253. Spelling

Most people aren’t very good at spelling, and most people who are good at it never had any trouble with it. There have been all kinds of studies done to find out whether there are any ways to explain why some people can spell and some can’t. The last time I checked, which was in about 1980, the only clue they had found was a correlation between musical talent and spelling ability. Children who were skilled and avid readers weren’t necessarily good spellers. Children who had received lots of spelling instruction and/or had done lots of spelling workbooks and worksheets were about as skilled as children who hadn’t. Children who studied a lot did better on spelling tests, but these children did not end up spelling any better than children who hadn’t studied.
This research did not get me to feel like spending much time teaching children to spell words correctly. I had rarely studied spelling in elementary school. I had done the spelling work teachers had given me, but to me, it had been busy work. I’d never gotten anything wrong on the workbook pages and worksheets, and I’d always gotten 100% on spelling tests. Some teachers may have thought I’d studied, but most knew me better than that. My friend David had also gotten everything right, and had never studied. We both had sounded good on the piano, so maybe there was some validity to the research showing that odd correlation.
I’ve heard people say that children aren’t learning to spell any more, but I don’t think they ever did learn to spell. If correct spelling didn’t come easily, it didn’t come at all. I’m quite willing to be proven wrong about this, but so far no one has changed my mind.
It’s not so bad, really. I’ve gotten used to the incorrect spelling I see in children’s writing and in the adult world. I’ve found that the “brocoli” I buy in the supermarket tastes just just as good as broccoli. I notice that teachers who are poor spellers are often still good teachers. And computer programs that correct spelling often leave plenty of errors. For example, if they’re are to oar more ways two spell a word, the computer can’t help yew decide witch won too ewes; your on you’re own.
And yet I kept trying. I gave children spelling lists to study every Monday, and tested them every Friday. It was easier to follow the tradition than to convince everyone that the tradition didn’t make much sense. Some children worked hard to do well on the weekly spelling tests, and succeeded. They didn’t necessarily become good spellers, but maybe they learned that hard work can have at least some effect. Or maybe they eventually noticed that all their studying was for naught; they still couldn’t spell.
I’m glad more and more teachers are deciding to leave children’s misspellings alone as children write – to correct spelling errors later. Children are more eager to write if they don’t have to worry about spelling. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to face the fact that most people have difficulty with spelling, and there may be nothing we can do about it. And maybe that’s okay.

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