Thursday, May 3, 2007


This discussion is all over the place, showing up in various comments and referenced in various posts, but I think it's a fascinating side issue that I wanted to provide a specific forum for while I continue frantically to get my blog project running for my t-r. I am very interested in hearing Stacey (Or anyone else who wants to chime in), express an opinion or two about this, and don't worry, I'm not easily offended so don't hold back and let me have it!

My objection to spelling is philosophical. Let me first state that I agree that students need to learn audience adaptation and that giving students access to the power code is an essential part of what I do as a teacher. I would not be a good teacher if I did not follow the curriculum standard which clearly states that students should learn and use proper grammar, mechanics, and spelling.

However, I do not believe that spelling tests are an effective way to teach spelling. They are an assessment of a student's ability to spell, but they don't teach a student how to spell. The best way to learn spelling is by reading--repeated exposure to words in context works much better. By the way, the same is true of grammar rules--reading is the best way to learn them. Check out the book Understanding English Grammar, particularly the first chapter, or just about anything written by George Hillocks for more on this.

Bottom line is, if in doubt look it up (which is much easier now that so many kids have a spell-checker and are writing on a computer that has web access so that they can double-check problem words like their/they're). Using all the time saved by not giving spelling tests to work on grammar and spelling in context allows me to apply these concepts to what the students are actually doing rather than forcing them to engage in an exercise that doesn't relate to what they are writing. I do grade spelling in my student's formal essays, but not in their journals. I want their journals to be a place where they can focus on content and critical thinking rather than worrying about spelling and grammar (I give guided, specific prompts [level 3 questions about the texts we're studying] for journals--they are not free writing or morning pages style journals).

The issue goes deeper than that for me, however. While it is part of my job to teach students how to write in formal situations for audiences that expect good spelling, it is not my job to like it, or to believe that it is an important, worthwhile, or even legitimate project. I believe that spelling is just another way for people to judge others, feel superior to others, and find ways to discriminate against other people. I can't count the number of times I've seen a comment posted on the web criticizing another person's spelling and the comment itself contains misspelled/misused words or grammar errors!

This is a fact of life, I know, and kids need to learn that they will be judged, whether it's fair or not, by the way they speak, dress, wear their hair, and write. But spelling in the English language does not make sense. We have held over spellings of words from Old English, and continued to include letters that are no longer pronounced. Words like "weigh," "through," "night," and "sleigh" were originally spelled phonetically by speakers of a "vulgar" tongue that did not have a codified system of spelling. Having studied Old and Middle English texts, I can tell you that often the spelling of words changed even within a single text, let alone between different texts. Eventually spellings were codified into a dictionary, and the spellings at that time reflected the way words were pronounced--words were spelled phonetically. But as the pronunciation of these words has changed, and the meaning of our words has changed, and the syntax of our grammar has changed, the spelling of our words has not changed--why?

It makes life more difficult for English language learners of all ability levels and backgrounds. It makes students afraid to write and "dumbs down" their writing because they replace the word that they really want to use with one that's easier to spell. By the way, I feel the same way about some of our grammar rules. Some are necessary to avoid ambiguity; other rules are arbitrary and unnecessary impediments to our student’s ability to express their thoughts freely and without fear.

I devote two whole days of my Freshman English class to reading about and discussing the idea of grammar and spelling rules, in which I explain the importance of learning the power code, while also explaining how much I detest and resent the fact that the power code is defined and enforced by those who are in power at the expense of those who are not. It's just another form of discrimination masquerading as education.

The following excerpt is from a junk email, and I have read various opinions as to whether the idea contained herein is legitimate or not, let alone the assertion that it comes from research at Cambridge (which I've been unable to find any evidence of). But at the very least, I think that it is food for thought. I turned it into a poster and have it posted in my classroom:

Do Not Read This!

I cdnoult blveiee that I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd what I was rdanieg! Wtienss the azaimng pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to rseeacrh at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer waht odrer the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit too mcuh torbule. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Itnseretnig, huh? Wow, and I awlyas tuohght slpeling was ipmorantt!

Any thoughts?


Natalie said...

