I recall reading somewhere over the past few months that research is suggesting that visual recognition strategies for the learning of spelling is now thought to be interfering with the neural development actually required for accurate spelling. I am seeing that in action.
A child I was working with was reviewing her homework last night and was required to spell the word 'laugh'. As usual she asked me how to spell it and as usual I asked her "what sounds can she hear". She heard the three sounds /l/ /ar/ /f/ correctly. She knew the word started with 'l' and then recalled that it had a 'gh' in it. What then unfolded was what she had been taught in class. The sounds of the word disappeared from her working memory, they were discarded as irrelevant. Instead she added a 't' after the 'gh' and then she inserted an 'i' before the 'gh'. Why? Because they were doing or had done 'ight' words in class. Her neural connections said that whenever she saw a 'gh' then she must add in an 'i' before and a 't' after. This was consistent with the word family spellings, LSCWC and flash cards that had been used with her to teach spellings.
Fiona Nevola in her work 'The Sound Reading System' says. "It is not helpful to give the learner rhyming families (word families) to read. When they read real text (what we read every day) they do not meet word families. Rhyming families encourage guessing and part reading of words." This is what I saw in this girl's attempt to spell laugh. Spelling is the flipside of reading. They are interchangeable, therefore the strategies one uses in reading are also applied in spelling. The child began with an accurate recall of the sounds in the word 'laugh', but she only went part of the way before abandoning the only solid entry into spelling a word (sounds) for the (detrimental) word family repetition she had been taught in class.
Teaching word families also attempts to overteach blends (establish blend neural pathways) through repetition. Blends are a combination of sounds and should not be taught. There are two sounds in 'ight' - /ie/ and /t/. Children need to keep the separate sounds in their working memory if they are to read and spell them accurately. Again I heed the words of Fiona Nevola "Teaching blends can also have another effect: many learners who are having difficulty with reading add extra letters whether they are there or not. They may also leave sounds out and instead write what they are used to seeing together". The 'hooks' into spelling that a solid connection with sound offers are discarded as the (taught) neural pathways associated with visual strategies kick in.
And finally, "spelling involves recall memory: memory without visual prompts. The more the learner writes, saying the sounds, the easier it will be for them to become an accurate and independent speller." Time and again I have seen the truth in this. Later on this girl was required to write the word 'smile'. Again I started with what sounds she could hear. /s/ /m/ /ie/ /l/. She wrote down the 's', 'm' and 'l'. I then asked her how many ways she knew how to spell the sound /ie/. She gave me 'i', 'ie' and 'i-e'. I then asked her to write the word using each of the spellings and then to tell me which one was correct. She identified the correct spelling - even though her personal mind was not so sure! In every case with the children I work with, when I have used this approach, they have accurately identified the correct spelling - even when they weren't sure. This is because of what we know about orthographic processing. If a child works with a spelling on at least four different occasions connecting the sound with the letters, those connections are established in long term memory. This is where they need to be if RECALL is to occur. Recall is different to recognition. Recognition is used in reading, recall is necessary in spelling - recall draws information out of long term memory. Long term memory offers up the correct information we need - if we have used sound strategies for establishing it there in the first place. Teachers need to be mindful of the strategies they are using because strategies are also laid down as neural pathways - and not just the focus of those strategies.
The use of strategies such as 'Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check', Flash Cards, Word Families and Sight Word Memorization for spelling all interfere with the sound development of the neural pathways required for accurate spelling. Instead of linking a child's spelling with the sounds in words they distract a child's cognitive processes into scanning for words they have seen, rules they vaguely remember and letter clusters taught during word family spellings. Spelling becomes a mental scanning with very little to link sounds with letters. They create chaos instead of order, they exceed the fact of limited cognitive load and they waste the precious limited time children have to learn to spell and read whilst in primary school and the resources of the teachers who teach them. They are a human made spelling 'crazymaker', it is tough watching their effect in our children.