Transterrestrial Musings  

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay

Alan Boyle (MSNBC)
Space Politics (Jeff Foust)
Space Transport News (Clark Lindsey)
NASA Watch
NASA Space Flight
Hobby Space
A Voyage To Arcturus (Jay Manifold)
Dispatches From The Final Frontier (Michael Belfiore)
Personal Spaceflight (Jeff Foust)
Mars Blog
The Flame Trench (Florida Today)
Space Cynic
Rocket Forge (Michael Mealing)
COTS Watch (Michael Mealing)
Curmudgeon's Corner (Mark Whittington)
Selenian Boondocks
Tales of the Heliosphere
Out Of The Cradle
Space For Commerce (Brian Dunbar)
True Anomaly
Kevin Parkin
The Speculist (Phil Bowermaster)
Spacecraft (Chris Hall)
Space Pragmatism (Dan Schrimpsher)
Eternal Golden Braid (Fred Kiesche)
Carried Away (Dan Schmelzer)
Laughing Wolf (C. Blake Powers)
Chair Force Engineer (Air Force Procurement)
Saturn Follies
JesusPhreaks (Scott Bell)
The Ombudsgod
Cut On The Bias (Susanna Cornett)
Joanne Jacobs

Site designed by

Powered by
Movable Type
Biting Commentary about Infinity, and Beyond!

« What's The Attraction? | Main | Limited Posting Continues »

Dising Speling

Joanne Jacobs discusses a recent article in the Chron about how some teachers have given up on teaching kids spelling and grammar, which set off an interesting and (I think) unnecessarily divisive discussion about what makes a good speller. Joanne claims that reading and a love of reading from an early age is important for later spelling skills.

While I think she's largely right, this issue seems almost like the nature versus nurture debate for sexual orientation. Yes, there probably isn't a hundred percent correlation, but the correlation could be high, and a few people chiming in with anecdotes about themselves doesn't provide any insight.

There are no doubt people (perhaps dyslexics or others) who are really constitutionally unable to spell well, who are nonetheless intelligent and enjoy reading and writing. But I also think that the notion that reading from an early age imprints the way the words look is valid for many people, particularly for those who are (like me) extremely verbal (i.e., I tend to think in words rather than images or concepts). When I spell, I actually visualize the word in my mind, and when I see a misspelling on a page, it jumps out at me almost as though it's a different color.

Some people in her comments section point out that it's becoming an unnecessary skill with the advent of spell checkers. In my humble opinion a spell checker for poor spellers is a worse crutch than a calculator for those who can't do simple arithmatic, because at least the calculator never gets it wrong. But a spell checquer will only tell you if a word is spelled correctly--not if it's the right word.

Reading, riting and rithmatic are just as important, if not more important now than they've ever been, and it's a travesty that these things are not being properly taught in our public schools, and that many of the public school employees don't seem to think that they should be. The words of the commission on public education from over two decades ago remain just as true, or even more so, today. If a foreign power had imposed on our nation the public school system that we've devised for ourselves, we would rightly consider it an act of war.

Posted by Rand Simberg at November 23, 2003 08:57 AM
TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference this post from Transterrestrial Musings.

Sadly, spelling in English is something that can only be handled more or less by rote. It's too arbitrary to learn rules for it, and its too semantically dependent for computer programs to be reliable: a program that can always get the right choice among "to, two, too", "whole, hole" and other homophones will have to be damn near Turing-capable.

Even more unfortunately, until English speakers can make their thoughts clear in properly spelled and grammatically correct English, they can't be said to be thinking clearly either.

Posted by Charlie at November 23, 2003 10:30 AM

At the parent orientation for my seventh grader, the teacher told us, "We don't concentrate on spelling because by now they have their patterns and you're not going to change them."

When pressed, she simply said that you can't teach someone good spelling after they were bad spellers.

Sounds to me that they just don't want another reason to mark pages wrong, I think it's another way schools don't want to damage "self-esteem."


