The books

The Word Wasp was developed using the experiences of adults with literacy problems, in order to create a structured programme for both adults and children including those diagnosed as ‘dyslexic’.

Long before the research had started, whilst developing and writing ‘Toe By Toe’, written in conjunction with A.M. Cowling, I was led to believe that: “Dyslexia cannot be cured! It could only be circumvented.” Furthermore, it was impressed upon me that “dyslexic students could never be taught to spell.” The dyslexic students taught by the methods enshrined in the Word Wasp suggest otherwise.

These methods have been developed from the language itself. Our language follows rules; most of which are specific and regular. As a student at a Catholic school in the 1950’s these rules were thrust upon me with a zeal and menace which, thankfully, are no longer with us. There were still those who could not ‘keep up’. They were left behind; victims of a slow start rather than a product of a system of teaching which fails to inculcate the necessary skills to learn the English language.

The teaching of the formal structure of the language does not need a rod of iron. With a little patience, understanding, and firmness where necessary, these rules can be taught, and are being taught using the Word Wasp. The results are astounding many people. Furthermore, students, print-workers and housewives have been used as test coaches. In some cases the coaches had literacy problems and they were kept a matter of a few pages ahead of their students. Coaches were chosen for their lack of formal qualifications in order to make sure that it was the text which was making the difference and not the individual skills of a Special Needs teacher.

The text begins with simple phonetic sounds and moves steadily to longer, more complex sounds. Low frequency words ‘endoplasm, metabolism, instinct, thrips’, etc. are included as early as possible. These words are used to stimulate auditory discrimination. They are not used to increase a student’s awareness of medical and horticultural terminology. Honing a dyslexic student’s discriminatory hearing is not going to be facilitated by the words ‘dog’ and ‘rat’! Sounds must be gleaned from polysyllabic words before a student can deal with the rules. A number of coaches had difficulty pronouncing some of the words: they achieved the correct pronunciation by practice.

All forms of learning require a struggle. Literacy is a struggle to understand the abstract symbols and codes of our language. We start with the basic sounds and then other combinations of letter sounds provide us with a wealth of more complex but regular symbols.

It is possible to remember and recognize certain words. A child can learn ‘Chopsticks’ on a piano. They will not learn the most rudimentary piece of music by the same method. Our language presents us with the formulae for both reading and spelling and not for recognizing shapes. The Word Wasp is devoted to understanding the structures and rules of the English language through graded exercises. The Word Wasp is about giving a student the tools to do the job! These tools have been enhanced by the colour-coded exercise system.

Spelling from Memory

The notion that students with literacy problems, or students in general for that matter, learn to spell by memorising lists of generically unrelated words is pure sophistry. Much of this philosophy we owe to Schonell and others who presumed a spelling vocabulary and thrust it upon the educational establishments as a benchmark for literacy.

Spelling tests, if they should be used at all, should be used to promote a particular rule:

Students of The Word Wasp, having learnt the digraph ‘sh’ (ship) will learn later that the sound ‘sh’ is most commonly formed by the letters ‘ti’ when followed by a vowel: particularly the vowel ‘o’ in the sound ‘tion’.

Once that rule has been taught you may watch, with unrestrained joy, as your student spells:

condition, edition, fraction, action, suction, partition, portion, election, section, traction, diction, selection, national, mention, function, convection, conviction, eviction, rendition, friction and countless other words ending with the ‘tion’ sound.

A favourite verbal expression on seeing students’ bewilderment at their own skill is “You didn’t know you could spell that did you?” It might be rhetorical but it is very apt.


Of course there are those who believe you can teach spelling by mnemonics: notwithstanding that a pocket dictionary will have over 70.000 entries. Well here are a few that you might need if you wish to pursue such a fruitless task:

Big elephants can always upset small elephants. (Because)

Silly Alfie is daft, or worse: Sad Alfie is dead! (Said)

Does Oscar eat sausages? (Does)

Never eat cress; eat salad sandwiches and raspberry yoghurt. (Necessary).

There are many more. I used to be an efficient constructor of such mnemonics however, ironically, I can remember very few of them!

Get real!

There are exceptions to every rule but if a student is unaware of the mechanisms which operate on the bulk of our language then every word is an exception. Learning a language under the impression that each word must be unique and separated from others by its shape and arbitrary letter order presents students with a problem of infinite proportions.

Word recognition techniques, flash cards, paired sequential reading methods, finger tracing: all these methods have one thing in common: they rely on memory training at the expense of the very teaching aids which scream to be used from the language itself.

De-coding and Encoding

Reading and spelling are not separate skills. Our language is a code. Users of codes are not expected to be able to ‘receive’ alone. What would a code be without an inherent facility for its transmission? The Word Wasp demands that the same constructional skills used to spell words are used to form the sounds when reading. Why on earth would the development of our language have favoured a method that would not allow the letters to represent the sounds of our words?

There are those who, without an iota of evidence, presume that certain students are uneducable and therefore worthy of nothing more than a service language which they hope to inculcate by nothing short of a process which is the educational equivalent of osmosis.

The very idea that the ‘shape’, or in some cases the ‘feel’, of a word is more important than the sounds from which it is made is totally indefensible! Flash cards and wooden letters are a nasty joke. It is time they were condemned to the trash can.

The Word Wasp evokes two emotional states, particularly in adults: joy from those whose lives have been blighted by the curse of illiteracy at the realization that they are not different from those who are literate, and anger that they were denied these methods earlier.

A former student, the first person to benefit from the development of The Word Wasp, was profoundly dyslexic with no discernible reading or spelling age. Without doubt, she was one of the greatest influences on the methods I use. However, it was her insights and her introduction of me to the dyslexic psyche for which I am most grateful. It was through her that I learned of the deep sense of embarrassment and frustration felt by adults and children when introduced to supposed multi-sensory teaching techniques, particularly to wooden letters, in order that they might feel the sense of the spelling. How utterly demeaning!  How patronising!  How ghastly!

The multi-sensory period of disenfranchisement from our means of communication is rapidly drawing to a close. For twenty-five years we have struggled to promote phonics as a real answer to the increasing rise in illiteracy. The educational establishment has de-educated the people for too long. At last, the reactionary mandarins are being bought to heel and this awful period of social engineering is starting to crumble. Everyone can learn. We all have the right to learn!

Harry and Marie Cowling