Monday, February 07, 2005


This week, Go Big Ed will address how we could save money in our schools if we would change the way we run them and teach kids.

Today’s topic: spelling. Is there a more familiar complaint from parents, taxpayers and employers, than how poorly today’s students spell familiar words in the English language? Dyslexia is blamed, and remediation costs soar, but the truth is, they’re not teaching spelling correctly, and we’re paying for it, bigtime.

This is from my soon-to-be-released CD-ROM, “Show ‘n’ Tell for Parents.” Title: Invented Spelling.

Q. I work in a furniture store. I can’t believe how horribly our younger employees spell everyday words: “fabrik,” “couche,” “curtins,” etc. What has happened to spelling skills?

When English was taught in a unified way – speaking, spelling, writing and reading reinforcing each other – students readily mastered language arts. The rules of spelling were explicitly taught along with phonics in kindergarten.

But now hardly any schools teach reading with phonics. And many don’t teach spelling at all until the third grade or so, when it’s too late.

Today’s educators mistakenly believe they should wait to give formal spelling instruction. They don’t think K-2 pupils are ready. That’s wrong, of course, but that’s the way it is.

Pupils today are in “child-centered classrooms” with “developmentally-appropriate practice.” The focus is on the process, not the end-product. Spelling errors are tolerated as long as the child is trying to construct meaning out of words, even badly misspelled words.

Children are encouraged to invent, or make up, the spellings of words however it makes sense to them. Much of the time, of course, they guess wrong with their spelling “inventions.” But since they aren’t corrected, the misspellings take root. Bad spelling habits get entrenched. They’re extremely hard to reverse.

When formal spelling instruction does begin, it unfortunately relies on memorizing spelling lists, even though that’s known to be a weak method. Since spelling is taught in isolation from the other language skills, it’s harder to learn, so the number of spelling words assigned in a school year has been drastically reduced from years past. Therefore, vocabulary and reading comprehension suffer, too.

Worst of all, by the week after the test, many kids have already forgotten the correct spellings they memorized, and already slipped back into the habit of “inventing” whatever spelling “makes sense” to them.

The answer: “reinvent” common sense, return to “phonics only” in the early grades, watch dyslexia dwindle to nothing, and American spelling improve drastically.

Homework: For an excellent analysis, see the book, “Why Americans Read and Spell Poorly” by Edward Loring Tottle.

Comments: Post a Comment