Posted by Bob at November 23, 2003 05:43 PM

I think the big problem is that the seventh-grade teachers would have to learn to spell themselves.

As far as learning to spell well, it's easy: write the word correctly several times in a row. It's what my first grade teacher taught, and it still works for me now.

Sadly, I think a lot of this generation of teachers are the second generation who feel spelling isn't important, so no one even taught them what to do.

Posted by Charlie at November 23, 2003 07:09 PM

It's amazing how many people who say good spelling isn't necessary because we have spell checkers don't ever use them!

Posted by Rick C at November 23, 2003 07:57 PM

It's called phonics, vocabulary lists, and reading to your kid from an early age (and reading yourself also) so that the kid wants books of his own when he is old enough. That's how I recall I learned to spell. I rarely use spellchecker; I used to use it to look for instances of "hte" and so on.

I also have the feeling that shoving kids into reading too early is a problem, but I can't put my finger on why. It just seems to me that the spelling flash cards and so on when the kid is still just two years old are counterproductive in a way. Another problem is that old (by now) bugbear, television. When I was little it was mostly for grownups; what children's programming there was was very limited (and most of it sucked; I didn't much like Captain Kangaroo, though I watched the show anyway). Now there is all this attractive stuff, channels just for kids... I am sure that the box isn't entirely evil, and there are a lot of good educational programs, but too much of a good thing... Then again, I was always hearing "Get your nose out of that book!" because I found reading a convenient way to put off doing chores and going to bed and other dreary tasks.

Posted by Andrea Harris at November 24, 2003 04:02 AM

I think that over time, much of the public school system has devolved into a poorly run babysitting service. For example, I'm taking a class on teaching mathematics (required for teaching assistants in the mathematics department at my university, University of California at Davis). The professor noted that the quality of students dropped dramatically over their twenty years of teaching. In the early days, the big problem was that some students didn't properly understand differentiation or the like when they started a calculus course. Now a large percentage can't do basic algebra.

And the trend seems to be getting worse. To be fair, more students are going to school now than then, but UC Davis for the most part accepts people who are in the top eighth or so out of their high school. Now California is probably on the forefront of what is destroying the public school systems in the US, but it's not unique.

If one looks at the US today, our labor costs are higher than in a place like India. One of the advantages supposedly is that the US has a higher educated worker force. However, I can't see this continuing with the public school system we currently have. Either we'll have to improve K-12 education (perhaps through vouchers and the like), incoming workers will have to spend an extra year or two (at least) learning what they should have learned in K-12, or we'll have to import eduucated workers from elsewhere. The last choice seems to be the default "solution". Perhaps, some of the powers-that-be prefer a stupid population?

Posted by Karl Hallowell at November 24, 2003 06:53 AM

There are numerous ways to approach this subject. First and foremost you need to understand how effective different studies have been on reading effectiveness and what the best practices are. I'm going to talk about reading first, then spelling - since they are intertwined and inseperable.

Taken individually different predictors of reading success are not terribly effective. The very best studies available are generally unable to get a predictor of reading success to reach past a 20% rate of prediction (r = .42), and the majority of studies rarely exceed a 15% rate of prediction (r = .3 or so). By predictors I mean things like awareness of the phonemic or alphabetic principles, exposure to reading, vocabulary knowledge and other similar factors (all predictors are usually measured when a child is entering 1st grade - around 6 years of age). You might think that taken collectively a much higher correlation would result - but that is not really true. A recent study used "reading readiness" as a measure (combining several different predictors into one) came up with only a 32% rate of prediction (r = .57). So, we can only explain about 30% of the variation in reading success based on the best models we can devise.

Not a great deal of confidence there.

Now you come to the problem of whole language vs. phonetic reading approach. Which is more effective? The simple answer is: both used in conjunction to augment the other. But don't tell that to anyone who is an avid phonics or whole language advocate.

