Is your child still stumbling over spelling? Here’s how to help them prepare for NAPLAN.

As thousands of school children around the country prepare for NAPLAN testing, many may be feeling anxious about the two spelling assessments included in it. Spelling is tested in the Language Conventions paper, and also in the Writing paper.

Spelling can be a source of anxiety for children and parents alike. Although spelling is not related to intelligence, spelling errors are an easy target for others to snigger at—often putting a lot of pressure on learners to get it right.

Correct the spelling mistakes in NAPLAN tests

In the Language Conventions section of the NAPLAN test, your child will be asked to identify spelling errors and correctly spell several words that have been misspelt in a sentence.

When preparing for the NAPLAN test, students can often feel concerned about which words they should be focusing on first. This is the wrong approach to the problem. There are tens of thousands of words in English; it would be impossible to predict which words NAPLAN would choose to assess.

In fact, the words we choose to learn for a spelling test are less important than the way they are learned. The focus of spelling practice should be on the development of spelling knowledge that students can then apply to new words as they encounter them.

The spelling of English words is a complex social construction, which has evolved over time and been influenced by other languages. Understanding the history and underlying structures and meanings found within words is the key to truly mastering them. This cannot be achieved by the distribution of take-home spelling lists that children and parents must figure out for themselves.

Preparing your child for the NAPLAN spelling test

Here are some key pieces of advice to help to get your child ready for the spelling components of the NAPLAN test, and to help improve their spelling more broadly.

1. Meaning is everything

With a quarter of a million words in the English language, spelling is not about learning words by heart. To help spelling stick without learning words letter by letter, it’s vital that children begin to understand the meanings of the words they’re trying to tackle. Words are not simply strings of letters, they are combinations of letter patterns and meaningful parts.

The word bicycle, for example, is not just a string of seven letters. It has two distinctly meaningful parts: bi meaning “two” (consider other bi words like bilingual, bifocal) and cycle meaning “circle” or “wheel”. We can see this meaning structure in the more colloquial name for a bicycle: the two-wheeler. Rather than one string of seven letters to learn, we now have two smaller, and meaning laden, parts to spell.

The meanings in words are known as morphemes, which are the parts of the word that carry meaning. For example, birds has two morphemes: bird and s. Bird is obviously meaningful, but the s is meaningful as well because it tells us that there is more than one bird.

2. Why “sounding it out” and phonics doesn’t work

A common response to a student struggling to spell is to remind them to “sound it out”. However, English has never been a phonetic language—right from the day 1500 years ago when it imported a foreign alphabet (Latin) as its chosen way to represent the spoken English word in print.

Today, the pronunciation of English words is incredibly diverse as there are now more non-native English-speakers than mother tongue speakers of English. The sounds of the English words we speak have become ever more distant from the spellings of those words. All of this means that purely phonics-based—or sounds—approaches to spelling are doomed to failure.

The majority of spelling errors made by poor spellers demonstrate an over-reliance on sounding out. Put simply, sounding out will ensure that you get the spelling of the word wrong, most of the time.

Instead, unpacking the meanings in-built within a word is key to getting the spelling of the word right because English morphemes are quite regular, remaining consistent in their spelling even when their sound—or phonology—changes.

Consider the word jumped. If we relied on the sounds we hear, we are likely to spell it “jumt”, but if we think about the morphemes in jumped, we find jump and ed. With jump we can now hear the “p” that had previously disappeared. And ed tells us that the action happened in the past.

3. Finding context through history

The word etymology comes from Greek, and it means the “study of the reason”. Etymology is the answer to why a word is spelled like it is. It is most often explored in the upper grades of primary school or high school and is seen as a bit of fun, a sideline dip into the history of words and reserved for the clever kids who need a bit of extension.

However, etymology should be the beginning of spelling work with students of all ages and abilities—not the end. If each word is a tapestry, then etymology is the background canvas through which all the other threads run.

It is rare for a word to be made up from nowhere at all. Even new technology looks to the past when naming new inventions. Phishing, the fraudulent act of trying to obtain people’s online passwords and information, takes its name from the everyday sense of fishing; that is, dangling bait and waiting for it to be taken. But the word in this technological context has been given something of a scientific boost by the use of the classic Greek representation of the “f” sound with “ph”.

Bluetooth technology, designed to connect different devices, is named after the tenth-century king of Denmark, King Harald Bluetooth, who successfully united the Scandinavian countries of Denmark and Norway.

Storytelling about how words have come to be spelled the way they are, and explicitly teaching the system behind words, helps children to connect the word and its spelling to other information in their brains.

How spelling can help with maths

When spelling instruction is focused on meaning, other areas of a child’s learning improve along with it, including reading comprehension, writing and vocabulary. This is, in part, because once a child understands the meaning of parts of a word, they also get a better grasp on the word itself.

For example, when learning the concept of perimeter in mathematics, students can unpack the two morphemes peri, meaning “around”, and meter, meaning “to measure”. This helps students spell the word and teaches them that perimeter means they must measure around the shape. This clearly differentiates the mathematical concept of perimeter from area, two concepts that students often confuse. Who knew spelling could help improve your child’s mathematics, too?

If we want our children to be better spellers, it’s critical that history and meaning join “sounding it out” on the starting block for teaching spelling. Perimeter is just one example of how a strong understanding of the meaning behind words can have a positive influence on your child’s education, from the NAPLAN test and beyond.

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