The Role of Spelling
Hard-working, durable, and orderly, Spelling holds a respected role in education. Early in the first century, Quintilian wrote:
As regards syllables, no short cut is possible: they must all be learned, and there is no good in putting off learning the most difficult; this is the general practice, but the sole result is bad spelling.
We must beware of placing a blind confidence in a child’s memory. It is better to repeat syllables and impress them on the memory and, when he is reading, not to press him to read continuously or with greater speed, unless indeed the clear and obvious sequence of letters can suggest itself without its being necessary for the child to stop and think.¹
Spelling teaches the sequences of letters that students can recognize, remember, and reproduce. Spelling enhances Reading, just as Reading enhances Spelling.
Spelling is Orderly
Distracted, self-absorbed, and unbridled, children need order imposed gently upon their minds. If we deny, forget, or romanticize the innately disheveled nature of children, we omit not only the disciplined methods needed to bring order to learning, such as recitations, practice, and predictable lessons, but we also omit disciplined subjects that are needed to bring order to young students’ minds, namely arithmetic, Latin, and spelling.
Consider Spelling’s threefold embodiment of good order:
Phonology: the order and study of speech sounds in phonemes. Linguistic sounds (phonemes) must make sense in the child’s mind. If they do not, spelling errors will reveal this weakness. Examples: “bet” for “bit,” “sike” for “silk.” He may not hear the sounds in the words. We instruct through meticulously explicit phoneme lessons with detailed dictations to emphasize individual sounds and the letters that represent them.
Orthography: the order of written patterns within words. Phonology alone is not enough. If we fail to teach the visual letters and teams of letters (graphemes) that represent sounds (phonemes), the student’s understanding of visual orthography will be weak, and the student may exhibit an over-reliance on aural phonetic cues. Examples: “coyn” for “coin,” “grean” for “green.” He may not see the proper graphemes. We instruct through careful visual lessons in vowel and consonant teams, and irregular forms, and we correct spelling errors so students can see accurate depictions of words.
Morphology: the order and study of units of meaning within words. Spelling teaches roots, prefixes, suffixes, homonyms, and other forms of words with meaning (morphemes). If we fail to teach morphology, the student must memorize all word forms, lest he continually spell all -tion words as “shun.” Latin vocabulary markedly and expertly streamlines the teaching of morphology. Porto (I carry) creates a semantic link to “portable,” “portal,” “portability.” Ex (out of, away from) leads the student to decode and write “export” with confidence. Spelling does the same.
Especially when teaching students prone to spelling difficulties, spelling lessons will be “enhanced when instruction is provided in all three systems.”² Far more than assigning and testing a weekly word list, as many assume, spelling leads to more orderly, observant, meaningful thinking through attention to visible and auditory detail. “Spelling teaches students how to think about spelling, not just how to spell individual words.”³ Spelling helps students “make sense of the writing system of their language.”⁴
What About Spell Checkers?
Pragmatists, ready to abrogate arithmetic to the calculator, will be tempted to abandon spelling in favor of electronic spell checkers. Admittedly, such tools can be useful for an older student to proofread his work; however, students with dyslexia warn us not to think that reactive spell checkers could ever replace the more dutifully attentive, proactive handmaiden Spelling. Consider this:
[A student] must first be able to produce a spelling close enough to be recognized by the computer program. In addition, when asked to select the correct spelling, an individual with dyslexia often has trouble distinguishing among words that are very similar in appearance (e.g., “though,” “thought,” “through,” “thorough”).₅
Spelling will improve a student’s reading, writing, and thinking in layered and lasting ways. Electronic spell checkers, no matter how sophisticated, lack such transformative powers.
Mastering phonology, orthography, and morphology will not come naturally to most students. Rather, we must faithfully allot the time to teach. We teach Reading; so we must teach her underappreciated but influential sister Spelling. Reading and Spelling yield linguistic prowess.
Let the educative and aesthetic value of a well-read story, a beautifully-crafted sentence, and a perfectly-spelled word spur us on to give Spelling the respect she has earned. As we order sounds, letters, and meanings in our children’s spelling exercises, so these lessons will order the very thoughts in their minds. Over time both Reading and Spelling grow in complexity. Students trained beneath the tutelage of both sisters will grow in confidence and competence, as their own written musings become more pleasing to themselves and to others.
¹ Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, Book 1., quoted in The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being, 112.
² Mather, Nancy and Wendling, Barbara J. Essentials of Dyslexia Assessment and Intervention, (New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2012), 166.
³ Mather and Wendling, 167.
⁴ Mather and Wendling, 167.
₅ Mather and Wendling, 167.