I was once sitting among some colleagues who were discussing the difficulties our ELL students have with spelling – like kids who write “whase” for “was”. Teaching spelling is even trickier when your population’s first language has different sounds, and different sounds represented by letters that differ from English (if they have any experience with letter alphabets or writing at all).
We use Words Their Way, which is essentially a phonics program that encourages deductive reasoning, and uses pictures or word cards, all of which have proven problematic for classes such as mine. Firstly because when doing sound sorts with word cards usually kids just look and see that “mat” looks like “sat” and not “set”, and group them by letters rather than sounds, which they’re supposed to be noticing. While this might be useful for students if you’re teaching them the letters in the English language, but the usefulness even then is limited. Secondly, the picture cards, where they match pictures by the sounds in the words they represent, require vocabulary knowledge! You have to know the picture you are looking at is of a “hen” to see how it fits with “pen”.
Add to this the fact that spelling is arbitrary. There is no inherent logic that the squiggle that looks like a “c” should make the /k/ sound rather than the letter “g”. I know kids don’t need to know that, but teachers and curriculum authors ought to! Besides, spelling in English is so irregular that teaching rules has never proven too helpful (in my experience) because there is also a “however…” tacked onto the end if it.
So, it really struck me as such a surprise when I overheard a fellow teacher say, “No matter how many times I remind them, they still spell ‘excited’ as ‘exited’”. I responded by saying, (in the positive scenario, assuming the kid doesn’t have other problems or difficulties), “There’s a similar word in Spanish but spelled “exitoso”, and maybe that’s why.” And this person paused and replied emphatically, “But you can hear the c,” and then pronounced the word slowly.
What made me really stop in this comment is that despite knowing that ‘c’ can make more than 1 sound, what she didn’t know was that letters don’t actually “make” sounds. They are just representations of sound, and often they represent very different ones (between and within languages), which can reinforce confusion by ELLs and likely not just ELLs.
For example, if I’m thinking of something to say in Spanish or Italian that has the letters “ch” in it, which is pronounced differently in the two languages, I first think to myself how “Che” is said in Spanish, and then I know which sound I need to make. The Italian pronunciation for “ch”, is represented in English by the letters k, c, and also ch (think character). And both Spanish and Italian have their trilled “r” sounds that most people think English doesn’t have. We have one of them. Just say the word ladder out loud and compare what your tongue does to either the Spanish pero, if you know it, to see the similarities, or to the English “made” to see how our “d” at the end of a word differs when “d” is in the middle. Now do you want to teach kids how to pronounce words in English, or how to spell that way? A little trickier, isn’t it, when you think of all the sounds we actually make.
But I digress.
This is NOT a dig at this person, or at teachers — because many of us have not had the experience of really learning a foreign language, or of taking a linguistics class that really invite us to rethink the written language differently from its sound system, or phonetics. And perhaps the way we teach spelling would be different if teachers were encouraged to reflect on their teaching and their particular population’s needs in deeper ways, instead of just being given a book they are required to use three times a week.
I’d like you to consider: this is someone who actually has years of experience with ELLs and still doesn’t understand some key aspects of their learning. So imagine the true value of someone with no experience with ELLs — and I don’t mean the teachers now, but the politicians and others who actually write policy and determine teacher training and curricula — imagine them having the impact they do on our education system.
And we’re just talking about spelling here.
If this question of English orthography and phonetics interests you, I suggest reading this.