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On Being Good at Spelling

Thank you to Liz Winter! We are so thankful she was part of the LOE team! Liz wrote blog posts, answered customer questions, provided editing services, ran conferences, developed many great tools for LOE such as the School Quote Builder, and so much more! We wish her many blessings on the next season in her journey! Here is a final post that we hope you will enjoy.

On Being Good at Spelling.

Joining the Logic of English team, back in 2013, opened my eyes to some new perspectives I had never understood about spelling and what being “good at spelling” meant.

While it didn’t take long for me to comprehend the value of teaching phonics systematically, explaining the consistent patterns in how written English works, and answering students’ questions about words rather than saying “that’s an exception,” “English doesn’t make sense,” and “stop asking questions,” there was another change in my thinking about spelling that was slower in coming.

According to my parents I was taught phonics, but I was too young then to remember it now. It probably wasn’t complete, but whatever I was taught must have been enough for my intuitive brain to make sense of the rest, because I don’t remember struggling with either reading or spelling as a child. Clearly I wasn’t being taught to read sight words as wholes and to guess words from context, though, and I had the letter-sound connection down: Exhibit A, a “book” I wrote about our cat that began as follows: “How smart is a cat? Pritty smart, and pritty pashunt too.” I read a lot; I wrote quite a bit too; I read very good books, and more complex and beautifully written ones as I got older. I remember learning the weekly spelling list in fourth and fifth grade and taking the test each week; if I had formal spelling instruction any other year, I have no memory of it. Remembering how to spell words seemed pretty easy to me.

With a couple of degrees in English and one in Ancient Studies, it’s part of who I am to be sensitive to the minor nuances of language and how they contribute to the larger meaning of a piece. I feel each morpheme and bit of punctuation — “Well. That’s interesting” is palpably different to me than “Well, that’s interesting” — and even though I know what someone means (usually) when he or she accidentally substitutes there for their or coarse for course, it’s distracting to me as a reader because what the text says is not what the person means. I’m still tickled by an unintentionally non-restrictive clause I encountered in our school rulebook early in my teaching career: “Activities, which could be dangerous, are forbidden.” No activities, everyone. Activities can kill you. Beware.

Professionally, I used my interests and skills in this area as a high school English teacher and an editor before coming to Logic of English. I know, I know. Most of you are thinking that I am either insufferably picky and arrogant, or simply insane. But a few of you — and you are the ones with whom I most want to share how my thinking about spelling shifted over time — are thinking “well of course.” You are amused by these minor punctuation foibles as well, and confirmed in feeling slightly superior to all the linguistic klutzes whose writing you are so often obliged to suffer.

I’m not really sure what I thought all these years about why I could read, spell, and notice small errors better than many other people. I might have thought that it was the natural result of reading so much, the ongoing exposure to millions of correctly spelled words in meaningful context and hundreds of thousands of correctly punctuated sentences. I’m afraid, though, that on some level I just thought I was smarter than almost everyone else.

So what on earth does this have to do with Logic of English?

Besides helping people get past the basic “you want to teach young children 75 phonograms and 31 spelling rules instead of sight words, and you think they will actually be able to read everything if you do?” hurdle, another piece of our approach that’s hard for people to wrap their minds around at first is that we aren’t focused on teaching students to memorize spelling words. Logic of English curriculum isn’t a few years of an eight-year attempt to cram as many words into students’ heads by rote memory as possible, but a comprehensive course in how English spelling works. Once they’ve learned what Logic of English teaches, they will be able to read any word in their spoken vocabulary, decode and make educated guesses about words they’ve never heard, and make a reasonable, readable, phonetically accurate guess at how to spell anything.

But they might still spell some words wrong sometimes. When students have internalized all the phonograms and rules and learned how roots often clarify which spelling to use, they may still have a memory lapse in applying these tools now and then because they are focused on the big picture of what they are trying to say, or, more often, make an error because they simply guess wrong in one of the cases where there is more than one option permitted by the rules. Some students will make these mistakes often. And — here it is, the part that’s taken this editing nerd so much longer to wrap her mind around — that is really and truly okay.

The beginnings of a revelation came one day when we got a rather indignant email from a customer about typos and grammatical errors in the first edition of Essentials. She listed her most egregious findings, but the subtext of her complaint was clear: “How can you have the audacity to publish a Language Arts textbook, and claim to be teaching people about proper spelling, and expect to be taken seriously, when you’ve missed all these errors?” And her corrections were right; Essentials is large and the first edition was written and printed in a relatively short period of time, and despite several rounds of editing we still found errors that had slipped through for several years after it first went to press.

This story had a positive outcome — we struck up a friendly correspondence, and she actually sent us her marked-up copy in exchange for a new one so that we could incorporate all her corrections before the next printing — but what caught me was how much I could hear my own voice in her words, hear my own righteous indignation about incorrect use of the English language in her tone. In a different place and time, the voice of that email had been me, and could be me again.

