Tuesday, 23 November 2010

How to correct spelling - 12 ways

Most teachers would prefer to do less marking and have more time for their family and life. 

Maybe in fact that is what we should be doing. Before we correct spelling errors in our learners’ work we should ask ourselves why we are doing it. There is no point in correcting an error unless the learner can learn from it. The teacher should ask herself whether this error is a learning opportunity, or just something that is wrong. In many situations it is just the learning opportunities that are worth correcting. If we correct the spelling of a word that we have already corrected several times before, this shows us that the correction technique is not working for this word for this student and we need to try something different. It is not a learning opportunity. However, if a student has tried to spell something but made a mistake because there was a pattern that he did not know, then we have a good reason to correct him – in other words we are helping him, not just nagging!

A teacher sets some writing and when she collects it in, she finds some students’ work full of spelling mistakes. What should she do? Here are some options – what do you think about them?
1.      Ignore the spelling errors and comment on the content only.
2.      Do not mark the individual errors but tell the student he must work harder to improve his spelling.
3.      Do not mark the errors in the text, but write a list at the bottom of the page of the most important words (in your opinion) for the student to learn.
4.      Refuse to mark the work. Give it back to the student and tell him to proofread it and correct the spelling before handing it in again.
5.      Attach a few practice activities for the learners that deal with some of the spelling errors he has made.
6.      Write the correct spelling above some of the misspelt words.
7.      Write the correct spelling above all of the misspelt words
8.      Write the correct letters above incorrect ones in misspelt words.
9.      Underline misspellings and ask students to correct them.
10.  Give everyone’s work back unmarked and guide them all to check their work carefully in class. For example, you could ask “Do we change a base word before we add a prefix?” (no) OK, so check all your words that have prefixes – have you added them to the whole word?
11.  Use individual tutorials to guide students to the correct spelling.
12.  Note down the most common and important spelling errors across the class and work on these in subsequent lessons.

So which would you choose? Almost too many options? That is because there are so many different contexts and learners. Most of them have some validity. Let us look first at the ones that probably do not.

“2. Do not mark the individual errors but tell the student he must work harder to improve his spelling.” There is no point in saying this unless you can do something to help the learner help himself. Otherwise you are likely to either find the learner ‘forgets’ to do future assignments or takes no risks and uses only simple words he  knows. Saying this will probably knock somebody’s confidence without giving any real help.

“8. Write the correct letters above incorrect ones in misspelt words.” It is more beneficial for the learner to see the whole correct word. You can highlight or overwrite the letters in the correct spelling which replace the incorrect ones in the misspelling.

“1.  Ignore the spelling errors and comment on the content only.”
With certain very reluctant writers, they can be encouraged to write a little daily, perhaps in the form of a diary. This just gets them putting pen to paper and it may be inappropriate to correct their errors in spelling or grammar. Here we just want to show them that writing is a means of communication and so a valuable skill in its own right. However, in most situations many would say that we were abdicating our responsibility as teachers if we never helped our learners to improve their spelling. I have known native-speaker trainee teachers who have completed university education not knowing (as opposed to just making a slip) when they should use an apostrophe in it’s and when they should not (its) or who spell a lot as one word *alot. They have claimed that nobody has ever corrected them or explained. Have their teachers, whatever the subject, not felt it was their job to correct spelling (seeing it as somebody else’s job), were they embarrassed to correct such elementary mistakes from native speakers or were they unsure of the rules themselves?

“3. Do not mark the errors in the text, but write a list at the bottom of the page of the most important words (in your opinion) for the student to learn.”
This is a useful approach as long as you have taught your learners how to learn spellings. And you need to consider if you are going to test these. With motivated and mature adults this should not be necessary – they should recognise that you have just pointed them in the right direction. However, when it comes to learning many of us are not as mature and independent as we should be! Especially if we are used to the teacher checking everything we are asked to do. So if you ask a learner to learn some spellings, he may expect you to check these – to test him. If you think this is the case, work out beforehand if you will have time to do this.

“4. Refuse to mark the work. Give it back to the student and tell him to proofread it and correct the spelling before handing it in again.”
This very much depends on the context and the learner. It is a response that very occasionally may be appropriate if you have received some work from a student who usually spells well, but has made many errors in this piece of work because he has not given it enough attention. But you need to be sure the errors are not due to him risk-taking in terms of language. We certainly would not want to be dismissive about this. If you do give the work back to be proof-read, you could suggest that the student ‘forgot’ to proofread it!

