Aug 17, 2019


Summer is wrapping up for kids around the country. Some are already back to school; some cling to summer until Labor Day. Either way, a new school year provides plenty of unknowns  for every age. 
One thing is certain, though. Decades of teaching experience, working with preschool through middle grade learners, whiz-kids through special needs students, makes me confident in saying:
  • SPELLING (or letter knowledge) will be taught, tested, and reported. 
  • Kids will compare themselves to peers. 
  • Parents/caregivers will treat the spelling success or struggles of their charges as indicators of intelligence and effort. 
  • Some teachers will do the same.
  • All of the above can lead to false pride or unwarranted misery.
I share my attitude about spelling here, just as I shared it with families at orientations and conferences, and as I shared it with students. 

Spelling correctly is important, but it is NOT an indicator of general intelligence.
EASE or STRUGGLES with learning to spell words correctly is largely dependent on very specific areas of the brain, entirely separate from areas related to analytic or high level cognitive ability. We each come equipped with a brain that might naturally deal well with pattern recognition and sequential memory... or NOT. Either way, other areas of the brain operate in entirely different ways and with varying levels of aptitude. 
In other words, whether spelling comes easily to you or plagues you, it is not an indicator of your intelligence. 

For those with innate aptitude in this process, spelling study will require minimal effort. Success will come easily. For those with less adept pattern and sequence aptitude, spelling will require much more time and effort, often with frustrating results. Where each of us lands on that continuum of patterning predisposition can (and often does) generate mistaken self-concepts about our intelligence- or lack of it. Knowing the truth about spelling idiosyncrasies and incorrect conclusions that this reflects general intelligence can diminish stress and reduce comparisons and judgments.

This brain distinction applies regardless of the language involved, but is particularly true for those learning to SPELL in ENGLISH. Many other languages provide simpler and more consistent rules for spelling, pronunciation, and reading than English, especially American English.
A Paula Wiseman Book, S&S BYR, 2018
But don't take my word for any of this, ask BENJAMIN FRANKLIN and NOAH WEBSTER. Although they are both long dead, I advise all teachers and families to read and discuss the recent picture book, AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET: Ben Franklin and Noah Webster's Spelling Revolution, written by Beth Anderson and illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley. Back-to-school time is an ideal opportunity to launch this discussion and return to it throughout the year. 
As the subtitle says, these highly respected founding fathers recognized the challenges of spelling correctly, especially in English. What's more, they took an assertive and collaborative approach to try to make spelling and reading more user-friendly. 
They failed.
All languages develop over time and evolve-adapt to cultural influences across centuries. English, though, particularly EARLY AMERICAN ENGLISH, was awash in influences from many languages, regions, and dialects. Accents from around the world and across regions only compounded an already deviously difficult language. From many centuries earlier, English was an amalgam of vocabulary and syntax absorbed from global languages, thanks in large part to wars, crusades, and imperialism.Some words that became conventional English retained their original French or German or Asian or Slavic spelling influences, while others emerged as more similar to "standard" English, as if such a thing exists.

Ben Franklin and Noah Webster are revealed as energetic advocates for creating a more consistent alphabet, uniform spelling, and greater functionality for the language of this newly launched country. The text and illustrations are as lively and colorful as our language is, with humor and appeal for every age. The clever dog and cat who accompany them throughout the story humanize two figures from history books who, until HAMILTON's success, were relegated to dusty reference shelves. (Both Franklin and Webster display better looks, plenty of swagger, and more fun-loving personalities than their official portraits suggest!)

As with many dynamic projects and lofty goals, even when pursued by those with power and influence, success was elusive. As Noah Webster eventually realized, he could at least provide an intricate and confusing system an accurate operating manual. So, he created the dictionary. 

Kids (and their caregivers) will enjoy this book as pure entertainment and also as a sympathetic glimpse into the challenges of English spelling. Everyone should be made aware that it's important to know our own patterns and study needs, and to invest time and effort accordingly. Spelling correctly truly does matter.  When in doubt, LOOK IT UP! You'll make Noah Webster smile!

On a side note, the start of the school year is a great time to share the short but powerful read-aloud FRINDLE, by Andrew Clements. It explores ways that words are added to the dictionary, but offers a wonderful example of classroom and teacher bonding. 

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