Tuesday, August 01, 2006


If you taught a group of Mexican immigrant children in Nebraska how to spell with old-fashioned drill, emphasizing practice and memory, would nine times of them be able to spell better than lifelong, English-speaking Nebraskans who’d been taught the way most Nebraska schools teach spelling today?

Outrageously, the answer is probably yes.

An article in today’s The Australian reported on a study that compared spelling ability of children in Australia, where the more “progressive” philosophy of child-centered, context-based spelling and Whole Language reading instruction holds sway, to spelling among children in Singapore, where they teach spelling with the more direct, old-fashioned approach. Excuse the expression, but in Singapore, they spell out how to spell . . . and it pays off bigtime for kids.

Nine times as many students in Singapore could handle the spelling of complex English words such as “chaotic,” “dilemma” and “laborious” than their Australian counterparts could, the study showed. And yet English is a second language for most Singapore children!

What’s really gripping is that the biggest difference in spelling ability between the two countries was in children aged 7 ½ -- just about the end of first grade – showing that teachers who blame the kids themselves, ADHD, dyslexia, the parents, TV, and any number of other false enemies should actually turn that magnifying glass on themselves and their own methods.

Almost all teachers now operating in Nebraska teach the way spelling is taught in Australia, rather than in Singapore. They learned how to teach spelling in teachers’ colleges in the 1970s and ‘80s, when “progressive” methods were replacing the tried-and-true, so-called “drill and kill” methods.

Instead of phonics instruction and direct teaching on specific words, spelling rules and letter combinations, schools moved toward contrived primers containing certain spelling words to be memorized, using an indirect approach to spelling that takes the “instruction” out of “spelling instruction.” The claim is that immersing kids in text enables them to miraculously pick up proper spelling through osmosis. Obviously, that’s not true, based on how much worse kids spell than years ago, when teachers plainly taught it.

Today, instead of guiding children to write properly-spelled words in their own sentences and paragraphs, with errors corrected and the kids assigned to rewrite, today they can write at length in their own personal journals – which are not correctly for grammar and spelling – because that’s more “fun,” or they merely fill in the blanks in workbooks because that’s judged to be more “fun.” The question is, how much “fun” is it to be illiterate and spell like a beagle?

Meanwhile, instead of systematically teaching and testing kids on correct spelling of specific words, teachers put up “spelling walls” – dozens of one-word index cards literally wallpapering classrooms -- in the vain hope that kids will “absorb” correct spellings simply by being surrounded by them each day. Talk about . . . off the wall!

The Australian study reported that the reading scores of primary-school students have dropped 14 percent in 15 years. Even when proper spelling instruction is brought back, Aussie kids aren’t catching up to the level of spelling ability of their parents’ generation nearly 30 years ago. The damage starts in preschool and is cumulative.

So they know Whole Language is bunk in Australia. It’s poison! It dumbs kids down! It drags teaching down! It’s hurting our country!

How come WE don’t get it yet?

Maybe Nebraska parents and taxpayers should make “wallpaper” of their own for the walls of school funding bodies such as the Unicameral, and those in charge of our schools. You know, easily-spelled words like “FIX THIS OR YOU’RE FIRED, YOU GUYS.”

Read more about it on
http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,19975952-13881,00.html and browse through the several sidebar articles at the upper right, including the data on Singapore.

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