“5. Attach a few practice activities for the learners that deal with some of the spelling errors he has made.”
It is very useful for the teacher to have a bank of such activities ready to use in this situation. However, the ‘practice’ activities must include some kind of input ensuring that the learner knows the pattern or has the strategy. Otherwise it is just a test of something that you already know the learner doesn’t know! And don’t forget you’ll need to mark it or give him the key.

“6. Write the correct spelling above all or some of the misspelt words.” This is perhaps the most common kind of feedback. But is it really feedback? A learner who is a bit lacking in motivation, or just busy, may look at the returned assignment, take a mental note of how many spelling errors were marked and ‘file’ the paper, never looking at it again. More motivated students may learn from these corrections however. So this is another case where we need to know our students well. If in doubt, give a short task along with the corrections.

The other important point here is the “all or some”. The answer probably depends on how many errors there are in the piece of work and what its purpose is. If it is full of errors it probably means the task was too difficult for the learner and there is little point in discouraging him by marking every error. However, if this is a first draft, especially if it is for a real task, such as a letter that will be sent to a company, then it may be necessary to correct everything. The student can then copy your corrections, but would it not be better if he had to think as well?

Just marking a selection of errors is often more appropriate and more encouraging. Limiting yourself to perhaps five or six spelling corrections in one piece of writing, is probably more effective than marking many. It is more manageable for learners and it forces you, the teacher, to really consider carefully which ones you should choose. This may depend on factors such as:
           Does the misspelling make it unclear or confusing for the reader?
           Does it involve a spelling pattern recently studied?
           Is this a word the learner is likely to need again soon?
           And have I corrected this error several times before? (if so, it is not worth correcting it again – some other measure is needed)

If you decide to just correct a few spelling errors, learners should be aware of this, especially if they are going to redraft it. Otherwise they may think everything else was correct and copy all the other errors (thus reinforcing them).

“7. Underline misspellings and ask students to correct them.”
Here we see the learners doing more work and you ‘spoonfeeding’ less. If you think your learners are able to correct their own spelling, this is an effective method as it involves some deeper mental processing and therefore more likelihood of remembering. However, without strategies or resources, learners may not be able to correct the words themselves. Underlining the letters that are wrong may help, but sometimes this becomes very complicated if, for example there are missing or transposed letters. A more effective way is to write the word as the student has written it but with gaps for the letters that are wrong or missing. So for example, if a learner writes *wich, you write w_ich above it. Or for *bueatyfull, you write b_ _ _ t_ful. This means that students should not get wrong what they have previously got right. And it also allows them to search for a spelling in an electronic dictionary.

"10. Give everyone’s work back unmarked and guide them all to check their work carefully in class. For example, you could ask “Do we change a base word before we add a prefix?” (no) OK, so check all your words that have prefixes – have you added them to the whole word?”
This is a very useful strategy. Even before you collect work from a group, ask them to check their own writing (or each other’s if you think it is appropriate). Guide them with prompts to correct the most common types of spelling errors. At a low level this could involve giving out a list of the 100 most common words for them to check against. Or maybe you have encouraged them to keep a list of their most common errors that they can consult. Or it could be more direct questions, “Have you got any nouns or verbs that end in ‘y’, if you’ve added ‘s’ what changes do you need to make?”. It is very valuable for learners to take this responsibility for ‘surface’ editing themselves as it fosters independence


“11. Use individual tutorials to guide students to the correct spelling.”
This is possibly the ideal situation, but a luxury that many teachers do not have. If individual tutorials happen, they often need to focus on other matters too. Teaching a student one-to-one is perfect as you can spend as little or as much time as you see fit on each item that is difficult for him.

12. Note down the most common and important spelling errors across the class and work on these in subsequent lessons.
This is also an excellent strategy if a significant proportion of the class have spelling difficulties. The spelling ‘syllabus’ is determined by the difficulties that members of the class have.

Which ways do you use?
Which ways don't you use, but might try?
Which ways wouldn't you use?
Any others I've missed?