So, what does this all have to do with spelling? Not much and lots. Other comments have pointed to the fact that spelling in English is really a matter of memorization - exposure to the language (this is primarily because English is a polyglot language and takes rules of spelling from many different languages, and sometimes makes up its own rules). Reading is much the same, the more you read, the more you will have success reading (generally speaking). Which approach is better to teach spelling? Learning by simply recognizing a word (whole language) or throgh rules based on the phonemic principles of language (phonics)? Which leads to more long term success? Do the same rules apply to ALL children?

The whole discussion gets rather complicated rather quickly.

The same predictors apply to spelling as reading. Frequency and breadth of exposure is no guarantee of success in reading or spelling. Education is not an accurate predictor either. Some people are simply better at it than others - as with most everything else in life. The skill of spelling words consistently accurately is not an indication of intelligence or of a lack of language skill. It simply means you're not good at spelling.

Kind of a disappointing answer - but there it is.

All this does not mean that we shouldn't teach spelling or that spelling isn't important. It is - but not for the absolute reasons everyone assumes. Learning to spell gives more exposure to language, which can be a good way of increasing the ability to read. Learning to spell words will not make you smarter - and will not make you a better reader. It has the potential to help make you a better reader, that is all.

Not surprisingly, probably the best predictor of reading success taken individually is the motivation for reading. High motivation and interest is a very good predictor of reading success. I cannot name any studies, but I imagine that spelling is the same. Motivation for spelling correctly is likely a good predictor for spelling success - and that alone makes the story of teachers unwilling to approch it that much more disturbing. It is one more path to reading success - and we should be using every tool available for that goal.

As for spell checkers - I don't have a problem with them. If you read the material around what you are correcting you seldom, if ever, make a mistake in syntax in applying an incorrect word (homophone). They can be a tremendous tool if used correctly. Blindly correcting all the words in a document with the words chosen by the checker is clearly a mistake.

Posted by Jared at November 24, 2003 07:21 AM

arithmetic, rather than arithmatic (guess the color wasn't different there):)

Posted by john at November 24, 2003 07:28 AM

Deliberately leaving off the first letter of the word forces off the color flags...

Posted by Rand Simberg at November 24, 2003 08:35 AM

ah yes, that would make sense. (and in the paragraph above?...)

Posted by john at November 24, 2003 08:59 AM

I guess that one's just the exception that makes the rule. I'm a very good speller, but not a perfect one...

Posted by Rand Simberg at November 24, 2003 09:15 AM

"Me fail english?!? That's unpossible!"

Posted by Ralph Wiggum at November 24, 2003 09:26 AM

Tehre's smee itnresntg new envdcne taht the hmuan bairn is werid so that as lnog as the frist and lsat lttres of a wrod are rgiht you can raed at flul seped no mteatr how smcblred the rset of the wrod is. So one cluod say that the hamun biran is just not wreid for creroct sllpnieg (Rand's cloorzied words nithwotndatinsg.)

Posted by Ron Garret at November 24, 2003 10:03 AM

Postscript: notwithstanding the above, I do believe that spelling and gramamar ought to be taught in school, and that the abdication of this responsibility by the schools is a travesty. Every time I hear someone say, "... with he and I" I want to scream.

Posted by Ron Garret at November 24, 2003 10:06 AM

Felt a need to put out some gasoline, didja?

I've been reading since 3 1/2 yrs. I consume books like snack food (or at least like some consume snack food).

And I couldn't spell all through school. I could tell when a word was misspelled at a glance, and have always had an intuitive grasp of syntax. However, while I can correct the syntax, I didn't usually used to be able to correct the spelling.

For myself, modern spell checkers serve as training tools. Once I misspell a word enough times, the correct spelling gets imprinted on my brain. I have wondered about creating a spelling tool that doesn't provide suggestions -- forcing the speller to actually look up the term and thus better imprinting the correct spelling into the brain.

