There  never was a ‘golden age’ of spelling in English schools. Complaints in the press about reading and spelling incompetence of the ‘beneficiaries’ of state education are continuous from the beginning of the twentieth century.

birth_announceHere’s a representative example of the ‘product’ from 1943, the year in which my Franco-Egyptian mother gave birth to me on the banks of the Suez Canal.

Behold and wonder at the note sent to my father from the Royal Air Force secretariat announcing, with a classic spelling mistake, that he had a son. You will note, too, the painfully cacographic apology for script that is the inevitable result of schools’ teaching of what they call ‘handwriting’.

Even more interesting is the fact that this phonics-addled secretary misspelled <no> as *<now> before inking out the intrusive <w>. Actually, in the pronunciation of the phrase <no information> - [nǝʊwɪnfǝˈmeɪʃǝn] - the [w] really IS present. It will come as no surprise to real spellers that it was in the preceding thirties, during which the secretary had been schooled, that ‘phonics’ (a term that in this form has absolutely no linguistic validity) first saw the light of day and contaminated schooling. “Sound it out” this clerk will have been told to do while still at school, and sound it out he did. He wrote <w> because there is what The Great Phonics Hoax calls “wuh” in that position.

The fact is that orthography (spelling, reading and script) has never been safe in the hands of compulsory state education and, taken as a whole, nothing much has changed to this day.


So where was I?

Ah, yes; cornered in Brussels being commanded to produce teaching materials.

I had, of course, to agree that their point was well-made. They were busy class teachers and needed resources and tools ready and at hand to put into practice what they saw to be powerful and conceptually sound. But how could I reconcile this with the fact that I absolutely refuse to produce the sort of teaching kit that is made up of ‘work cards’ and the like that can just be dished out to students for ‘marking’ later.

So, what these professionals are really asking for, said I to myself, is the tools for what they want to do. ‘Tools’ - aha!

And the idea of a ‘Tool Box’ for spelling was conceived.


Any 'tool box' is just a set of tools whose reason for existence is not themselves; it is to achieve specific ends. A good craftsman needs a full set of tools always at his disposal to deal with any need that arises. The most important thing is that they be simply and readily - and all - available for any need as and when it does arise.

The tools will certainly be arranged, sorted and stored in a way that makes them easily accessible.

That does not mean that every tool in the tool box must be used just because it is there. The current task in hand determines the tools, not the reverse.

We happen to have a large monkey wrench in our house tool box. We have never used it because the need for that particular tool has never arisen. But should that need arise, we have what we need - and we know exactly where to find it.

It would be totally absurd to assign a sequence of usage to tools: "The order of the drawers in my tool box is: 1. screwdrivers, 2. pliers and wrenches, 3. saws and drills...", therefore that is the order in which I must use them!"

Imagine the absurd situation of needing to use a saw, but not being allowed to because you are required to master the screwdriver and pliers first!

Even more absurd would be a timetable for using tools. "Today is Wednesday - electric drill day; I must use my electric drill because it is Wednesday!"

Real spelling resources, then, are constructed to be in parallel with epistemological and cognitve verity, not channelled and packaged to the production line of schooling delivery methods - a ‘curriculum’, the Latin for ‘race course’!

So during the three years following my caving in before that Brussels bullying, the Tool Box for spelling gradually evolved its form.

That first Tool Box tuned out to be a compromise with pedagogy (argh!) that, at times, I still profoundly regret. But in the event in the years that followed its appearance in 2001, that first Tool Box did have a productive and inspiring impact among a small but brilliant band of pure gold professionals who became flashes of scarlet in the pervading and stultifying khaki of the cognitive tohubohu of spelling in schools.

The next post explains how and why the Tool Kits with Spelling Themes format was arrived at.

Watch this space!