Spelling, writing and telling a story

Neil Béchervaise


The greatest problem confronting many children beginning school is the absurdity that having something to say is insufficient grounds for saying it. Sounds stupid? Yes. Having been "wired for sound" (Chomsky) and having learnt the rules for speech-survival at home, children are confronted with the restriction of mankind's oddest invention - literacy.


Children entering the world of school literacy are usually moving from a largely listening/speaking environment through a rapid, sometimes hostile and demanding transition towards reading/writing. And, as we know, dislocation caused by the move is lessened when a supportive home environment has provided experience with reading and writing. Nevertheless, the level of support required for transition to literacy remains high.


This brief article looks at the progress made by Natasha (grade 1) in telling her story within the conventions of school literacy and explores the role of the teacher in supporting Natasha's developing literacy.


Having attended kindergarten last year, Natasha is now in prep. grade in Victoria, Australia. She is a bright and well coordinated child with an active interest in stories but she is not progressing as well in writing as many of her peers. Natasha's latest story is transcribed below with the spelling as it was written.


The Feringshesr


There ones was a feringnshesr her name was Sealt  She lived in a little house.

One day the feringnshesr was sick she cantat fly

She got sickand sickand sick and sick and sick she catd the Dod

He got the meds the Dod

Wet at the Dord the ferningnshesr took the meds and dack it She fat lo betn


At first reading, the story remains a mystery. What is a feringnshesr?


A second reading fails to provide many further clues. Clearly, it is time to conference with Natasha. But what form should the conference take? Natasha already knows that she has a problem and a word-by-word interrogation of the story will indicate to her that she has failed again.


So let us return to the beginning, to Natasha's intention. She set out to write a story. The story she has written is reasonably complex, involving a feringnshesr which has a name, lives in a house, gets sick and, in consequence,"cantat" fly. The feringnshesr takes action and recovers.

Whatever the story is about, Natasha believes that she has achieved her intention in writing the story. Her handwriting is acceptably legible and many of the words are clearly identifiable.


Obviously, Natasha is on her way to becoming literate, she can follow lines, form letters, spell many words correctly and use the closed conventions of literary narrative. It is worth noting, too, that whatever the feringnshesr is, it is always spelt the same way. Natasha knows that words do not change their spelling. She applies this rule equally consistently to meds and dods.


Given the positively literate features of Natasha's work, it seems reasonable that she has applied consistent spelling rules to the words which are misspelt. Initial conferencing, in this situation, can take the form of suggesting to Natasha that her story is very interesting and asking her to read it so that it will sound the way she wants it to.


The result of the conference is profound. The story, as read, appears below.


There once was a fairy. Her name was Sarah. She lived in a little house.

One day the fairy was sick and she couldn't fly. She got sick and sick and sick and sick and sick.


She called the doctor. He got the medicine. The doctor went out the door. The fairy took the medicine and drank it. She felt better.


The mystery of the feringnshesr is revealed but the rules applied to achieve the spelling can only ever be surmised. Perhaps it went a little bit like this:

FERI is phonically accurate but it doesn't look like a word. Words don't often end in I. But they do end in ING. Still, FERING does not look correct either - poor visual memory can be a big barrier to correct spelling. Wish I could remember what it looked like. I can see the fairy with her wand but ... Try other endings. Add an S, lots of words finish in S. No? What about SH? Maybe ES? How about R. No, its hopeless. But most of those are possibles so leave them there - you never know. Anyway, it doesn't matter that much, I know what I mean even if they don't.


Natasha's Fairy story displays the value of a phonic approach to spelling but it amplifies the problems associated with any single method approach. When either the operator or the method is inadequate to the task, there is no other word attack skill well enough developed to substitute. The dependence of the phonic approach on received sound, on accurate listening and correct transcription of the sound is highlighted in Natasha's story. Her inability to recall the sounds involved in the words HOUSE, DOCTOR and MEDICINE result in her minimal approximations HAST, DODS and MEDS.


Following the initial conference reading of Natasha's story, her teacher pencilled in the correct spelling of the words and spoke about the need to use punctuation/pause marks to make the story easier for other people to read. Natasha accepted the necessary modifications in good spirit and rewrote her story with a lovely picture to illustrate her sick fairy in bed. The issue of whether the teacher should intervene to correct spelling, punctuation and grammar errors in beginning writers' stories had been avoided for another day.


The Lonely Fairy
Natasha (grade 1, August – she has completed  2/3 of her 2nd year of schooling)

There was a fairy on a hill. She was sad because she did not have friends.

One day she met a girl and she said hello to the girl. The girl said hello to the fairy and asked her if she had a home.


The fairy told the girl that she did not have a home. Then the girl told the fairy she would take her home. The girl gave her some milk and bread with jam. She was happy and went to bed.