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Invented Spelling


Q. I work in a furniture store. I can't believe how horribly our younger employees spell everyday words: "fabrik," "couche," "curtins," etc. What has happened to spelling skills?


When English was taught in a unified way - speaking, spelling, writing and reading reinforcing each other - students readily mastered language arts. The rules of spelling were explicitly taught along with phonics in kindergarten.


But now hardly any schools teach reading with phonics. Hardly any teach handwriting correctly. And most don't teach spelling at all until the third grade or so, when it's too late.


Today's educators mistakenly believe they should wait to give formal spelling instruction. They don't think K-2 pupils are ready. That's wrong, of course, but that's the way it is.


Pupils today are in "child-centered classrooms" with "developmentally-appropriate practice." The focus is on the process, not the end-product. Spelling errors are tolerated as long as the child is trying to construct meaning out of words, even badly misspelled words.


Children are encouraged to invent, or make up, the spellings of words however it makes sense to them. Educators do not believe it is appropriate to correct those invented spellings; they believe it is helping the child to "construct" his or her own spelling rules, instead of imposing the spelling rules of the last few centuries on them, as if that were somehow oppressive or wrong.


Much of the time, of course, children guess wrong with their spelling "inventions." You've noted a few examples in your question; probably the worst thing about invented spelling is that students who get away with this for so many years grow up to be employees who don't know their spelling is atrocious, and don't care, even when they lead to costly mistakes and bad PR.


But since they aren't corrected all through their years in school, the misspellings take root. Bad spelling habits and laziness get entrenched. After a short time, bad spelling is extremely hard to reverse.


When formal spelling instruction does begin, it unfortunately relies on memorizing spelling lists, even though that's known to be a weak method. Since spelling is taught in isolation from the other language skills, it's harder to learn, so the number of spelling words assigned in a school year has been drastically reduced from years past. Therefore, vocabulary and reading comprehension suffer, too.


Worst of all, by the week after the test, many kids have already forgotten the correct spellings they memorized, and already slipped back into the habit of "inventing" whatever spelling "makes sense" to them.


Then what happens, as we are seeing all over, is that people cannot express themselves correctly either in speech or in writing, but they still have strong feelings. So they turn to overexpressing themselves incorrectly, with exaggerated emotions and gestures. Instead of defining and refining their ideas into effective communication, they are reduced to grunts, head bashes, coarse gestures, stammering . . . and their attempts at written communication are just as bad.


The answer: "reinvent" common sense, return to "phonics only" in the early grades, watch dyslexia dwindle to nothing, and American spelling improve drastically.


Homework: For an excellent analysis, see the book, Why Americans Read and Spell Poorly by Edward Loring Tottle.


By Susan Darst Williams Writing 08 2008


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