Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Once upon a time, the inimitable robber baron Andrew Dale Carnegie took it upon himself to create a new method of spelling. He thought that the current English language was too confusing for people to have to learn to spell - the rules are arbitrary. To that end, he created the Simplified Spelling Society, an organization designed to simplify the spelling of the English language so that it could be more easily learned. You can read about the movement here. Needless to say, the movement ultimately failed, although, it did help result in the dropping of the unnecessary u in words like color and humor, and it changed the order of the "er" in theater, et al.

Why do I bring this up? Well, we found out that there is a similar teaching style at work where we live. Our school district, and one of the adjacent districts don't teach phonics the way we learned them once upon a time. Rather than teaching sounds, and letter combinations, and then teaching exceptions as we go along, the schools now encourage children to write words the way they sound. So, instead of learning how to spell, they're learning how to spell incorrectly, and the theory is that they'll learn the proper spelling as they go through school. Ex. - I likd etng is crem satrday = I liked eating ice cream Saturday.

When I was in first grade, I was told that Christopher Columbus discovered America. So pervasive was this, that even today people refuse to believe that the Vikings got here long before, and that the Vikings, unlike Columbus, actually landed on the American continent. Think about that. There are grown ups out there who don't know the right answer, even after 12 - 20 years of extra education. Yet, this method is going to work to teach children how to spell properly? Teach them the wrong information and then parse it out? "We're sorry, but the way you've been spelling for the last XX years was completely wrong, and you have to start over again." It seems to me that this is going to have a detrimental effect, in that once you learn something one way, you have to train yourself not to do it that way before you can do it another way.

I enkuraj ol ov u to rit yor skoolbord and tel them u dont lik it.
Spell check should be a tool, not a necessity.


English Professor said...

I'm not an expert in early childhood education and literacy acquisition, so I'm weighing in as a layman. But I know there is some good research out there showing that the "whole language" approach to learning to read and write can be very effective.

Part of my reaction would depend on whether they're doing this in the first grade or the fifth. As a starting method to get kids thinking and writing, it has validity, because you want them learning the process of transferring thought to paper--limit 6 year-olds to the words they can spell correctly, and you've just shut off that flow completely.

If, however, they're allowing 12 year-olds to pretend that dictionaries don't exist, that's a different matter.

Bookworm said...

Children are so much more intelligent than our school systems give them credit for being. Anyone who would do a massive disservice to children by ignoring standarized spelling, and allowing them to stand uncorrected when they spell purely phonetically ought to be kicked out of the teaching profession. This is not about how kids learn, this is the same kind of "let's not hurt their little feelings" mindset that disbars red pens in favor of loving violet. It's great for a child to write an essay phonetically - and then a good teacher goes through and works on the spelling with the child, not in a critical way, but in a "let's learn more" way. AAARRGGHH! Our schools remind me that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Steve said...

My wife has a friend whose soon-to-be stepson is intelligent enough to be placed in the gifted classes, yet managed to fail his spelling test.

I don't place the blame on the teachers so much as I do on the school board. The teachers end up getting hit with regulation after regulation and flavor of the week theories on how to better educate kids, and then when the new methods fail, the teachers get blamed.

It doesn't matter what the background of the students is, whether their parents try to help them learn or not. It doesn't matter what language the students speak as opposed to the teacher. It doesn't matter that many school systems have metal detectors to keep kids from bringing weapons to school, and have contempt vice respect for their educators, who year in and year out lose just a little more control of their classroom. It doesn't matter that school district voters routinely vote not to increase taxes for purposes of bringing better pay and more qualified teachers to the area. It doesn't matter that the Government foisted a well-intentioned but poorly established Act that places focus on a test rather than a quality education and then denied the funds needed to meet the federal guidelines, choosing instead to funnel the monies into charter schools, which do not have to meet the same standard as the public schools.

All that matters is that the students aren't doing well, and since the teacher is who we see, the teacher is who we blame.

Given the situation, I think it's a wonder that anyone teaches anymore.

English Professor said...

I have to disagree with BW on this one. The research I've read IS all about helping children learn, not about hurt feelings. They certainly are to learn to spell, and to correct their errors when the teacher gives back their papers for revision. But there is much more to language acquisition than merely spelling properly, and if you start out with a heavy emphasis on the mechanics, you're going to miss big picture items.

Example: my freshmen turn in first drafts that contain misspellings and grammatical errors. When instructed to edit and revise, they do what they believe editing is: correct the run-ons, fragments, and spelling, and call that good. What they miss in this process are the huge structural changes that need to be made--thesis refined, paragraphs thrown out, better use of sources, etc.

We do a lot of peer editing, and I forbid them to mark grammatical errors on the first draft. If I don't, the authors will seize those details, which are easily remedied, and ignore the major work that needs to be done. What they turn in then is a grammatically perfect, vapid, ill-planned essay. If they are forced to confront the big issues first, then they have to do the hard work of revising; corrections to mechanics come on the last draft, just before the final copy.

For young kids, the "hard work" I just referred to is the first draft; once they've got the ideas out, they can correct spelling.

Don't misunderstand me--I consider spelling and grammar very important, even if I'm more informal on blogs than I would be in an academic paper. I expect students' final drafts to be correct, and their grades suffer if they're not. But I don't think allowing young children to spell phonetically in their first attempts is going to forever doom their writing skills.

Bookworm said...

English Professor: The problem is that, if you are saying that college freshman are still making spelling errors, I think you're actually proving the point about a generation that's not taught to spell. Had they learned to spell early on, when the mechanics were more important, and they didn't need to focus on heavy duty analysis, you, as an higher education teacher, would be able to focus all your energy on content, and not have to deal with grammar and spelling problems. Those are issues that, in a traditional system, would have been resolved a long time ago.

My children are not products of the traditional "memorize at all costs" schooling, since they're Montessorians, but the fact is that a large part of Montessori is to teach the child the whole task, whatever that may be, and in 1st through 6th grades, that includes spelling. In any event, children at this age, if they're excited about their project, want it to be perfect, embrace the spelling part with enthusiasm, and have memories like sponges.

By the way, Steve, I've linked.