Righting the Wrongs in Spelling

The headline, “Retractions:  Righting the wrongs of science”, caught my eye the other day.  But it was the byline, “False findings must be acknowledged and ‘corrected’ to keep science credible”, that made me stop and want to read more.  I was looking at a digital publication of Science News for Students that I receive once a week.  The article was written by Stephen Ornes.  The article focused on scientific research findings that had been published, but then needed to be retracted because they were found to be false.  I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the science of spelling.

How many of us as young students were convinced through our own personal frustrations that spelling doesn’t make sense?  Letters seemed to be dropped, doubled or added without rhyme or reason.  Teachers labeled frequently misspelled words as oddball, tricky or difficult and posted them on a wall.  Many teachers still do.  When did we lose the desire to truly understand why words are spelled the way they are?  When did we give up hope that we ever could?  When did we stop questioning gimmicky things told to us that weren’t logical?

For a few generations now, the idea that spelling is all about the sounds that words make has persisted.  But where is the research to back that up?  Any of us could make a huge collection of words that would disprove that idea.  The list would no doubt include words like does, come, goes, really, science, accent, piano, group, again and cell.  And yet we have become complacent and have accepted that illogical idea.  What if it’s time to teach our students to conduct research regarding words instead of asking them to memorize a word’s spelling.  What if it’s time to say, “What I mean when I say that a word has a tricky spelling is that I don’t personally understand that spelling.”  There should be no shame in that.  There should only be a challenge.  But have we been prepared for such a challenge?

Another persistent notion that I would like to question is the idea that spelling plays a minor role in reading and a major role in writing.  Obviously many people can read words that they wouldn’t necessarily be able to spell in isolation, but delving into the a word’s history and meaning over time brings such a huge sense of that word to light.  And when we identify a word with images and feelings we bring a richness to the context of the thing we are reading.  If students had a solid understanding of word structure and a journal type record of previously proven affixes and bases, they would be able to make sense of some of the morphemes and use that knowledge in conjunction with the context in which the word is used to figure out its meaning.

In his article, Ornes says, “Acknowledging mistakes helps science move forward,” and “They (retractions) remove false findings that pollute the pool of scientific knowledge.”  The more I find out about words – their etymology, morphology, and phonology, the more I am convinced that it is time to make a major retraction!  False claims about spelling are wide spread and deeply embedded in the instruction students receive and even the newest materials they work with.

But can spelling be treated as a science?  Why not?  Why not propose the spelling of a word in much the same way a scientist would propose a hypothesis.  At first it is an educated guess based on what the speller understands about morphemes and the meaning of the word.  The speller then looks at related words and digs into the history of the word.  The speller finds out all he can about the word in order to better formulate remaining questions.  Finally, the speller shares his findings which are based on his research.  He gives his initial hypothesis a second look and decides whether or not to make changes.

I believe that false claims in spelling have indeed polluted the pool of spelling knowledge.  For example, students that come into my fifth grade classroom have a very shallow idea of what affixes are.  When asked to find words with an <-ing> suffix, they list bring and ring.  When asked for a word with an <-ly> suffix, the words golly and dolly come up.  When asked for the suffix in the word <action>, they struggle between choosing <-tion> and <-ion>.  They struggle because they have had such an overabundance of instruction on breaking words into syllables and such an underabundance of instruction on dividing words into morphemes.  With words like luckier, happier, and jumpier, the same students identify the suffix as <-ier>, clearly not understanding that a word can have more than one suffix.  Clearly not understanding a word’s structure.

Why spend valuable time on the old “I before E” rule when we all know there are a ton of exceptions.  Or “the first vowel does the talking, the second one does the walking”  rule when, if you really picture that, you’ll find it can be very confusing.  Why such a primary focus on pronunciation when it has never been the logical reason for a specific spelling?  Why have we given children lists of words and asked them to memorize the spellings while giving little attention to the word’s meaning?

Recently I contacted a company that creates word workbooks for schools.  I told them that I was concerned about some of the activities required of the students.  I sent them a link to a video that my students made which provides evidence that <-tion> and <-sion> are not suffixes, but rather syllables.  They were very polite, but also very uninterested.  They said they were following the Common Core, and until the Common Core changed, they would not change.  It was then I realized it will be hard to retract false spelling ideas when some very popular and respected publishers don’t recognize the falseness.  As an educator, I hear often that the companies putting out the basal reading programs are research based.  But I have to wonder.  If my fifth graders can disprove some of what the publisher has included in the workbooks, what exactly has been researched?  It simply can’t be the word work/spelling content.  Certainly spelling is not the “main event” in a reading basal, but if that spelling component has not been researched, I wonder what has?  Perhaps the research concerns the overall success of the program and not the specific truth of the components.

