Spelling makes a comeback
To be properly learned, teachers say, spelling must be properly taught.
BROOKLINE, MASS. — Once a year, ESPN elevates spelling to the status of a national sport. In a live broadcast of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, young masters of the alphabet contort their faces or gaze into space as they inch their way - letter by letter - to victory or defeat.
But champion spellers are to the average English student what Olympic athletes are to the average kickball player in gym class. And many teachers are at their wits' end as they attempt to get students to play by the rules of standard spelling.
While the elite are memorizing rare words in anticipation of the 78th annual competition in Washington June 1-2, seventh-graders in Rebekah Guerra's English class are still trying to master the basics. Some mistakes in a recent assignment: diddent; edjucation; coledge; pronounceation; absolutly.
Mrs. Guerra offers daily spelling instruction, a sign of the subject's comeback after several decades of neglect. While schools still vary greatly in their approaches to spelling, a growing emphasis on basic skills in US classrooms has prompted more teachers to return to explicit spelling instruction - instead of simply assuming that it's a skill that kids will pick up as they go along.
At Boston Trinity Academy, a small Christian school in Brookline, Mass., for grades 6 to 12, Guerra gets 90 minutes a day to guide her class through good literature as well as the mechanics of grammar and spelling.
Most of the students - a diverse group, both racially and economically - arrive with a weak background in phonics, she says, and some simply haven't been pushed to read enough.
But with small classes, she can tailor instruction to individual needs: Some struggle with spelling because they are bilingual; others have been diagnosed with learning disabilities.
After a while, she can tell which kids are just being lazy in applying spelling rules they've been taught. She takes a point off their grade for each misspelling of a word pattern they've learned.
The traditional approach to teaching spelling - memorize this list and take a test at the end of the week - isn't effective for many students, Guerra and others say.
But the type and amount of spelling instruction may vary greatly from school to school. Some districts have adopted specific spelling curricula shown by studies to be effective. Others, however, deem that to be expendable in an era of tight budgets. They might settle for reading-book supplements that contain word lists but little guidance for teaching spelling.
In the 1980s, spelling books largely fell by the wayside with the advent of the whole-language movement.
"The theory was that if kids were readers and writers, in effect they would 'catch' expert spelling," says Richard Gentry, author of "The Science of Spelling." When California adopted a whole-language framework in 1987, "it became in vogue in the whole nation to treat spelling as if it weren't important."
Phonics has since seen a revival, but whole language in some ways advanced the cause of spelling, Mr. Gentry says.
Kindergartners and first-graders are now more often encouraged to write, even though they have to get by with "creative spelling" until they develop specific word knowledge. That's useful, he says, because spelling skills - like speaking skills - develop in phases.
Research also indicates that early writing practice helps children "break the code" for reading, he says.
"Spelling, instead of being treated as a supplementary subject, should be put on a pedestal," Gentry says. "It's proving to be much more important than we've ever thought it to be."
"I have to be honest, spelling is a problem," says Lynn Merrill, principal of Farmingville Elementary School in Ridgefield, Conn. "I'm hearing about it everywhere."
Her school district has been using Gentry's method for several years now. Trained literacy teams help teachers analyze errors in students' writing and then create lessons for their developmental stage.
"The old way, you just put everyone in Chapter 1 and then move your way through.... [Now] it's much more skillful teaching," Ms. Merrill says. The tradeoff is that it takes a lot of time.
Students often resist revising their written work, she says, which is key to improving spelling. With spell-check software, some kids are also just lazy about spelling.
Merrill knows that the language shifts to some degree with every generation. Young people use what she calls "e-spelling" in their electronic messages, truncating words to write quickly. She's noticed that leaking into schoolwork in recent years.
"They're actually reinventing the language, and I bet they win in the end," she says with a laugh. "I feel like a dinosaur."
But the dinosaurs still have grading authority, and each classroom has a list of "no-excuse words": If these are misspelled, the assignment goes back for revision.
Merrill finds herself being the enforcer among adults as well. "I got a newsletter [some parents] wanted me to hand out and they had misspelled 'principal,' " she says.