But one size doesn't fit all. For spelling or origin of sexual orientation.

Posted by Kenton A. Hoover at November 24, 2003 09:53 PM


I have a spelling checker -
It came with my PC
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea

Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your sure reel glad two no.
Its vary polished in it's weigh -
My checker tolled me sew.

A checker is a bless sing.
It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
It helps me awl stiles two reed,
And aides me when aye rime.

To rite with care is quite a feet
Of witch won should be proud.
And wee mussed dew the best wee can,
Sew flaws are knot aloud.

And now bee cause my spelling
Is checked with such grate flare,
Their are know faults with in my cite;
Of non eye am a wear.

Each frays come posed up on my screen
Eye trussed to be a joule.
The checker poured o'er every word
To cheque sum spelling rule.

That's why aye brake in two averse
By righting wants too pleas.
Sow now ewe sea why aye dew prays
Such soft wear for pea seas!

Author Unknown

Posted by Chris Hall at November 25, 2003 05:35 AM

Thanks, Chris. I didn't have that poem handy here and knew it belonged in the discussion.

I've always been hyperlexic. I don't remember not knowing how to read. Even now, at age 52, I read at a 56 year old reading level.

Many times I don't know the correct spelling, but will see something jarring about a misspelled word. Sometimes when I look it up (or now type it and spellcheck it) it still looks funny, but I am rarely surprised by the spell checker finding an error in something I thought was right.

Posted by triticale at November 25, 2003 07:42 AM

Chris, hat poem was hilarious!,
howver While reading it I couldn't help but be riminded how similar to middle english it looks.

Posted by William at November 25, 2003 02:47 PM

Let's see if the research on scrambled words pertains to painters of pantries.

Posted by Joseph Hertzlinger at November 28, 2003 11:46 AM

Re: Jared, Nov. 24:

"Learning to spell gives more exposure to language, which can be a good way of increasing the ability to read."

I think this is backward. I would say "Exposure to language (reading) instills a better ability to spell correctly." i.e., the more you read, the more often you see how any given word is spelled correctly (well, geeze, that *used* to be the case!).

Otherwise, I agree with Jared's comment, so the above is nit-picking.

Also, I agree that memorization is key, and teachers requiring students to repeatedly write spelling words -- works!

I also second the notion that this would require teachers to either 1) learn to spell or 2) care enough to check their own work.

My oldest child is 8, and I can't even begin to tell you how many spelling and grammatical errors are sent home by teachers and the principal. And our school is considered "excellent." I shudder to think of the "educational morass" students in a "poor" school district are subjected to.

It not only goes to "knowing the subject" and "teaching" -- but the level of "standards" set by educators. If sloppy work is acceptable, don't expect anything else.

And, finally, I agree -- phonics/phonetics AND whole language methodologies should be taught equally. Being dyslexic and having a hearing impairment, phonetics was beyond me (past the point of long and short vowels -- double oo's with a line overhead? umlats? Could never hear the difference. But I COULD memorize how words were spelled. I still benefited from phonetics, because mere memorization doesn't help you when you are initially faced with a word you haven't seen before. You do have to sound it out (and run to the dictionary). To this day, my spoken vocabulary is about one-third of my written vocabulary.

Posted by cj at November 28, 2003 08:31 PM

Two anecdotes:

Way back in 1987 in a theory of computation course, my professor noted that the math department's memos tend to be more grammatical than the English department's memos. In mathematics, a certain precision of language is required that is not required in normal conversations.

I never understood English grammar until I started to study Spanish. The Spanish teacher had to explain direct and indirect objects in a simple way, since we only had the present tense and precious few verbs to work with. Also by seeing how different the other language is from English, the English gets reinforced.

Posted by Warren Eckels at November 30, 2003 02:54 PM

im a desinner i laik a conect be yor web

Posted by at June 15, 2004 11:45 AM

Post a comment

Email Address: