What do Charlie Sheen, Jane Austen, Paris Hilton, John F. Kennedy, Kanye West, and Benjamin Franklin all have in common? The answer—they’re all very well-known, very successful, and very terrible spellers. This week’s blog post and podcast is titled, ‘Does Spelling Still Matter?’ It could also be titled…’Can You Spell Better Than a Middle-Schooler?’
Some of us are just fine chuckling at our own spelling mistakes. Words like ‘acceptable,’ ‘Wednesday,’ and even ‘misspelled’ continue to plague us despite our own repeated effort. But for some people, spelling is no laughing matter. Take for example, Thomas Hurely, an 8th grader who made it to the final round of the game show Jeopardy. The final clue was… Abraham Lincoln called this document which took effect in 1863 “a fit and necessary war measure.” Thomas wrote down his answer—The Emanciptation Proclamation. He had written the correct answer, but misspelled it. As a result, the judges ruled it incorrect. Thomas lost the final round and 3,000 dollars.
While the judges of jeopardy and other spelling advocates insist that spelling is something that should be taken seriously, others aren’t as sure anymore. Sandra Wilde, college professor and co-chair of National Council of Teachers of English, was quoted by USA today and stated that, “In ordinary life, I think spelling is too overblown. We expect it to be 100% correct and don’t cut a lot of people slack. Even in The New York Times there is an occasional spelling error.”
The question continues to loom and to be debated. Does spelling really matter in this modern age of autocorrectiion tools, spellcheck, and voice recognition? To what degree should spelling be focused on in schools? And then there is my question—are we born good spellers…or do we become great through some magical combination of our own efforts and environment?
My interest in spelling got started a couple of weeks ago. I had been on the road for several days visiting schools and speaking at education conferences. I was supposed to be taking the day off, but noticed in my local paper that the middle school where my oldest kid attended would be holding its annual Spelling Bee. I figured that if I took my computer along, I could get some work done and watch my son, and some other super-spellers, in action.
The first thing I noticed was that Spelling Bees haven’t changed much from when I was in school. Students approached the podium, were given a word, permitted to ask some clarifying questions, and were eliminated one by one as the words became increasingly difficult.
I have to say I was pretty impressed with myself for a while. On my notepad, I scrawled out words like ‘cashew’ and ‘rucksack’ with no problem. But as the words became a bit more complicated, I grew less sure of myself. There were words that I nearly misspelled because I started to overthink them….words like skirmish, goblet, and berserk. There were other words that I had definitely heard and had used before, but that possessed seemingly random sets of repetitive letters….words likeaardvark and whippoorwill. There were also a number of words that threw me for a loop because of the way they were pronounced…or mispronounced by the spelling bee announcer. These were words like jocularity, hydroponic, and debilitate.
But a handful of the students held strong. One of which was my my son. He made it into the final three and was doing well, until he was given the word wahine. It’s pronounced wah-hee-nee. He looked alarmed, asked for the language of origin, requested the definition, and even asked to hear wahine used in a sentence. It was like watching a contestant on ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ burn through all their lifelines, while knowing full-well that they don’t have a clue what the final answer should be. He spelled it—or rather misspelled it—and sat down frustrated and disappointed.
As I visited with my son, with the school spelling bee champion, and with other students, four ideas surfaced on the origins of adept spelling. First, young people are very quick to self-identify themselves as either good or poor spellers. Second, many insist that some of us are just born with better spelling ability than others. Third, while spelling seems to come easier to some students than it does to others, most young people insist that reading widely seems to help. Finally, young people seem to believe that despite any innate ability or aversion, the ability to spell is something that can be improved through practice.
So in the next couple of podcasts and blog posts we will explore the truths and myths of spelling. We will look at the research and visit with experts in the field to uncover what is we really know about spelling…and about our students.
Rapp, B., & Lipka, K. (2011). The literate brain: the relationship between spelling and reading. Journal of cognitive neuroscience, 23(5), 1180-1197.