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In February 2003, while on a visit to the USA, I had the great privilege of visiting a school using the Spalding method in Phoenix, Arizona, and also of visiting the organisation’s headquarters. The system, originally developed by Romalda Spalding, was first published as The Writing Road to Reading in 1957. The 5th Revised Edition has just been published (2003), edited by Dr Mary North. It remains faithful to the original principle of teaching reading through writing: in fact, reading, per se, is not taught at all – after children have spent a few weeks learning to write the Spalding way, however, reading simply develops almost as a by-product. One might have reservations about the theory, but it certainly works in practice!
With my guide, Carole Wile (Spalding’s Director of Instruction and Certification), I first spent some time in a kindergarten class in AlhambraTraditionalSchool(a state school). Kindergarten children in the USAare about a year older than Reception-class children would be in England– these had either turned six or would do so during the year. 22 children were present and were sitting in single desks arranged in straight rows and facing the front. The teacher controlled the class single-handedly (there was no classroom assistant) and discipline was mind-bogglingly excellent, with the children speaking only when required to do so (often in chorus) by the teacher. They first did some sky-writing of phonograms such as ‘ch’, ‘ng’, ‘ay’, ‘ow’, ‘oa’ etc. They then answered questions showing, for example, that they knew that they would not find ‘oi’ or ‘ai’ at the end of a word but that they would find ‘oy’ and ‘ay’ in that position. Time was spent in writing down words dictated by the teacher and also in reading previously-written words in chorus by sounding them out (e.g. ‘tell’, ‘ask’, ‘just’, ‘get’, ‘home’, ‘much’, ‘long’, ‘house’). In keeping with the principle of putting writing first, time is spent on learning not just underlying alphabetic principles but also word-specific spellings, including those of words containing ‘irregularities’ (e.g. ‘one’ and ‘some’).
We then moved on to a 4th-grade classroom (children aged ). The work being done was very advanced: an ‘average’ child was reading a 366-page book for pleasure, and whole-class teaching of spelling included words like ‘orchestra’, ‘parliament’, ‘perceived’, ‘precipitous’, ‘recommend’, ‘seized’ and ‘thoroughly’. I was interested to hear the teacher exaggerating the pronunciation of ‘temperature’ by stressing the long /a/ sound in the penultimate syllable, and of ‘endeavor’ (American spelling!) by stressing the final ‘or’ sound. She also pointed out that although one could regard the ‘aor’ in ‘extraordinary’ as a phonogram for the ‘or’ sound, the normal pronunciation of the word concealed the fact that it was made up of ‘extra’ and ‘ordinary’ – in other words, she was stressing morphology as an aid to spelling.
Over lunch with six of the Spalding HQ staff, I was able to find out a lot more about the method. Approaching reading through writing is not an idea that we in the UK are very familiar with, and it might not be quite as suitable for children starting formal schooling at 4+ as it is for children starting at 5+, but I nevertheless found myself very much on a wave-length with these people and felt that we might be able to learn a lot from them.
Editor’s comment: What I have noticed is a growing fear of teachers over the issue of ‘formal’ vs ‘informal’ teaching. I hear many Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1 teachers express their insecurity of just how they are ‘expected’ to teach in their settings. I am sure routine, discipline and explicit teaching are part and parcel of the success of the Spalding method of teaching writing and reading. What will happen in Englandwith the increased focus on ‘learning through play’ in the FS and the push of this philosophy into KS 1?
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