Checkered Spelling

OK, Take out your spelling book.

What? You don’t have your spelling book?

I thought I made it clear last time that we were going to study spelling.

What’s that you say? You didn’t read the last column?

Someone did what? Wrapped the paper around what?!

Well … if the fish was part of a school of fish, they probably spell better now than a lot of schools today! And certainly better than a lot of the ­politicians who dictate school policy.

We have a problem! Two articles in Psychology Today give us an idea of just how big a problem.

J. Richard Gentry, author of The Science of Spelling, wrote:

“Advanced research in cognitive science including brain scan science is demonstrating that explicit spelling instruction may be the missing link to reading success in America where sixty-five percent of fourth graders read below proficiency levels. … When we don’t teach spelling explicitly and well, many children struggle or fail with reading as evidenced by our nation’s fourth-grade reading scores.”

David Ludden, author of The Psychology of Language, was worried about his daughter’s spelling. At a parent-teacher conference, he asked, “Don’t you teach these kids how to spell, how to sound out words?”

With a condescending smile, the teacher answered, “We use a whole-language approach. We believe that reading and writing are natural acts. If you provide enough exposure to print material, children will discover the principles of reading and writing on their own.”

She dismissed the notion of teaching by sounding out words: “Phonics puts too much emphasis on decoding the written word. The whole-language approach is better because the emphasis is on understanding and interpreting texts.”

This attitude from a teacher of specious education reminds me of Rabbit’s rationale in A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner:

“‘After all,’ said Rabbit to himself, ‘Christopher Robin depends on Me. He’s fond of Pooh and Piglet and Eeyore, and so am I, but they haven’t any Brain. Not to notice. And he respects Owl, because you can’t help respecting anybody who can spell TUESDAY, even if he doesn’t spell it right; but spelling isn’t everything. There are days when spelling ­Tuesday simply doesn’t count.’”

I can spell Tuesday. Even on Wednesdays. I admit, though, that when I spell Wednesday, sometimes my ears can get ahead of my eyes and fingers … and I start to spell it like it sounds. But my spelling is better than Pooh’s. As he described it, “My spelling is Wobbly. It’s good spelling but it Wobbles, and the letters get in the wrong places.”

Actually, it’s my typing more than my spelling that wobbles. To keep it from wobbling, I use a spell checker. But I think of the spell checker in the sense of keeping my words in check. That is, to curb or restrain them, so they don’t wobble too much.

Some people claim that now, with spell checkers, we no longer need to learn spelling. Spell checkers are valuable tools. But even the best tool can be dangerous if mishandled.

As linguist David Crystal wrote in Spell It Out, “Spelling checkers are useful only to a limited extent. They spot spellings that don’t exist; but they won’t highlight a word if it’s misspelled yet does exist.” To illustrate the problem, he quoted the opening stanzas of what he called “an ode to a spelling checker.” The original appeared in The Journal of ­Irreproducible Results in 1994. It’s well worth reading the poem in full:

Candidate for a Pullet Surprise

By Jerrold H. Zar and Mark Eckman

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 right awl stiles two reed,

And aides me when eye rime.

Each frays come posed up on my screen

Eye trussed too bee a joule.

The checker pours o’er every word

To cheque sum spelling rule.

Bee fore a veiling checker’s

Hour spelling mite decline,

And if we’re lacks oar have a laps,

We wood bee maid too wine.

Butt now bee cause my spelling

Is checked with such grate flare,

Their are know fault’s with in my cite,

Of nun eye am a wear.

Now spelling does knot phase me,

It does knot bring a tier.

My pay purrs awl due glad den

With wrapped word’s fare as hear.

To rite with care is quite a feet

Of witch won should bee proud,

And wee mussed dew the best wee can,

Sew flaw’s are knot aloud.

Sow ewe can sea why aye dew prays

Such soft wear four pea seas,

And why eye brake in two averse

Buy righting want too pleas.

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