Generally, though, parents have been the most consistent supporters of spelling instruction, Gentry says. "Parents recognize that spelling is important. So districts that adopt [good] spelling programs often find that the parents are really delighted."
Sometimes personal experiences spur teachers to take a stronger interest in spelling. When Guerra's youngest child had spelling difficulties, she decided to learn the Orton-Gillingham method for teaching students diagnosed with dyslexia. She has found it helpful for all students. She teaches spelling rules, generalizations, and notable exceptions, and then tests students' ability to apply them. She doesn't drill them with lists of "demons" - words notoriously difficult to spell.
Spellcheck can be a "godsend" for people who struggle, she says, but if students don't already know enough proper spelling, they "look at a list [of alternatives] that a spell-checker gives them and just pick any old word. They end up with ... words they never intended!"
Guerra strives to make the lessons fun. During a recent Latin class (taught separately, but with the intent of improving vocabulary, spelling, and grammar), she had students translate from a Latin version of "Winnie the Pooh." And in English class, she has taught them a silly sentence: "The farmer caught his haughty naughty daughter and taught her not to slaughter animals." Other words ending with a similar sound are spelled with "ought," she says.
Still, most students "kind of grunt" when it's time to do spelling, Guerra admits.
They may be bored, but they're learning. Boston Trinity Academy is three years old, and each year the students have shown strong improvement. When today's ninth-graders started seventh grade, 100 percent of them scored below average on the spelling portion of the Stanford 9 test. By the spring of last year, when they were in eighth grade, only 17 percent scored below average, and 33 percent scored above average.
Spelling is her weakness, says seventh-grader Abigail Dunn. But she likes the way Mrs. Guerra teaches. Her favorite is the "doubling rule." (If you have a one-syllable word ending with a consonant immediately after a short vowel, double that final consonant when adding a suffix that begins with a vowel. For instance, pin + ing = pinning.)
"I remember it most of the time," Abigail says. But her general view could be a motto for anyone who's ever wondered whether i came before e: "Spelling is hard."
There's just something compelling about a spelling bee. On Broadway, the quirks of adolescence are celebrated in the musical "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." Two movies due out later this year also revolve around bees - fictional follow-ups to the 2002 documentary "Spellbound."
Even adults are lining up to test their spelling skills for local fund-raisers.
It's a cherished form of American competition, the battle to see who will be the last one standing after everyone else falls to the bizarreness of the English language.
That's why the idea of canceling the spelling bee didn't go over so well in Lincoln, R.I. Parents were up in arms after district officials decided there were other priorities. A few months ago, with some new officials in place, the local bee was reinstated just in time for students to participate in a statewide competition.
None of this popularity necessarily means that the nation's spelling is getting any better. Educators can see a lot of benefits to spelling bees, but say they are no replacement for what happens in the classroom.
"It's not an instructional activity, but it's great for motivation," says Richard Gentry, a spelling-instruction consultant and author. "It beefs up the notion that having word- specific knowledge is important."
The Lincoln school district is still exploring possibilities for a uniform spelling curriculum, says superintendent John Tindall-Gibson. Spelling is getting more attention, he says, as the public becomes more aware of "writing as a piece in the literacy issue."
Rebekah Guerra, a middle-school English teacher in Brookline, Mass., has decided not to have spelling bees in her classroom. "We are trying to create a culture in which the kids buy into the process of learning, and when it's the same person who always wins or gets an A, the other kids begin to think, 'Oh, it's just them,' " she says.
But Mrs. Guerra doesn't entirely discount bees. Anything that gets kids to exercise memory is helpful, she says, because it offers a contrast to the soundbite culture.
Paige Kimble, director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee and herself the champion in 1981, sees a link between spelling bees and education. "Spelling-bee success almost always traces back to strong reading support in the home and at schools," she says.
The competition highlights broader qualities, such as poise and persistence, that young people can apply in all areas of life, regardless of their spelling skills.
A young man fainted during the live finals last year, probably because of the bright lights on stage, Ms. Kimble says.
But before officials had a chance to figure out what to do, he stood up, stumbled back to the microphone, and spelled perfectly his given word: "alopecoid." He went on to win second place.