Okay, this looks eerily like a thrown gauntlet! You introduce some interesting ideas - and challenge some assumptions.

First, my belief in proper spelling made no reference to spelling tests! ICK! I agree that spelling shouldn't be an issue in train of thought writing. I myself don't worry about spelling when I'm trying to capture my own fleeting ideas. However, I DO believe that it's an essential part of the editing process. A sentence in which the word sleigh is used in place of slay will certainly have a different meaning. Misspelled and improper word choice disrupt my train of thought when I try to read a passage - so it is definitely a problem in the bigger scheme of communication, and isn't that writing is all about?

Finally, it seems in this day and age, when people use computers to word-process their writing, correct spelling is such an easy step. Click on the spell-check and proceed.

Assignments with misspelled words turned in by my college students tells me one of three things: the student is to lazy to spend that additional 5 minutes to run the spell check; they don't think the assignment is important enough to do the final step; or they don't respect me or the assignment enough to even care. Attention to details like spelling is an indication (to me) that the writing process is important enough to attend to properly.

Now, here's my "olden days story." Back in the olden days, when you had to use a typewriter (a MANUAL typewriter at that!) and it was a big deal to revise and edit written work, people seemed to take spelling more seriously. I find this interesting - because the whole writing process was much more arduous then than it is today. Is the very ease of doing a spell check creating a generation of poor spellers?

On a side note – how do students succeed at internet research if they can’t spell the words for what they want to Google?

respo said...

As I sit here giving a spelling test I am wondering how I feel about this post. It made me think of a couple of things that are related in a roundabout way.

First, it made me think of religion. Yes, religion because I am not a very religious person. I was however brought up as an active member of the Catholic church, was a youth group member, and taught CCD/Sunday school. Why does this connect with spelling? It does because I have discussed this topic with my siblings and come to the conclusion that I was lucky to educated about religion enough to develop my own opinion.

It also made me think of artists/impressionists. In an art class I once took I was told that famous impressionists were also able to paint and draw very realistically too. It was explained taht you needed to master the skill of painting before improvising.

Okay so my point with artists and religion would be that students need the lessons to be educated enough to have your same (or their own) thoughts on spelling.

I noticed that you did not even have a typo, nevertheless a spelling error in that entire post. That is a gift and something that you can chose to do well or not. You can decide whether is matters to you or not and how you will allow others to judge you or not. Don't you think our students should have that same choice?

Also, I am a terrible speller. It is the irony of my life. I have to look up everything. I am lucky that I can usually identify words I am spelling incorrectly, but it is still a pain.

I guess that spelling in education, like everything else in education is their to empower students. So if it is the people in power that make the rules, shouldn't we give our students tools to be in power at some point????

camdaram said...

When I was in under-grad and had to research authors for my creative writing class, I found out that so many brilliant were terrible spellers. They focused more on the right word, not spelling, and everything else. Hemingway was one of the worst spellers, I'm sure his drinking had no part in this, but he turned out okay.
I could spell well for the test, stored in the short term memory, and then lost. The rules of spelling were lost on me, mostly because I didn't care. I think that was the big thing: if I don't care, no one can MAKE me, and if it's not important to me, it won't change.

Diana Dafoe said...

I couldn’t agree more. I do believe spelling in important in a finished product but too much emphasis is placed on it in the earlier grades. This does create anxiety; I am living proof of it. I have a learning weakness or disability that does not allow me to hear the order of sounds in words as easily as the “normal” person. I was given “shorter” spelling test to help me with my problem – I can honestly say I did not learn to spell one word from my endless spelling test. This hindered my writing because I would use words that I knew I could spell (which was very few). I was strong in math and science, which saved me from having absolutely no self-esteem. I have a degree in Science and an after degree in education. I teach grade 11 and 12 to adult learners - biology, career preparation, and math and I have a strong emphasis in writing in my classes. I do mark spelling in written assignment. I find it is easy for people who are good spellers to say how important it is. With technology today our time could be better spent on reading comprehension and good communication skills in writing – spelling is a part of this and can be taught through reading and especially writing. My spelling has improved through the years – this was accomplished by writing not spelling tests! BTW I did use a word processor to write this little note – This is what I have to do.