So do we really need to retract the spelling ideas that have been clung to for so long?  Absolutely!  We cannot wait for the textbook and workbook publishers to lead the way.  Fanelli, a scientist mentioned in the article that stirred this reaction in me, states, “They (retractions) allow the truth to emerge”.  It is time.  In practically every other subject, a student can expect to be asked to explain how they know what they know or why they think what they think.  It’s time to add spelling to that list.  Let’s demonstrate to students our desire to be researchers, not answer seekers.  Let’s show them we are not afraid to say I don’t know.  Let’s train ourselves and our students to follow the principles of science as we seek to understand spelling.  All of the falseness will fall away on its own, and the truth will indeed emerge!

9 thoughts on “Righting the Wrongs in Spelling

  1. And another round of applause from my corner of Canada! I have always said that a big part of why I consider this “spelling” work so important has nothing to do with “spelling” at all. Rather, it is about learning how to learn, how to be critical thinkers, how to question authority and speak up when we see something we don’t think is right. All this from “spelling”? You betcha!

    I will save myself any attempt to duplicate this brilliance by simply linking to your essay from my own blog. This is exactly the message I hope to convey to my own students and their families. We too have leapt into this work, and are feeling freed from the shackles of Spelling’s associations by following your lead, Mary Beth, Ann, and others, by simply eschewing the word altogether and declaring ourselves “orthographers”. I feel like we should have a class set of labcoats whenever we are at it!

    Merci, merci beaucoup!!

  2. Thank your for this deeply needed clarion call rational instruction about spelling as it really is. Your passion and eloquence is wonderful — but that only matters because your argument is so air tight.

    The argument from the publishers is clearly self-serving, corruption. They have an obligation to say what the common core says over what is demonstrable with scientific evidence? Show two words in which a “-TION” suffix added to a base or stem with a coherent word sum, and then they have evidence.

    But of course they are not interested in the understanding of students or teachers, they are interested in their bottom line.

    Can anyone suggest a better means to understand a domain than scientific inquiry? If not, we should accept its principles and REJECT hypotheses that are not supported by the evidence.

    My Oxford presents “RELATION” and “COMPLETION” as words that use a “-TION” suffix. But analysis shows this to be a false assertion that needs to be rejected:

    *rela + tion –> relation (There is no “rela”)
    *comple + tion –> completion (There is no “comple”)

    Rejecting a hypothesis does at least two things.
    1) It helps us stop believing something that demonstrably false.
    2) It helps us seek an analysis that stands up.

    How about this?

    relate/ + ion –> relation
    complete/ + ion –> completion

    Can any one with a straight face say that we should teach Oxford’s analysis because Oxford says it?

    Hat’s off the the argument by the scientist about the importance of recanting published scientific findings that have later been shown to be false.

    Perhaps you’ll have more luck in terms of response by having your students help you compose a letter to that author to show him that you and your students have evidence highlighting the importance of his article in a particularly important domain — literacy instruction. Making the argument to a scientist interested in better understanding the world is likely to provoke a much richer response than making an argument to a company that has a vested interest in hiding their misunderstanding despite the fact that it poisons the well of understanding of children and teachers.

  3. This is a fantastic essay, Mary Beth. I think it would be great if it could reach a wider audience. How about submitting it for publication to American Educator. Or other suggestions, anyone? Not only would you make people think, but linking to your blog would provide evidence of true science-based teaching in action. Thank you for articulating this so beautifully.

  4. Mary Beth! Once again you have nailed it! (In my head I hear cheers and applause; I see a standing ovation for the winning points you just made.) Bravo! Bravo!

  5. Yes! Yes!
    And how many times have I heard teachers say, “That’s the way it is in our workbooks, so that’s the way I am teaching it.”

    PS( Did you mean to say “underabundance” of instruction in morphemes?)

  6. Hear !Hear! I echo your clarion call Mary Beth to right the wrongs in spelling instruction! There is so much misinformation in various books masquerading as spelling texts, so much misinformation in these texts that masquerade as fact , so much misinformation about how students learn or should learn spelling. It is such a disservice to both students and teachers.

    Spelling as you state so eloquently is a science and students need to question and hypothesize about words in order to read and write well. Spelling is thinking. It is not a matter of lists, it is not a matter of looking and writing and covering – it is matter of identifying morphemes from the earliest years and proving this with other words. It is a matter of us as teachers asking questions of the so called educational research about spelling, to question and draw attention to the blatant errors and misappropriation of linguistic terminology in the Common Core if we are to teach with rigour – a common exhortation from the purveyors of this document. It is, in this time of so called data based teaching, a time to examine the data ( the evidence we have in the very words themselves) and to get it right! It’s time to ‘right the wrongs’ in texts or to refuse to use texts that are riddled with error , schemes that talk about words as tricky, odd balls or ‘demons’. English spelling is ordered, structured and consistent -it’s aim to represent meaning. It’s time to use scientific inquiry into words when we talk about spelling, time to blow away the myths that English spelling is riddled with exceptions or dominated by sound. It’s time to examine our practice,to refuse to accept misinformation. It’s time to think scientifically . Thankyou Mary Beth for the wake-up call!

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