The Importance of Spelling Games Spelled Out
How many words do you know? As a teacher, it’s probably more than your average
bear adult. A testing website established as part of a research project on vocabulary, which has analysed the lexical scope of over two million participants, has shown that adult native English-language speakers have an average vocabulary ranging from 20,000-35,000 words. By the age of eight, children will know about 10,000 words, almost half as many as the lower range for adults. That fantastic fact is down to teachers like you.
Analysis of the findings reveals that adult respondents learn on average one new word per day until they reach what is gracefully noted as ‘middle age’. That seems to be the point where we’re so full of words that there’s just no more scope for improvement. What the study also shows is that the formative years of age 4-15 are crucial to lifelong vocabulary achievement. In fact, the depth of a native speaker’s vocabulary is principally determined by reading habits between these ages. That means educational attainment in spelling and reading promoted in a classroom has a lifelong impact on lexical achievement.
Unleashing the power of words
The power of spelling is remarkable. It is a gateway to the joy of communication and the world of imagination unleashed in books. It is a fundamental enabler of the things which allow us to connect as people, both to each other, and to the opportunities of the world around us.
As a teacher we probably don’t need to tell you about the tangible benefits that spelling and reading progression can bring to your students. So how about the more holistic view of the value that spelling and reading unlock for individuals and society? Let’s take a whirlwind tour of academic findings.
It’s perhaps obvious to say that spelling is the foundation of reading and writing, but a growing body of evidence showcases just how fundamentally these two are interlinked. “Learning to read words and learning to spell words are closely related. Both follow a similar course of acquisition. Both rely on the same knowledge sources — knowledge about the alphabetic system, and memory for the spellings of specific words — that develop together and are reciprocally related.” (Ehri, 2000).
Spelling isn’t simply a foundation, but a catalyst for wider comprehension for your students . It offers an underlying understanding of the relationship between letters, sounds, and words, creating a pathway to comprehension and improved reading skills.
What’s remarkable about spelling is just how hardwired those learning pathways are in our brain. When it’s not telling you off about how little sleep you’ve had this week, that fantastic mass of nerves and synapses is remarkably well designed for spotting patterns that are fundamental to spelling and reading comprehension.
Spelling of whole words is supported when a student understands that words are made up of speech sounds and that letters represent these sounds. As infuriating as we sometimes may find the English language, and the rules which govern it, research shows that about 50% of English words follow regular spelling patterns (Hanna, Hanna, Hodges, and Rudorf, 1966). That means spelling practice both benefits from our brain’s ability to recognise patterns, and amplifies the benefits through further expanding a child’s ability to identify and implement these rules.
But of course 50% is only ever half of the picture. This research also highlights how important it is to work on those words that don’t follow regular spelling patterns. At Sumdog, we work hard to ensure that spelling practice is less like hard work, and more like good fun. Only by engaging students in activities that they love can we best support them in engaging with wider lexical learning.
Is spelling essential in our modern world?
So why can’t we just rely on spell-check? A long-term US study comparing errors in college students’ essays found that spelling used to be the most common mistake found on these papers. What’s the problem today? The ‘wrong word’ syndrome, which often involves correctly spelled words but incorrect understanding of meaning. Increasing reliance on spell-check software means students are spelling words correctly, but incorrectly using them in sentences.
It’s not just about teaching children to spell, it’s about helping to build the structures for them to understand words and their context. That’s why the lessons that teachers impart on their students are still so important, and relevant, even in our digital world. That’s also why we designed Sumdog Spelling games to offer context to students that enable them to understand not just how a word should be spelled, but how it should be used in a sentence. Children learn through actively being involved and practising with words, facilitating their ability to learn words and letter patterns themselves.
On a more practical note, there’s real lifelong value for learners in expanding their spelling ability. It might be a bit early for your students to start thinking about jobs, but it’s not too early for businesses to start thinking about literacy. A 2014 report estimated that poor reading levels in over 1.5 million children under the age of eleven could cost the British economy an estimated £32 billion (USD$42 billion) by 2025 due to employment hurdles in later life. The study also revealed that the reading gap between children from poorer backgrounds is equivalent to as much as seven years of schooling. Tackling this shocking ‘vocabulary gap’ for these children is at the heart of Sumdog’s pledge to see no child left behind.
Spelling is more than rote learning, it’s the foundation of a powerful cognitive process that elevates students ’ wider learning opportunities. “Spelling and reading build and rely on the same mental representation of a word. Knowing the spelling of a word makes the representation of it sturdy and accessible for fluent reading.” (Snow, Griffin, and Burns, 2005). That value is amplified in non-native speakers, with vocabulary forming the important pathway to greater adoption of English as a second language (ESL).
Vocabulary is, of course, fundamental to understanding and communicating in a second language, with an estimated 8,000-9,000 words required for reading, and 5,000-7,000 words necessary for oral discourse (Schmitt, 2008). Schmitt concludes in his research that “learning programs need to include both an explicit, intentional learning component and a component-based around maximizing exposure and incidental learning.”. Research also shows that ESL students who have been supported through vocabulary learning with interactive tasks outperform those without in the acquisition of vocabulary items, demonstrating an effective way of enhancing vocabulary learning in young ESL learners (Atay, & Kurt, 2006).
We designed Sumdog Spelling to support educational achievement, by leveraging that vital connection between spelling and reading comprehension. The good thing is that by designing an interactive game that keeps kids entertained, we not only encourage students to learn, but help support those essential foundations built by teachers in the classroom.