods of learning is the obvious way to go.

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