Book Review Understanding English 3 Spelling by Carol Matchett

I have often been asked if I can suggest strategies to help young children improve their spelling, but the English language has so many idiosyncracies that it is no easy task to cover all the rules involving letter strings, vowel sounds, doubling of consonants and so on. Discovering a workbook devoted to spelling and addressing the many facets of the issue is like the answer to a prayer! Understanding English 3 Spelling is just such a workbook.

The first page is about looking at words and asks the child to identify a wrongly spelt word in each of six sentences. Examples are wartter (water) and peepel (people). The second exercise requires drawing an outline round various words, such as through and walked, to build up a picture of their shapes. I somehow doubt that this would help a child to learn to spell ‘through’. The second page concentrates on the look, cover and spell method that is used very commonly. Children are initially asked to underline the part of each word that they find tricky, which should help them to focus on it.

Common letter strings are looked at next, for example -ight, -ound and -ought and -our. Then comes a page where the child splits long words up into syllables and then fills in missing syllables or letters in the middle of words. These are excellent strategies, as are those on the following page which involve looking for smaller words within longer ones. For example, the word cardigan contains the words car, dig, card, an and I.

The easiest way to learn to spell compound words is of course to break them down into their component parts, and this is what page 9 does. Then unstressed vowels are looked at, such as the e in frightening or the a in library. The English language is full of homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings) and these can of course cause great confusion, as in the sentence ‘The two bags were too heavy to carry.’ There aren’t any rules to follow here unfortunately.

Rules of plurals have to be understood, and two pages are devoted to them here, explaining when to change -y to -ies and when to just add -s, for example. We use verbs ending in -ing and -ed very commmonly, and have to learn when to drop a final -e, and when to double a consonant before adding an ending.

Learning to spell short root words and then adding prefixes or suffixes to them is a useful strategy for spelling longer words that is dealt with here. As well as improving spelling, it can develop a wider vocabulary and assist with learning opposites such as regular/irregular or harmless/harmful. One page is devoted to the rule for changing y to i before adding a suffix, or leaving it as it is, in the case of playful or destroyable (because it is preceded by a vowel). The ‘shun’ sounding suffix needs to be explored too, as it can be spelt -tion as in direction, -sion as in television, or -ssion as in passion.

Two similar suffixes that cause confusion are -able and -ible. The book makes it sound easy: “If you take off the ending and are left with a real word, the spelling is most likely to be -able”, as in laughable. But think of possible: if you take off -ible, you are just left with poss. What could be simpler? Words ending in-le, -el, -al or -ol might not be so easy to differentiate, especially with four choices instead of just two; -le is the most common of the four.

We’ve probably all heard the saying “i before e except after c”, but as the book points out this only applies when these vowels make a long ‘ee’ sound, whereas if they make an ‘ay’ sound the spelling is likely to be ‘ei’ as in eight.

The last three pages of exercises cover the soft and hard letter sounds of c and g, silent letters, and letter rules. We all know that q has to be followed by u and then another vowel, but did you realise that the letter v is always followed by a vowel and is never the last letter of a word?

There are two pages of revision exercises concentrating on plurals and correcting spelling mistakes in single words. On page 32, ‘Now you try!’ suggests various activities such as hangman, word hunt, post-it spelling, and beat the spell-check (with the aid of a computer).

Answers are given over several pages at the end of the book, in a good-sized font that makes them very easy to read.

For those who are interested in the whys and wherefores, there is a ‘Did you know?’ paragraph at the bottom of ten pages, often telling us about how our language and its spelling has changed over the years.

I would certainly recommend this book to parents who want to help their children at home, and also to private tutors. There are plenty of workbooks to choose from that usually combine reading comprehension, grammar, vocabulary and spelling exercises. But spelling is a major area of difficulty for many children, and quite often even the brightest pupils have problems with it. This is the best workbook I have seen that focuses purely on spelling; the fact that its layout and typography, using just black and a dull shade of red on a white background, are very easy to follow add to its value. I would imagine that, although it is aimed at pupils aged seven to eleven, there are probably many teenagers that would benefit from using it too. The price is very reasonable, and this workbook certainly is an excellent educational resource.

Understanding English Book 3 Spelling by Carol Matchett
for Key Stage 2 (ages 7 11 years)
Schofield and Sims, Paperback, 40 pages
ISBN 0 7217 0979 6
Price GBP2.95