When I was a child, I learned phonics. This would have been great if I grew up speaking Spanish. But seeing as how we live in a place that speaks English (a bastardized version of it), phonics have failed me miserably. Joel once pointed this out to me when he was upset that bomb, tomb and comb all have the same ending but sound completely different from one another.

I also grew up reading often. I read chapter books at a young age. I had high fluency and vocabulary scores. I was the poster child of the Perfect Language Geek. My list of sight word recognition surpassed my grade level. 

And yet . . . 

I can't spell very well. The following is a list of words I mess up all the time:
  • restaurant: the 'au' always screws it up for me
  • bureaucracy: any word that is that cumbersome in spelling isn't worth keeping around
  • conscience: looks nothing like it sounds
  • definitely: there's got to be an a in there somewhere
  • tomorrow: or any word that has double letters
  • dialogue: or is it dialog? Why don't we just have a conversation instead?

What makes matters worse is that I still screw up homonyms and homophones. It's not the frequent ones that bother me (its, it's).  Here are the ones that still get me, despite the fact that I clearly know the difference: 
  • thru, threw
  • principle, principal
  • break, brake
  • disc, disk
  • site, sight

The good news? I can write. I am confident in my ability to write. I'm currently revising a novel that I'm really proud of. True, I may screw up on spelling certain words. Yep, I might end a few sentences with prepositions. However, I've learned that the inability to master one sub-skill doesn't mean someone is doomed to failure in a particular concept, skill or subject. 

In my case, it means I need to take more time to edit and I need to let other people catch mistakes (I wish I had done this with Pencil Me In and Sages and Lunatics.I need to recognize it as a weakness and admit that I need help. I need to spend additional time reading my work aloud for verb-subject agreement. I need to take the time to double-check my homophone mistakes.

It has me thinking about teaching. How often do we teach kids to find and admit that there are things that are simply hard for them, no matter how much they practice? How often do we teach them to find people who can help support them in weaker areas so that they can thrive with the larger skill that they've mastered? How often are they learning additional skills in editing and given additional time to master those areas where they are struggling? More importantly, how many kids have been turned off of writing because of grammar gestapos and formatting fanatics who stripped away the joy of writing when they grew impatient and angry that a kid "still didn't get it" after weeks of practice? 

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13 comments:

  1. John,

    I agree with the idea that we don't need "gestapos" that kill kids abilities to enjoy writing and make them self-conscious about every, minute detail to the point of paranoia.

    Here's the point at which I get concerned though: I have kids in tenth and eleventh grade who don't misspell a couple of words here and there or use poor sentence structure and grammar here and there. They do this throughout their paper....every, single paper.

    What concerns me even further is that regardless of the next step that these students take in their lives (college, work, etc.) there are few who are going to be tolerant of this type of written communication. Most college professors won't bother reading a paper from a student that is ridden with spelling and grammatical mistakes, and I imagine that no employer is going to withstand an employee engaging in official correspondence with outside vendors and representing the company in poor form.

    I'm not saying we need to tar and feather kids who have a tough time spelling or writing with any degree of clarity. Quite the opposite. What I mean is that we need to work with kids to proofread and edit more than ever before. Not that my method is best, but I always try to give my kids time in class to discuss their writing with a partner before they hand it in. We use one simple question: what areas do we need to improve to achieve a higher degree of language clarity?

    Maybe we are talking about two different situations, but I have a hard time "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" when it comes to writing and communication.

    Thanks for bringing this topic up. It's critically important, and one that we need to find some consensus on to ensure that our kids have a great experience in the classroom and beyond.

    AE

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  2. I think my last paragraph summed up the solution: help the kids recognize where they struggle and find solutions. I did quite well in college despite some of the simple spelling errors. I learned to read my papers aloud for verb-subject agreement, use spell check and keep a bank of common homophone errors I made. I still had professors who took away points (five percent per mistake) and I shrugged my shoulders. If they wanted to value the minutia above the content, it was there issue.

    I'm not suggesting we embrace sloppy, incoherent grammer. However, I see in some of the early grades, an obsession over grammar and spelling without developing ideas, learning quality fluency and embracing the multifaceted layers of language. A company might be embarrassed by a homophone mistake. And I can easily correct my inability to spell embarrassed correctly (thank you spell check). However, a mistake in tone can kill a relationship.

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  3. I quit teaching spelling several years ago as a separate subject in my communication arts class. I believe the way we have taught spelling, by separating it out from writing, just doesn't work. Now it is more of a matter of having students proofread their work and, of course, use spell check.

