Has Teaching Changed Since Thomas Jefferson?

In a letter to his daughter, Thomas Jefferson offered the following advice about spelling: “Take care that you never spell a word wrong. Always before you write a word, consider how it is spelled, and, if you do not remember, turn to a dictionary.”

Today’s world presents us with a dramatically different scene. Vast numbers of schools see accurate spelling not only as unnecessary, but actually undesirable. What accounts for this 180 degree turnaround since Jefferson wrote his note, and what does it mean for children’s education?

The change largely reflects the influence of whole language– an approach that teaches literacy via motivating activities that include lots of creative writing. Following principles set forth by Glenda Bissex in her influential book Gnys at Wrk : A Child Learns to Write and Read (i.e., “genius at work”), the idea– termed “invented spelling”– is that children should be permitted, even encouraged, to write words in whichever way seems right to them. The rationale is that freed from having to deal with difficult rules, children will embrace the printed word.

Doubters of this approach are told that when children learn to speak, their language is regularly marked by what adults deem as mistakes, such as a toddler saying “foots” for “feet.” Over time, without any correction, the “mistakes” naturally drop away, to be replaced by “correct” (conventional) language. We are assured that the same self-correction will take place in written language– if we simply resist intruding. So in some ways, “invented spelling” might be more aptly described as “temporary spelling.”

Regardless of the terminology, this has become the dominant method for early writing. Its adoption is remarkable, given the fierce battles that have been fought between whole language and its nemesis — namely, phonics instruction. In phonics teaching, which emphasizes the sounds of words, accuracy is everything. There is no way a teacher from this camp will accept a child’s misreading of words.

Since phonics requires accuracy in reading, you might expect adherents of phonics to also expect accurate writing, but that is not the case. The same teacher who insists on accurate reading will comfortably accept inaccurate spelling. Somehow, a pact has been created that enables the two camps to co-exist in the same classroom.

Though the co-existence may appear illogical, in fact, whole language addresses a significant flaw in phonics. The vast majority of words in English can, based solely on their pronunciation, be spelled in a variety of ways. For instance, a simple four-letter word such as tall, could easily be spelled taul, tawl, or taull.

The sounding out rules required for reading English number into the hundreds. Not an easy task. The sounding out rules for writing, however, are even more complicated and more numerous. For example, in reading, a single rule can explain how one sound is applicable to all the following combinations er, or, ur, ir, and ure (as in worker, actor, fur, irk, and picture). In spelling, however, the same clusters require the application of several rules. The teaching problems melt away if we can trust to the dictum to let children invent their spellings and to rely on normal development to do the rest.

Despite assurances to the contrary, accurate spelling has not emerged as a natural, painless consequence of invented spelling. For huge numbers of children, even those who can read fairly well, spelling is a disaster zone – showing not occasional, inevitable mistakes, but instead chronic writing problems where errors are rampant.

“Disaster” is an appropriate description of this situation if you believe, as I do, that accurate spelling is important. Accurate spelling has enormous power to enhance a child’s learning; conversely, inaccurate spelling has an equally enormous power to diminish that learning.

One example of why spelling matters can be seen in the bounty of homonyms in the English language (words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings). Some familiar ones are:

pail-pale  son-sun  bough-bow  bare-bear  see-sea
fowl-foul  meat-meet  night-knight  made-maid  ate-eight
few-phew  hole-whole  sense-cents  air-heir  ail-ale
great-grate  hire-higher  gate-gait  knew-new  road-rode

They also extend to word combinations such as

a parent-apparent   you’re-your  I’ll-isle  away –a way
they’re-there  he’d-heed  align- a line

When children are not attuned to precise writing, they are at a huge disadvantage in picking up minute differences in spelling that have major effects on meaning such as in the sentences below.

The son was nowhere to be seen. The sun was nowhere to be seen.

In other words, when children fail to write with accuracy, they are often unprepared to see, with accuracy, the meaning in the words others write. Then it is not simply spelling that suffers, but comprehension and vocabulary as well. Accurate spelling is the handmaiden to accurate reading. When it is not there, reading suffers mightily.

Indeed, children often cannot read the invented spelling texts they themselves have written. There may be no apparent problem if the child reads the story immediately after writing it, as the ideas are still fresh and specific letters are sufficient cues to enable the child to recall the intended message. But if more time passes, with no short-term memory to assist their efforts, the children are often unable to read that same material. The result then is anything but the pride of authorship that whole language intended.

Clearly, the system needs to change and that will happen only through informed citizens working towards that goal. But until that happens, the necessary change has to take place outside the system– in the home.

Parents represent an unbelievably dedicated group with the will and ability to achieve this goal. If some of the considerable time they spend with their children on school assignments is used to introduce new and better techniques, powerful change can take place.

A key source for that change can be found in area that has been overlooked– largely because it does not play a role in either whole language or phonics. That area is visual sequencing and memory. This is the skill that good spellers steadily rely on for their prowess; it is the skill that enables them to look at a word and know immediately if it is spelled correctly or not.

While few children will reach the level of an expert speller, with the right two-step process, it is possible to go a long way towards that goal.

  • When a child has trouble with a word, the first step is to write the word down and show it to him or her. Allow all the time needed for the child to take in the information. What you are doing is providing a correct visual model of the word. This fosters visual analysis and is far more effective in developing correct spelling than is the usual practice of “spelling” a word by saying aloud the letters that make up the word.
  • For the second step, remove the visual model and ask the child to write the word from memory. If it is correct, that is great and you can move on. If it is not correct, you repeat the process. At no point is the child permitted to simply correct the particular letters that might be incorrect, absent or misplaced. The key is to have the child produce the full word correctly at one time, and not to permit piecemeal corrections.

This approach can be extended in a number of ways. For example, after the model has been removed, in place of asking the child to reproduce the whole word, you show an incomplete model of the word (e.g., for a word like rescue, the child might see __ e __ c u __). The child then has to fill in the appropriate letters to create the complete word. When this is repeated several times, each time with a different set of missing letters, the child’s grasp of the letter relationships in the word gains considerable strength.

As a child’s writing accuracy improves, this approach can then be extended to longer and longer segments so that the child becomes proficient in correctly writing whole sentences and sets of sentences.

It is worth noting that, at least for a while, it is useful to put some “tried and true” practices on hold. One such practice is the ubiquitous suggestion to “go to the dictionary and look it up.” Dictionaries are wonderful resources, but for someone whose spelling is weak, a dictionary can be a torture chamber. A child may plod through the requested search when an adult is there to insist upon it; when that same child is alone, however, he or she will not initiate a comparable search. And strategies that a child fails to apply independently, even though the skill is there, are generally ones to be avoided.

The suggestions offered here do not meet Jefferson’s challenge to “never spell a word wrong.” But in this age of spell checks, his demand seems excessively stringent. Still and all, his words are useful in focusing us on the pandemic spelling problems that children have been saddled with by current methods of instruction and in stimulating us to develop alternative tools that will grant children success in this vital area.

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