A stage victory for pedagogical reason

Study by the University of Bonn shows the success of structured spelling didactics

by Gisela Liebe

In the German-speaking world, an entire generation no longer has sufficient command of spelling. Even students at universities of teacher education have to take postgraduate courses. For decades, this deficiency has been lamented by teaching istitutions and universities, but not much has been done about it. The main cause of this dramatic decline in the last 30 years is well known: the method “reading by writing”, also called “writing by ear”, which goes back to the Swiss Jürgen Reichen and has found its way into schools in Germany and Switzerland since the 1980s. The children are to quickly write freely and a lot already in the first class with the help of a chart of initial sounds. For a long time, writing mistakes are not corrected on the grounds that this would demotivate the children and hinder their creativity. The method was criticised from the start by many experts, but is still propagated in teacher education.
Now we have before us a scientifically founded large-scale study, which must have consequences. Its results were for the first time presented orally in September 2018 and have received a broad media response.
From 2013 to 2017, a team of researchers led by Professor Dr Una Röhr-Sendlmeier from the Department of Developmental Psychology and Educational Psychology at the University of Bonn systematically examined the spelling performance of over 3,000 children of primary school age, both in a longitudinal survey and in a cross-sectional study. Three different didactic methods were compared. The participating schools were selected at random.
In the teaching method “reading by writing”, the children were to write as freely as possible; the child’s individual learning path had priority over classroom instruction. Writing errors were not corrected for a long time. Reading was also to be learned through this writing.
The second teaching method used was the “writing workshop” (after Norbert Sommer-Stumpenhorst). Here, too, the pupils did not experience a fixed sequence of individual learning steps, but were to work independently and in individual order and speed on the materials provided.
With the “systematic primer approach”, individual letters and words were introduced step by step. In primer textbooks, spelling is taught in a structured way, going from the simple to the complex. The teacher guides the pupils and is in this following the textbook and workbook. Errors are corrected right from the start.
The first graders from a total of 18 classes were individually tested for their phonological awareness and letter knowledge shortly after their enrolment. From the end of first grade until the end of the third school year, the spelling skills were recorded a further five times, i.e. every six months, with the age-appropriate version of the standardised dictation “Hamburger-Schreib-Probe”. In this way, the development of the spelling abilities of 284 children was recorded in full over a period of three years. In addition, a cross-sectional study of a further 2,800 first to fourthgraders in 142 classes was carried out in order to validate the longitudinal study.
In addition, the intrinsic motivation of the children to read and write was surveyed at a certain point in time with a questionnaire, following the dictation tests. Since the methods “reading by writing” and “spelling workshop” attribute to themselves an increased motivation of the children to learn the language, this factor also came under investigation.
The research team checked whether the teachers adhered to the chosen didactics. The differences in teaching practice between the various teachers were not the subject of this study, as only the impact of the conceptual design of the lessons on student performance was to be investigated. The study was conducted without thirdparty funding so as to rule out any obligations towards third parties.
At the same time as and together with the first investigation of the children’s prior knowledge shortly after enrolment, the proximity to education of the parents’ home was also recorded, as parents close to education generally introduce their children to educational contents even before enrolment. This factor was statistically controlled in the longitudinal study because it affects spelling performance up into the third year of school. The “reading-by-writing” children unintentionally happened to be superior to the other groups in their previous knowledge shortly after enrolment, as well as in their socio-economic status.
The results of the longitudinal and the cross-sectional studies are clear: The primer approach is clearly superior to the other two methods. At each class level, the systematically instructed children performed better than those in the other groups. It is also interesting to note that the performance differences within the primer group were significantly smaller than for the other groups. This also applied to children with a non-German family language. There were especially many children with very poor spelling skills in the spelling workshop group.
At the end of the fourth school year, the “reading-by-writing” children made 55% more mistakes than the “primer” children. Even worse were the “spelling workshop” children: They made even 105% more mistakes. Looking at the performance distribution of the entire sample of fourth-graders with a total of 947 children, 42.1% of the primer children scored so well that they were among the 25% of the best overall. Only 10.3% of them belonged to the 25% weakest spellers, i.e. after 3 years, almost 90% of the primer children mastered spelling to some extent.
26.1% of the reading-by-writing children were in the top quarter overall and 20% in the lowest group, with 53.9% in the middle, similar to the 47.6% for the primer children. Of the children who had learnt with the spelling workshop method, 34.4% belonged to the poorest group, while only 17% ended up with the best.
It is also interesting to note that both intrinsic reading motivation and intrinsic writing motivation were the same in all three groups. This means that the often heard argument that children are demotivated by early correction of spelling mistakes is clearly refuted by the results of the study.
As a conclusion of the study, the use of a structured approach from simple to complex with the immediate correction of misspellings is recommended, as it is applied in the didactics of the primer.
The complete study is not yet available in written form.
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It will in the future be impossible to ignore the results of this scientifically based study of the University of Bonn: Children learn to write better if they are guided step by step by the teacher, have systematically structured school material and if their mistakes are corrected; and they also enjoy. These are elementary pedagogical insights that are by no means new and which also make sense to every non-teacher.
The fact that the method of writing by ear is still, despite better knowledge, taught to students at teacher training colleges today, even if perhaps no longer in its pure and unadulterated form, can probably only be explained by very strong ideological, political or financial interests, which have so far stood in the way of a return to reason. Who will ever know how many thousands of “apparent dyslexics” have been produced by the use of these false didactics, some of whom will suffer from this inability of theirs throughout their lives?
In the German federal states of Hamburg and Baden-Württemberg, the “writing by ear” method is already prohibited, and from summer 2019 only the primer method is allowed to be used in Brandenburg’s schools. In Switzerland, too, individual cantons such as Nidwalden are slowly beginning to abandon the Reichen method, albeit still very timidly (mistakes are only to be corrected from second grade onwards).
The spelling study, however, is only a one stage victory over many unsuitable school reforms. Spelling is only one of many subjects, and it is relatively easy to evaluate. For the didactics of mathematics, a similar study is overdue. Many children are unable to grasp arithmetic due to unstructured “self-organised” learning. Where then should the much longed-for computer scientists come from?    •