    The words that you identified are hard words for most every person to spell. I was considered a great speller in school, but I have trouble with a few of them. I had to learn the principal was your "pal" to get that one right. Conscience iss con-science. Add to this the fact that I read a lot of Kipling and P.G. Wodehouse (interestingly enough pronounced woodhouse) and "learned" many British spellings of words. For example, I still spell "colour" for "color"...

    The purpose of codified spelling system should have been to help the reader understand what the writer is trying to share. Apparently it wasn't too important even a couple hundred years ago. Webster's Dictionary was published in 1806, which I am sure teachers took too like ducks to water, and spelling became right or wrong. (I wonder what students called teachers that were driven to find and correct every spelling or grammar mistake at that time. Do you think they called them spelling or grammar Napoleons?)

    Of course the heart of the matter is the perception of the intelligence of what is written. There absolutely is a bias towards better spelling. If you spell poorly, most people will assume you are not very intelligent and will discount your ideas. Of course this is a ridiculous thing to do, yet I myself have done this. This is why I implore my students to reread their work, use spell check, and even Google "define _______". I don't want their intelligence questioned because of poor grammar or spelling...

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  4. Your points and these kinds of personal examples can't be said enough, in my opinion! Great ones to share with students and parents! So important to discuss the limitations of phonics, the struggles that all individuals have with some words and grammar, regardless of age! I don't think it serves well to teach these kinds of things like we have it all nailed! Students will benefit from hearing about the processes and strategies others use to work through such "mistakes", and that there are often just a part of the writing process. English can be quite something really with all the "exceptions to the rules"!

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  5. There's power in vulnerability, that's for sure. What a great way to convey that message. I was taught to be very precise with my grammar and spelling and almost didn't give my now-husband-of-twenty-years a chance at even dating me when I heard him say, "He don't know the difference." Gasp (evidently you don't know subject verb agreement)!! I definitely saw that as some sort of intelligence gap twenty years ago, but I like to think I've mellowed as I've aged (though that sounds cheesy as I write it).

    What used to be important to me at the beginning of my education career when I taught English and Spanish isn't quite at the top of the list to me as a mom. My daughter, a spelling and vocabulary state champion, almost didn't pass calculus this semester and I found myself cheering for that hard-earned C+. A growth mindset? I hope so, but I'll be honest; I STILL like to see things spelled correctly.

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  6. Ha...just noticed I used "there" instead of "they" in my comment, or did I mean to write "they're"....:)

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  7. As I teach my kids writing, it becomes more and more apparent to me that while spelling, punctuation, and grammar are important, more so is the the ability to articulate thoughts well, to organize thinking and communicate with audience in mind. That's what we're concentrating on here. (A friend's son had a teacher who counted off for every slightly misformed cursive letter in his 2nd grade work. YIKES. The poor kid was a nervous wreck.)

    p.s. Some of the smartest, most articulate people I know cannot spell or punctuate to save their lives. It hasn't slowed them down one bit. :)

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  8. My favorite part of the article is that you misspelled "through" as "thru" and when Sheila misspelled "they're" .... I think the most important thing to be taken from this (comments included) is to make sure your students get the ability/means/tools to avoid papers riddled with mistakes (ridden ... is that correct?) when they need it. Even if it's just finding "that friend" that catches those mistakes, knowing your limitations and how to keep them from limiting you is an important skill.

    Thanks for a great article and thank y'all for some thought-provoking comments!

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  9. Barbara,

    I had to comment.

    "mellowed as I've aged (though that sounds cheesy)"

    I saw what you did there .... clever. :)

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  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  11. I am a bad speller as well, my problem words are: privilege, initiative and a few you mentioned. I also have issues with comma and apostrophe rules. I think sharing this with kids allows them to have the space to realize we all have weaknesses, but also that resources need to be used to improve writing and its okay to ask for help or to use the resources. I agree with your comments about writing as an "work in progress" and that is why its the writing process. So in teaching the writing process students are learning patiences and persistence along with writing.

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  12. Hi!
    My name is Heather and I work for Worth Ave. Group. We’re currently holding a contest for K-12 teachers to win grants for their schools, and iPads or iPods for their classrooms. If you’re interested in participating, feel free to email me or visit the link I’ve posted below.
    Have a great day!
    http://www.worthavegroup.com/giveaway/
    voteforteachers@worthavegroup.com

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  13. I always talk about how much I suck at writing conclusions, so it's nothing for them to freak out over. Spelling's another thing that I don't get too crazy over. In fact, they seem surprised when I tell them that I don't have a specific deduction for a specific number of spelling errors.

    That being said, I do try to encourage both use of spell check/review in word processing plus proofreading before handing in a final copy. In a "measure twice, cut once" sort of way.

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Please leave a comment. I enjoy the conversation.

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