Misspellings a Danger Sign

dead canary in cage

Back before the development of electronic sensor devices, coal miners took canaries down into the mines with them. The birds, especially sensitive to poisonous gases like methane and carbon monoxide, served as an early warning system. If the bird keeled over, the miners knew that the air was bad and they’d better evacuate ASAP

Misspelled common words in your eighth-grader’s work may be canaries worth a health-check.

What are “hard words”?

Perhaps you’ve noticed internet spelling quizzes that invite clicks with such bait as only 1% of Americans can spell these words!

I’ve responded to a few of these quizzes, expecting to find really challenging words, like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, only to find such words as separatedefinite, and calendar!

If 99% of Americans really do have difficulty spelling everyday words like definite, then surely the fact points to a level of toxicity in US schools. Widespread misspelling on Facebook, on blogs, and in self-published books signal a situation that should be addressed.

English spelling is challenging, but not as bad as people pretend

English spelling may take longer to learn than that of some other languages, but children who are taught the sound/symbol relationships in a systematic way will be able to master the standard spellings and exceptions long before they’ve completed high school. But only if they are taught.

Way back in the 1950s, Rudolf Flesch caused an educational uproar with his book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, and what you can do about it. 

1955 Review of Why Johnny Can’t Read

In it, Flesch excoriated the “look-say” method of beginning reading instruction that had taken over the teachers’ colleges, a method that pushed systematic phonics to the side and encouraged children to guess at the identity of a word without knowing the significance of every letter in it.

Fortunately for coming generations of beginning readers, the education establishment has acknowledged that systematic phonics instruction is the most effective method for most beginning readers.

Phonics making a come-back

Now called “the science of reading,” phonics has been resurrected in the teacher colleges. However, many of the elementary teachers currently teaching have been trained in the “whole word” method and may be slow to adjust. For that reason, parents are advised to become acquainted with the basics of beginning reading instruction.

Phonics vs Sight

Something else to be aware of is the notion that people don’t need to learn to spell anymore because their phones and other devices can correct their spelling for them.

Don’t you believe it.

Two excuses often offered to justify overlooking spelling errors are:

Misspelled words are a sign of dyslexia, so there’s no point in insisting on correct spelling.

Dyslexia is a condition with a battery of symptoms. It is a neurological condition that causes difficulties in processing language. Difficulty in spelling can be a symptom of dyslexia, but it probably won’t be the only one. If your child has been diagnosed as dyslexic, you will want to check out resources like the BDA. Otherwise, assume that a hearing child can learn the English sound code.

English spelling is so inconsistent that no one can learn it.

English spelling is more challenging than that of other modern languages, but it’s not rocket science. It is easier to learn than algebra and provides some of the same advantages. Learning to construct words phonetically and to recognize exceptions trains the mind to observe details and draw conclusions, skills that enable critical thinking.

Don’t settle for the label “bad speller”

I can’t count the times I’ve heard adults say, “I’m a bad speller,” as if were a genetic feature, like blue eyes or red hair.

The fact that misspelling is so prevalent among English speakers who have completed eight years or more of school is a danger sign—the equivalent of the canary in the coal mine.

Something is not right when the same adults who are able to perform basic math functions and recall song lyrics and sports statistics are unable to spell the words they use in day-to-day writing.

Although the English vocabulary is vast, and most native speakers have a range of 20,000 to 35,000 words, most English texts (outside of heavily academic writing) will be made up of the same 3,000 words or so.

Of those, most will follow phonetic spelling conventions. As for the oddball words like eye and rough, they occur so frequently that the youngest reader quickly learns to recognize them by sight.

Indeed, all words become “sight words” after we see them often enough in our reading.

Begin early

Parents can set their pre-schoolers on the path to reading success by sending them to school already knowing how to write and read predictable words like hat, sun, big, ten, and mop. The important thing is to let the child know that reading is based on a sound code, that letters represent sounds, and that, with enough practice, they can learn to read anything.

7 Steps to Good Spelling, by Maeve Maddox

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