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!

Why Study Orthography?

I have been reflecting on my previous post and the great comments I received on that post from people I admire and respect.  In an email to these same friends, I described my students and me as on “a road less traveled”.  It seemed fitting to borrow a line from Robert Frost’s poem, since it was a poem whose idea surfaced and resurfaced in our room all year.  Picture it like I do.  In the line  “two roads diverged in a yellow wood”, the wood symbolizes public schools. One of the roads represents traditional spelling instruction and the other orthography.  I’ve been on “the road less traveled” for a year and a half now.  And choosing this road really and truly has made all the difference.

When watching the videos from this year and last, it has been soul-satisfying to hear how studying orthography has made my students feel.   As Dan Allen says (in the comments of the previous post), it IS about language and spelling, and yet it is about so much more.  My students loved getting so involved in the search.  The more they learned about searching and what they were seeing, the more fun it was to set forth.

By the end of the year, students eagerly began investigations on their own and planned out presentation posters in all sizes.  Finding unfamiliar words in their personal reading was no longer a thing to be ignored.  Those were the words that they wrote word sum hypotheses about.  Those were the words they chose to investigate.  Those were the words that brought images and life to the story because they now carried meaning.

Questioning each other became an everyday activity, and no one was threatened by it.  It was freeing for all of us to realize that we weren’t searching for that one right answer, but rather an answer built on our research, our knowledge of the rules of English, and our logical thinking.  As we learned bits about Greek and Latin, they too were incorporated with glee!  Every bit of new information was welcomed because it helped us make sense of a subject that never made sense before.  No matter how hard we all worked at it, traditional spelling instruction only ever taught us to memorize one word at a time, 20 words a week, 360 words a school year.  But success was only for the few who could memorize well.  And let’s face it.  That is not the majority of students.

Does this mean students in my class never misspell words?  Of course not.  It means, though, that they can have a conversation about whether or not the consonant before the suffix should or should not be doubled.  They can have a conversation about what the prefix is and how it modifies the meaning of the base.  They can make a hypothesis about what the word sum might be, and they can defend that hypothesis.  They can have a conversation about pulling off suffixes and whether or not the base has a final ‘e’.  They spell out bases, prefixes, and suffixes because they know that none of these has a pronunciation until it surfaces in a word.  They can use resources (online and hard copy) independently to back up their investigation findings.  They can question their classmates with an air of genuine curiosity, earnestly seeking to make sense of new information and incorporate it into current understandings.

Since we’ve dropped traditional spelling instruction and become orthographers, we expect spelling to make sense.  This basic premise intrigues us.  We are ecstatic that we can silence the voices of our pasts that say, “sound it out”,  “just memorize it”, or  “nobody knows why”.  We feel like we are cracking unsolved cases wide open!  We feel joy and satisfaction and pride in what we know!