Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Does Spelling Count?

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Does Spelling Count?

Article excerpt

Like most of us born in the good old days, I grew up on an unvarying but satisfying diet of weekly spelling lists and good old Friday spelling tests - satisfying, because I happened to be a good speller. I came from a family of college graduates, all of whom could spell, so I was both socially and genetically predestined to remember the vagaries of English orthography.

When I became a parent in the 1970s, it never occurred to me to question how my own children were being taught to spell. I assumed that they were filling the blanks in their spelling workbooks, as I had, and having traditional Friday spelling tests.

I do remember becoming enlightened somewhere along the line when I realized that spelling ability, or lack of it, did not necessarily correlate to intelligence. My son, though literate and verbally adept, is not an outstanding speller. My best friend, though not an outstanding speller, became a published author.

When I became a teacher in the 1980s, I never wondered how to teach spelling to seventh- and eighth-graders. There were spelling books on hand with familiar lists and fill-in-theblank exercises. I knew what to do.

However, I soon discovered that what had worked for me did not work for many of my students. The word lists seemed too difficult, the vocabulary too esoteric. Why should students who could not spell words such as "different" in their own writing be memorizing words such as "hygiene" from their spelling books? And it was not only the second-language learners who were struggling.

I attempted to solve the vocabulary problem by juggling several lists simultaneously. These soon proliferated to accommodate three ability levels for native English speakers, with a fourth illustrated list for English learners. Test-giving became a logistical nightmare as I tried to keep all students on task by rotating through the lists: "List One, number three...List Two, number three...." Even students who suffered from no auditory-processing disabilities became confused and distressed. I tried to reassure students that spelling problems do not indicate level of intelligence, but there was obvious adolescent contempt for those assigned a lower list.

When I further refined the process to include a pre- as well as a post-test, the whole enterprise became unmanageable. The pretest revealed what I had subconsciously known all along, namely that most students were only learning a few new words each week, not a full complement of twenty. Add to this the realization that most students were content with a score of 80 percent on the post-test, and I came to understand that not much was happening to improve anyone's spelling.

Some students were bored, some were apathetic, some were still engaged in meaningless memorization of enigmatic vocabulary, and some were enjoying, as I had in my youth, the minimal exertion required to learn a couple of new words once in awhile. It was not working! I had to individualize the learning task, but how? Years passed. Innovation, born of frustration, gradually modified the process to my present system which, though not infallible, works reasonably well.

These days, I extract misspelled words from students' own writing, keeping individual lists as I go. I also have a composite list of progressively more difficult words that I use as a pre-test as we begin each spelling cycle. This list ranges from easy ("when") to grade level ("mischief") to blockbuster ("obeisance"). Thus, each student acquires a personal list of ten study words. Ten words are added to each student's cumulative list with each six-week spelling-study cycle, for a yearly total of sixty words. …

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