Back to school

Well, university, actually. I had lots of ideas about how to teach spelling using visual mnemonics, but no hard evidence (beyond my own experience teaching adults) that they were actually effective. I particularly wanted to find out whether this approach worked for primary school children, as they seem to spend a huge amount of time learning and being tested on spellings.

I took myself off to do an MSc in Educational Neuroscience at Birkbeck / UCL Institute of Education in London. Every time you read a sentence that starts “Neuroscience shows that …”, alarm bells should start ringing. You can be fairly certain that what follows is a selective interpretation of a small amount of published research which may only be tangentially related to the topic.

However. We should not abandon the drive for a rigorous evidence base for our teaching, but we should interrogate all claims that are justified by neuroscience quite carefully. My dissertation research was a controlled trial of teaching spelling using visual mnemonics to Y4 (8-9 year olds) in a classroom setting. My methodology drew on the work of Partz, M. P. D., Seron, X., & Linden, M. V. D. (1992), who used a similar visual imagery approach for the cognitive rehabilitation of a patient following a stroke.

I recruited 54 primary school children and split them into two evenly matched groups. I taught both groups 20 words using either the Button Spelling method, or a comparable conventional method (definitions and contextual sentences) over a period of four weeks.

When the children were tested on the words one week after teaching, the children taught using visual mnemonics remembered 50% more correct spellings than children taught the same words using the conventional method. If you like statistics, here they are: The experimental group had a greater proportion of correct spellings (20.4%) than the control group (13.3%): χ(3) = 13.41, p = .003. This corresponds to a medium effect size: Cramer’s V (df=3) = .15.

(If you are really keen, email me and I will send you my thesis. If you are really, really keen, you might even read it).

The first mnemonic: broccoli

A few years later, I was teaching adult literacy in the evenings at a local community centre. My group was hugely diverse: women from Morocco who had received only a basic primary education in Arabic, with a tiny bit of French, ambitious young men from Colombia keen to progress as fast as possible, and several adults who had had traumatic experiences at school and had only just worked up the courage to re-engage with education.

With this last group, I began to see a pattern: often they were undiagnosed dyslexics, who had been told they were stupid or lazy (or both) by less-than-enlightened teachers many decades ago. A whole lifetime of damage had been done, as people believed these negative judgements and wrote themselves off. Only the bravest and most dedicated took the plunge and came to adult literacy classes.

One of my students was a keen cook, so we tended to focus on words she would find in recipes and out shopping. She struggled in particular with broccoli, and could never remember how many Cs and how many Ls. I sketched a picture of a piece of broccoli, then drew two Cs at the top and one L on the stalk. A light went on behind her eyes. She grabbed my sketch and insisted on keeping it – for the first time, she had found something that actually helped.

Deprived or depraved?

Is he deprived … or depraved?

It all began when I was proof-reading a colleague’s work. I was working for a digital marketing agency, and we were working on a hard-hitting campaign to raise awareness of neglected children. A heart-wrenching paragraph described the plight of some depraved children – hang on – depraved as in ‘morally corrupt and wicked’? Or deprived as in ‘suffering a severe and damaging lack of basic material and cultural benefits’?

The problem zoomed into focus in my mind. Spell checkers can’t help you here, as both words are spelled correctly, but with very different meanings. So how do you teach people to spell words in situations when spell checkers can’t work it out for you?