Not long after that, I had a phone conversation with a former student who had recently graduated from college and was now teaching at a Montessori school. I’ve worked with a lot of students with various learning disabilities, and a number with dyslexia in particular, but Charlotte was, in her own words, “pretty far up there on the scale” of dyslexia. She is also very intelligent, curious, perceptive, empathetic, and highly verbal and auditory, and she is a tremendous actress. She just can’t spell.

Fortunately, Charlotte had attended an Orton-Gillingham-based school for dyslexic students prior to attending the high school where I taught. (At that time I had no idea what Orton-Gillingham was, by the way — I only knew she’d been to a school that successfully helped dyslexic kids). She was a confident and determined student; she could read successfully, though it took her a bit more mental exertion and time than it did some of her peers. When she handed in an essay, it was always clear she had used spell check diligently, but since she wouldn’t remember which phonetically similar word was the correct one to choose from the list, the wrong words were numerous, occasionally to comic effect. She had been given the tools she needed, though; she could read just fine and spell phonetically enough to communicate her many ideas to others. She wasn’t prevented from learning, growing, or using her creativity by dyslexia. She wasn’t stuck.

During a speech her senior year, she talked about her experiences, her struggles with learning and her progress through them, and her gradual acceptance and recognition of her unique blend of weaknesses and gifts. I vividly remember a sentence listing off a number of truths she’d realized about herself, including the beautiful pairing “I’m great at listening and I’m lousy at spelling!”

The question is, is this OK?

And the answer is yes.

When I caught up with Charlotte on the phone, she and I talked about all of this — school, OG, essays, proofreading, spell check, the whole bit. She recalled being frustrated as a nine-year-old that people kept telling her “just use Spell Check,” as if this were a complete solution, because she had already realized that spell checkers miss a lot and don’t necessarily know what you are trying to say. She also reflected on how, as a college student and now a working adult — and an adult working in education — she’s realized more and more how much good editing matters, no matter how important the content of your writing is, if you want to be taken seriously. Since Spell Check, despite its improvements, still trips us up, she may always need someone who isn’t dyslexic to edit any important pieces of writing and find the places where she’s unknowingly chosen the wrong word. However, she also told me that she feels like at the heart of every dyslexic person there’s some level of frustration about why spelling things exactly correctly is seen as so important if the content is meaningful and the meaning is clear.

I think of myself as really good at spelling, and according to the definition I was working with, I am. I do know a few people (including my mother) who are better. But what I gradually began to understand in working at Logic of English and talking with Logic of English customers is that the abilities one needs in order to be really good at spelling in that sense — to know immediately the right choice from multiple legitimate ones, to remember correctly every time which spelling of council/counsel, course/coarse, imminent/eminent/immanent, and prophecy/prophesy you need — requires a particular combination of abilities, like strong visual memory, that can’t actually be taught, and that, more importantly, doesn’t need to be.

One day during my first year at Logic of English a customer posted a picture on our Facebook wall of her 4 1/2-year-old son proudly holding up a word he’d sounded out and written himself: “gost.”

My first thought was “Why is she excited about this word that isn’t even spelled right?” Then — after a moment for what I was observing to sink in: “He’s already learning phonics! He gets it! He wanted to write a word and he sounded it out and spelled it well on his own!” His spelling broke no rules and used correct phonograms for each sound. It wasn’t spelled correctly, and at some point he’ll learn the right way, but it was spelled accurately. This child is successfully learning the skill of encoding (and consequently also strengthening his reading), developing skills that will serve him his whole life long. He’ll learn the rest of the phonograms and the spelling rules over time, and as he does he’ll have the tools to spell most words perfectly and to spell all words, even those with multiple spellings available for a particular sound, reasonably and comprehensibly. Who cares that he hasn’t yet learned to use the phonogram GH in ghost?

Teaching systematic phonics doesn’t guarantee students will never misspell a word; instead, it gives them a powerful, accurate toolbox so they can know what their choices are for each sound. They’ll practice, and keep track of words they have trouble remembering, and get better. They will always be able to express what they are thinking in writing, and most of the time they’ll be able to do so correctly. More importantly, they will gain the tools to be able to read anything they want to throughout life. These things, I would argue, and not the avoidance of all errors, are the goal of literacy education.

That isn’t because quality doesn’t matter. This isn’t because correct spelling doesn’t matter. This isn’t because we don’t want to hurt kids’ feelings and so must let them spell any word in any way. None of these things are true.

It is because to be able to spell every word right every time, even homophones and other words where a different spelling would be equally reasonable, it is extremely helpful to know the phonograms and rules that explain how English works, and to have developed such fluency that you use them automatically. However, that isn’t enough. You also need:

And not everyone has these things. And our goal as parents, friends, and educators is not to turn everyone into the sort of person who does. Honestly, we don’t want everyone to have these same gifts, because we need lots and lots of people who have others. I know I’m a proficient writer, but I’ve never written a book. I know I’ve been a very helpful editor, though, to people who had some brilliant things to say.

All students can learn about paying closer attention to details and taking the time to proofread. But whether or not this is their area of gifting is not how we should measure their intelligence, academic success, or worth. We need to equip them with all the tools they need to be able to read well and communicate effectively in writing, and then support them on their way as they use the gifts, interests, and abilities they have.