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Spelling makes a comeback

To be properly learned, teachers say, spelling must be properly taught.

(Page 2 of 3)

"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."

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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.

'E-spelling' makes inroads

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 is not enough

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.