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Misspelling as Warning Signal
Back before the development of electronic sensor devices, coal miners took canaries down into the mines with them. The birds, especially sensitive to poisonous gases like methane and carbon monoxide, served as an early warning system. If the bird keeled over, the miners knew that the air was bad and they’d better evacuate ASAP.
What does this have to do with School Reform?
I’m in the process of compiling a spelling handbook. My target readers are American English speakers who refer to themselves as “bad spellers.”
My research has shown me that an extraordinarily large number of Americans who have completed eight or more years of formal education fall into this category.
Some quizzes circulating on the internet invite clicks with such bait as “only 1% of Americans can spell these words!” I’ve responded to a few of these quizzes, expecting to find really challenging words, like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, only to find such words as separate, definite, and calendar.
If 99% of Americans really do have difficulty spelling such everyday words, then surely the fact points to a level of toxicity in US schools. Widespread misspelling on Facebook, on blogs, and in self-published books signal a situation that should be addressed.
English spelling may take longer to learn than that of some other languages, but children who are taught the sound/symbol relationships in a systematic way will be able to master the standard spellings and exceptions long before they’ve completed high school.
The fact that so many fail to do so signals the existence of a faulty method of instruction.
An ineffective system of reading instruction has taken hold of US schools. In the mistaken notion that it’s kinder to train children to guess at words than to teach them how to spell them, the method that prevails in the public schools devalues spelling and puts a premium on guessing. The result is millions of US English-speakers who are not only incapable of spelling the words they use, but who are also limited in their ability to read with complete understanding.
Defenders of the spelling-free form of reading instruction argue that spelling is “obsolete,” that people don’t need to learn to spell anymore because their phones and other devices can correct their spelling for them.
Don’t you believe it.
Two excuses often offered for “an inability to spell” are these:
1. Misspelled words “are a sign of dyslexia."
2. English spelling is so inconsistent that no one can learn it. And besides, there’s an app for that.
Feeble excuses, both.
1. Dyslexia is a condition whose battery of symptoms includes difficulties in processing language. However, misspelling by itself is more likely a sign of ineffective reading instruction.
2. English spelling is more challenging than that of other modern languages, but it’s not rocket science. It is certainly easier to learn than algebra and provides some of the same advantages. Learning to construct words phonetically trains the mind to observe details and draw conclusions, skills that contribute to critical thinking.
The attitude that exists even among some professional educators that standard spelling is a low educational priority is a reflection of anti-intellectualism.
Spelling does count. The fact that misspelling is so prevalent among graduates of tax-supported elementary and secondary schools is a danger sign—the equivalent of the canary in the coal mine. Something is not right when the same adults who are able to perform basic math functions and recall song lyrics and sports statistics are unable to spell the words they use in day-to-day writing.
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