10 comments:

  1. Very comprehensive. I know what you mean about spending lots of time correcting, even though some learners don't really use it an opportunity to learn. Therefore, I like the idea of limiting the number to be corrected to about 5 or 6, and getting learners to work together to work it out for themselves. I agree with your point about adding letters being confusing. Best to do it at the bottom of the work, and give it the space it deserves.

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  2. Thanks for dropping by and commenting, David.

    Johanna

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  3. I'm glad to have found your blog -- very interesting.

    To respond to this post, the way I did it with my 4th graders didn't really follow any of the 12 you mention, though it aspects of several (4, 9, 11, and 12).

    First, I should mention that the emphasis was on recognizing misspellings (so one can ask or look them up) and being unwilling to let them remain, rather than on knowing how to spell every word, and on learning the words each individual student used most commonly in his/her own writing.

    Second, all editing, including checking for misspelled words, was separated from the act of composition. While composing, students are encouraged just to spell as best they can, underline it if they're not sure, and keep going -- I don't want spelling or any other technical aspects to interfere with the creative process. They come afterward, but are not neglected either.

    Third, at 4th grade, we do correct every mistake. At that age students need to be learning that any piece of writing is not complete until it is thoroughly proofed, and that an unproofed piece of writing is not something you should feel comfortable with others (aside from your teacher) seeing, just as you wouldn't want others to see you with food all over your face after a delicious meal -- it may have been cute when you were little, but it's time to start assuming higher standards. And students actually do take pride in knowing their writing is correct, as well as beautiful, creative, exciting, and thoughtful.

    1. If there were many spelling mistakes in a piece of writing, and I knew this individual student knew better, I would hand it back with a numeric goal -- something like, "I know you can find at least 10 more spelling mistakes on this page. Underline all the words you can find that you think are misspelled, and correct the ones you know."

    2. During proofreading, the student could ask me for the spelling of any word of which (s)he wasn't sure, and I would write it in his/her individual spelling notebook.

    3. When correcting the writing, I would put a dot under each misspelled word. Each student would correct the ones (s)he knew or could figure out, and the rest would go into that student's individual spelling notebook.

    4. If the word was misspelled because the student didn't follow a spelling convention we had studied, I would write the number of the convention in the margin next to the line the word was in. The student would then look up the convention (they were posted both on the wall and in the student's notebook) in order to correct the mistake, thus causing repeated reading and application of the convention until the student had learned it.

    5. Each week, each student would choose 10 words from his/her individual notebook to focus on. They were encouraged to choose the shortest, easiest words, on the theory that those were the ones they needed to learn first.

    6. We had special challenge activities for those who had not misspelled at least 10 words that week.

    I found this worked pretty well, and noticed marked improvement in most students' writing over the course of the year.

    --Matt

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  4. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for this. Very interesting. I really agree that a focus on spelling shouldn't get in the way of the content and I love the food-over-your-face analogy!Your method seems very structured and effective. Thanks for sharing it. Looking forward to spending a bit of time on your blog too!
    Johanna

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  5. Nur Afiah
    Hi..
    I'm a college student in Indonesia. i've read your article "Remedial spelling in EFl" and I found it interesting. I agree with you that spelling is important especially in academic field, not solely in speaking but also in writing.
    Frankly, spelling is a kind of trouble that bother me in writing my thesis. I have to open the dictionary whenever i find difficult words. It waste my time so much. On the other hand, there's spelling checker in my computer, but sometimes it provides more than 2 optional words that make me confused.

    Thank you

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  6. Sara mohammed awad asran,

    i like so much this topic,but i prefer number 9)Underline misspellings and ask students to correct them.Because it will help our students to correct their mistakes in spelling by themselves.

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  8. Hi,
    I run a Spoken English class where I am facing a lot of difficulty as my students commits a lot of mistakes in spellings. Can you suggest what should I do?

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  9. Thanks for dropping by, Sanjay. It's big question with no short, easy answer. But this blog and my book are devoted to ideas about teaching spelling.

    Johanna

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  10. Correcting the spelling of your writing's is really important thing that we have to take proper usage. It reflects that way you write an English words, it can also be a misleading and understanding to the people who can see some wrong spelling that you have in your writing. Thank you for the 12 tips that you have putted here on your blog, it is really helpful to me as a college student.

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