In The Classroom: Does Spelling Matter?

The title of Simon Horobin’s book poses what, at first blush, seems a banal question. I imagine most readers would answer “Yes, spelling matters”, perhaps adding “though not as much as some believe”. Yet if the question of how words should be written is not uppermost in many people’s minds, its nagging everyday presence is nonetheless evident in the existence of spell-checkers and school spelling tests, as well as in mnemonics designed to help us with spellings, such as the venerable “i before e except after c”.

So begins Henry Hitchings’ very interesting Guardian review of Simon Horobin’s book Does Spelling Matter?  As one of those highly challenged when it comes to spelling, this is always of great interest to me.  In fact, I feel one of the many ways computers turned me into a writer were their non-judgmental spell checkers — I could get a ton of errors and no one besides me and my little computer would ever know.

Next week I will be doing one of my favorite lessons with my fourth grade class — having them “translate” a few pages of Mourt’s Relation, the 1620 publication of the Pilgrims, in its original form which means unconventional spelling. Understandably, fourth graders love it!

As a teacher I think spelling matters because we all want to be able to read what the other writes and some sort of standard spelling makes that possible.  I tell my students that they should want their readers to notice what they have to say and not be distracted by spelling errors.  Being a poor speller myself and a professional writer I’m able to help them understand the importance of being able to independently correct spelling without feeling a shame about it.

We still use an old-fashioned spelling workbook in my classroom with a weekly spelling test.  I feel it isn’t so much about learning spelling rules as much as it is study skills — becoming adept at figuring out written directions in the book as they will have to do in standardized tests, having to memorize a bunch of words as they will when they begin foreign language in 5th grade, and so forth. (Of course, we also do a lot of work separately with their writing and proofreading.) I’m curious — do other classroom teachers out there still use such programs? If not, how do you teach spelling?

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “In The Classroom: Does Spelling Matter?

  1. (I lost count of the spelling mistakes I made while writing this that were corrected by my browsers spell checker. If you find another, mentally correct it and move on. Enjoy!)

    I am, by most standards in place today, a fairly intelligent and observant person. I was encouraged to write from an early age. There was, however, one small problem… I don’t spell well when I am writing.

    I can make perfect scores on spelling tests. If you ask me how to spell a word I will pause for the briefest of seconds and then spell it out. My students and other teachers are usually amazed at my ability, especially with homophones and the various exceptions to the rules.

    Yet, when I am writing, especially handwriting, spelling becomes a crap shoot.

    At university some professors would overlook my errors simply because I would nail the idea as well, if not better, as that guy/girl in the front of the class who got straight As on everything!

    And then there were those instructors who nitpicked every single minor error with an obsession bordering on pathological.

    Eventually I met a few authors who confessed to being horrible spellers. They did the best they could, but let the proofreaders and editors correct their manuscripts. As one put it, many can spell that cannot write and many can write that cannot spell. They advised that I relax, enjoy writing, and recruit a friend to proof my work.

    So I started writing more and worrying less about spelling everything right in the moment.

    But what really opened up my world was spell check in Wordperfect and, later, Word. And when real time spell checking came along, I was in heaven!

    And that is my take on the subject.

  2. As a substitute teacher, I see a great variety of methods of dealing with spelling. One of my favorites was a teacher who gave each of her students a large index card. The card was pre-printed with Name and instructions at the top and had two three-column tables as the major portion of the card. The three columns were for the date, the child’s own “have a go” spelling and the correct spelling (or just a smiley face, if the child got it correct). There were weekly spelling lists in her class, but they were supplemented with words from their Have a Go cards – words the kids themselves really wanted to use in their writing.

    When I am subbing, I often find (or carry) a pack of sticky notes. If a child asks me for the spelling of a word, I write it on the sticky note for them to take back to where they were writing. I sometimes ask the child to “have a go” at it, but I never refuse to spell a word for a child.

    When my older daughter was just beginning to write, she asked her teacher to help her spell the words that she wanted to use. She knew that there was a correct way and an incorrect way and she very clearly wanted to spell the correct way. Unfortunately, her teacher didn’t understand her need to spell correctly and always told her to just spell the word as best she could and keep on with her thinking. This works for some children, but it really inhibited my older daughter. She would dumb down her writing and, instead of using the glorious words that she was thinking, she would use good, solid, easy to spell ones.

    • That’s a really good point! My kids are like that, always wanting to know how, exactly, to spell things, and I find it inhibits them from getting their ideas down so I try to encourage them not to worry about spelling. I never really considered that actually spelling those words out for them might be the better solution. At least they’d be writing, rather than giving up because they can’t spell certain words.

      • When my students are writing I have them act as if they are on their own and so that means I can’t tell them how to spell anything. They have to use their own resources if knowing the correct spelling matters to them at the draft stage — dictionaries and such.

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