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On Spelling

In “Spelling tackled in American Educator” (8 Jan 2009), Ken DeRossa wrote:

Following my lead, American Educator has a good article on Spelling and how to teach it.

Not unsurprisingly, popular spelling instruction practices are based on flimsy pseudo-science:

“One common perception we have encountered is that visual memory, analogous to taking a mental picture of the word, is the basis of spelling skill. Teachers often tell us that they teach spelling by encouraging whole-word memorization (e.g., using flashcards and having students write words 5 or 10 times) or by asking students to close their eyes and imagine words. We’ve encountered this perception that spelling relies on visual memory so many times that we became curious about when and how it originated—after all, it’s a far cry from Webster’s spellers. We traced it back to the 1920s: one of the earliest studies to stress the role of visual memory in spelling was published in 1926, and it found that deaf children spelled relatively well compared w ith normal children of similar reading experience.4 Based on this study, and the perception that the relationship between sounds and the letters that spell them is highly variable, many people concluded that learning to spell is essentially a matter of rote memorization. Thus, researchers recommended that spelling instruction emphasize the development of visual memory for whole words”

Right, let’s have them visually memorize whole words because there couldn’t possibly be any other helpful information they could use. Apparently not; its a common belief that English is a highly irregular language. The article lays that trope to rest.

“This is a question we hear often. If English spelling were completely arbitrary, one could argue that visual memorization would be the only option. However, spelling is not arbitrary. Researchers have estimated that the spellings of nearly 50 percent of English words are predictable based on sound-letter correspondences that can be taught (e.g., the spellings of the /k/ sound in back, cook, and tract are predictable to those who have learned the rules). And another 34 percent of words are predictable except for one sound (e.g., knit, boat, and two). If other information such as word origin and word meaning are considered, only 4 percent of English words are truly irregular and, as a result , may have to be learned visually (e.g., by using flashcards or by writing the words many times).

“Far from being irregular and illogical, to the well-known linguists Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle, English is a near optimal system for lexical representation.

“There are three types of information that, once learned, make spelling much more predictable: (1) word origin and history, (2) syllable patterns and meaningful parts of words, and (3) letter patterns.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out. Research shows that children misspell irregular words more often than regular words. That should have been a good indication that visual memorization might not have been the best way to go.

The other thing is. Wouldn’t using word origin and history, spelling patterns and meaningful parts of words, and letter patterns to spell words involve using and practicing critical thinking skills — dare I say 21st Century skills, rather than brute memorization? Just sayin’.

The article is a good read. The only weak part is when the authors make some untested recommendations as to h ow they think spelling should be taught. At best, these recommendations are representative examples of what might possible be good practice once someone takes to time to develop an test a suitable instructional sequence. But, that work has not yet been done and the authors are a wee bit overconfident that their recommendations will be effective.


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