“But I can’t remember how to spell it!” This is a phrase I often hear learners say or “I can’t remember anything!”

Recently, I had a lesson with a teenager who  earlier in the day had been upset in school. I wasn’t aware of this until a few minutes into our lesson.  The learner understandably found it very difficult to separate the earlier incident and their feelings towards this when they attended our 1:1 session. 

unhappy teenager

Our task was to review some writing they had completed in the previous session, to look at the structure, spelling and punctuation. This is a task we have often completed and they are happy to do with some guidance.  On this occasion, the learner was upset and didn’t really want to engage in the lesson. I offered to talk about the earlier incident or take a few moments out to collect their thoughts but they declined and just wanted to get on with the session. However, in their view, this meant me just going through each word and telling them how to spell it.  I’m sure many readers will have heard the sentence, “Just tell me how to spell it.” This isn’t an approach I take, as it is just an exercise of the learner writing letters and no learning takes place. Instead, I use a strategy of finding the part of the word which is incorrectly spelled and help the learner to find the correct pattern. For example, in this case, ‘want’ had been spelled as ‘wont’, in fact they had spelled it correctly earlier in their writing. I asked them to look for that word to see if they could find it.  This resulted in complete refusal, with the learning telling me they couldn’t remember how to spell it and that they had the memory of a goldfish, to add to this, they were incapable of learning and that had always been the case. Clearly, their view was very different to mine and the learner was in a very negative place. At this point I stopped the lesson to reflect on their development and progress, remind them of their journey and successes. However, their was no reasoning at this point.  This was a conversation which was going nowhere, only fuelling this young person’s emotions. It was clearly a time out moment to try and regain calmness.

I chatted to the learner about acknowledging that they were upset and that how others react in situations during the incident which had taken place earlier, that their responses are out of our control. However, we can take control of our feelings and we are the person in charge of our feelings, we are the person that can decide if it’s going to be a good or a bad day and in fact, even if the day starts out negative, we can take charge of deciding the rest of the day won’t be the same. In fact, we can try to set aside an incident that has upset us and do something positive to try to make us feel more positive about ourselves. I explained why I didn’t want to just give the learner the answer but asked if they’d allow me to guide them through and be patient with themselves.  The learner was then ready to start working again.

I showed the learner a word to correct, ‘found’ was spelled ‘as ‘fowned’. I knew the learner had worked on this ‘ow/ou’ pattern and I asked them if they could recall a different way to make the /ow/ sound. Immediately, they told me ‘ou’ and replaced it in the word. I was amazed they had retrieved this information and asked what had made them recall this pattern.  The learner recounted the story to me, which was around 18 months ago during Covid and learning at home.  The learner’s dog was always close by during our lessons. We used to practice saying the /ow/ sound repeatedly in an exercise and the learner used to giggle as their dog would howl as they said the sound.

This provided an excellent opportunity to demonstrate to the learner that they did have the ability to learn and they could remember things long-term. For this learner, their immediate response (as many learners do) is to say “dunno” if you ask them to how do you spell a certain sound.  This learner would also say they just don’t remember all these things. What they mean is, they’re not walking around on a daily basis with all these spelling patterns at the fore of their thinking.

In simple terms, the principle of learning information is to link it in to an existing piece of information a person already has.  The principles of multi-sensory learning are to do this by attaching sound, sight, touch etc to that experience to help stimulate the sense and store the information more easily.  This information then travels from the working memory (the place where we take in that initial information and process it) into the long term memory where it gets stored until we need it.  For example, we don’t walk around reciting our childhood telephone number but for some of us (30 years later or so) we can strangely pull it out from the depths of our memory.  Now it’s not there at the fore of our mind on a daily basis as our brain needs that space to process the incoming information.  It sometimes randomly pops up out of the blue when something else, a memory, a feeling, a sound, a sight stimulates our thoughts.  We do however have to give ourselves a little patience and time to sometimes locate this information from the depths of our long-term memory. This is why I rarely take ‘dunno’ as an answer, when I know I have taught information, instead I will guide them to a memory which will help them to locate the information.  So in this case of this learner, the multi-sensory experience was the dog howling, it gave some kind of semantic representation to them. We also used to giggle so much as the dog howled, that the learner was very relaxed, again, another factor in ensuring learning can take place.  The learner could link that sound with that experience and this is how we bundle together information to help learners store new information. 

The session ended on a positive note, the learner completed the task calmly. I praised them for setting aside their anger and demonstrated how they’d achieved a positive outcome and to take away that feeling for the day.