Vivian CookOnline Writing  SLA Topics

Did Hard Spell get spelling wrong?

The BBC TV programme Hard Spell has been taking up a good deal of television time. At last spelling is getting some kind of recognition at mass-viewing times. Isn’t this great for literacy and for reviving old-style values about education?

As someone involved with spelling, in advance I felt it could do nothing but good – raise the profile of spelling, help children and provide edutainment that might get people interested. In retrospect the benefits do not seem so clear. Partly this is because of the way that spelling is treated, partly the way the children are treated.

One of the issues with spelling is that English people have different accents. Children in Essex want to spell ‘bath’ as ‘barf’ or ‘teeth’ as ‘teef’ because they have an ‘f’ pronunciation rather than ‘th’. On Hard Spell the test words are read by a person in a non-regional ‘standard’ accent. Many of the children might not have heard a standard speaker other than on the television. It is bad enough hearing someone say ‘psalm’ and then having to spell it, without needing to work out what their ‘ah’ sound relates to in your own speech. There is a built-in bias if the words are said only in a standard accent. It would be interesting to see how good the presenters would be spelling words said by the children with regional accents, or indeed to have the presenter with the Irish accent read the words. It is probably no accident that most of the heat winners have standard rather than regional accents.

Spelling is used for writing and reading. Totally obvious, but not to Hard Spell; all the tests involve spelling words aloud letter by letter, not reading words out aloud or writing them down. Only after the child has finished do we see the right and wrong answers displayed on the screen. Spelling out loud is not something that forms part of our everyday spelling. Hard Spell does not test spelling as writing, ignoring anything other than the ability to spell words aloud.

One vital element in spelling is indeed the ability tested on Hard Spell to remember the forms of individual words, very useful when they are in common use like ‘macaroon’ or ‘fatigue’, less so when they are not part of our communication needs such as ‘aardvark’ or ‘lurgy’. This element probably depends on having a particular type of memory – how else would you know how to spell ‘yacht’? Children who can remember masses of such idiosyncratic words are indeed remarkable, and obviously prosper on Hard Spell.

But there are other elements to spelling. One vital process is relating sounds and letters – what sounds does the letter ‘a’ correspond to in ‘wag’, ‘father’, ‘many’, ‘bait’? – easily tested by reading aloud. Another is realizing where letters may and may not occur in words – ‘tch’ at the end ‘match’, ‘ch’ at the beginning ‘charm’ – again readily testable through nonsense words such as ‘vatch’ and ‘tchab’. These powerful processes have to be mastered, not just sheer memory for individual words. All ignored by Hard Spell. The real educational achievement for children is being able to deal with spelling in all its complexity in their reading and writing, not being able to spell aloud an arbitrary list of words.

Which brings us to the relationship of the programme to the children. Children are stood up in what appears to be a large empty space and have words flung at them by a disembodied emotionless head. The camera dwells on the flickering expressions on their faces. No child is praised, apart from the winner; the successive losers are led off, many in tears.

It’s like watching children taken to the dentist. Except that dentists are more sympathetic to their patients than these presenters are to the children. It’s the format of Mastermind (but not the depth of questioning – get one word wrong and you’re out). Even Who wants to be a Millionaire has a more encouraging attitude to its participants. But these are only children; it’s obviously in their educational interests to be humiliated in front of millions of people by bullying adults. I find it hard to imagine a less child-friendly way of assessing children. The sole activity is a test with little enjoyment for them other than getting words right. Spelling is seen a rigid imposition by all powerful grim adults, not something useful and pleasurable.

So it is sad that Hard Spell realized so little of its potential. We could have had a programme that presented happy children enjoying spelling, rather than a cutting down of children to size. It could have tested them on a range of activities, not just a sudden death test in which one failure means elimination. It could have tapped children’s joy in the inventive use of spelling in text messages etc, not their despair at not knowing how to spell ‘scintillating’. Some day perhaps there will be a programme that really presents spelling and shows children positively.