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Review ~ Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners

An ESL teacher’s go-to guide for making spelling improvement meaningful, effective, even fun!
Reviewed for TEFL.net by Monique Ward
Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners

Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners

Teaching spelling has long been deemed a daunting task by ESL instructors. Frequently considered a chore at best, the presentation of orthographic rules and patterns is often sidestepped in the wake of more important class-time affairs. Johanna Stirling aims to shed light on the importance, and perhaps, ease of spelling instruction in Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners.

The text is written for teachers of adult English Language Learners, although the author points out that teachers of young learners and native English speakers would also benefit from the presented methodologies. Divided into sections, this guide deals with the problems associated with teaching spelling, and offers solutions to those problems through pedagogically focused activities.

Part A includes a condensed history of English spelling, the changes it has undergone over time, and its geographic variances (the author is British and notes the differences between British English and American English). Stirling argues that the seemingly unsystematic orthographic system of English is actually a complex one comprised of five classifications: the phonological system, the graphemic system, the morphological system, the etymological system, and the lexical system.

Following the presentation of possible challenges that both learners and teachers of spelling may face, part B offers ways to handle these challenges. The idea that explicitly teaching spelling is a bottom-up approach, in contrast to its ability to be implicitly acquired, is questioned in this text. Stirling suggests a fresh slant: that the overt instruction of patterns and strategies, paired with the practice of higher order thinking, is an effective method for improving spelling abilities. Further, by combining visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and cognitive learning modes, the book considers differences among learners while proposing a multi-dimensional approach to spelling.

With Part C comes the fun. This section illustrates the usefulness of the multi-dimensional approach through a varied offering of classroom activities and teacher resources. Because the activities maintain specific objectives, for example recognizing links between words and practicing letters in final position, teachers can quickly access them for classroom use. Each photocopiable visual or worksheet is presented with an instructive explanation, as well as variation ideas, to make lesson planning easier.

The book can be approached in a couple of ways: it can be read straight through, or used as a quick-reference guide. Read from the beginning, the initial chapters may seem cumbersome. However, navigation is made easier through charts, summaries, and visuals. Readers with a linguistic background will likely be familiar with, and have an appreciation of, the material presented here. The latter approach is useful for time-pressed teachers needing quick pointers backed by theoretically-sound reasoning. As a teacher with both a linguistic background and the need for more hours in the day, I consider the text helpful, regardless of the reader’s approach.

American English teachers, fear not. Stirling does a good job at illustrating the spelling differences in British and American English; and such differences presented in the text will likely have no impeding effect on the outcome of your teaching of spelling!

Reviewed by Monique Ward for TEFL.net January 2012

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