Whatever Happened to Spelling?

They don’t teach spelling at my son’s school.  At least, not in the way you probably learned spelling. You know, you were given a list of words, made to memorize those words, and then tested on the words approximately a week later.  There was phonics, too. Was there something wrong with phonics?  Did it not work?  I can spell. That’s not to say I don’t ever misspell words, or have to use a dictionary, but for the most part, I learned to spell, and I’m pretty sure most of this occurred before fourth grade, though spelling tests continued well into middle school.

So, what happened?  When did some school districts decide that memorizing spelling words was not working, that teaching phonics was a waste of time?  Was there a massive wave of non-spellers released into the working world, causing such a disruption in the world order, that the public schools decided they must band together and fix the spelling problem?  Or, is it because computers are so ubiquitous that the sentiment of, who really needs to learn how to spell when you can just hit spellcheck, reigns?  I wonder.

Do you want me to tell you who can’t spell?  Number one son,  a bright, young whippersnapper, who yesterday, was at a loss over how to spell the word was. Hmmm, it’s March 1, he’s in first grade.  Am I missing something?  Am I expecting too much?  Did I tell you he can spell stupendous?  There’s a word that frequently finds its way into his vocabulary.  He’s also encouraged to use quotation marks when writing stories that are unintelligible, because every other word is misspelled.

Phonetic spelling, that’s what his school encourages.  Interesting.  High frequency words, that’s another tag line of the method his school has adopted.  Call me crazy, but isn’t was considered a high frequency word?  Did they just not get to that point yet, because we’re halfway through the year?  Individual spelling lists catered to each child based on words they do and don’t know.  I was a teacher, that’s not going to happen, not in a class of twenty-one kids.  That’s hard to do in a class of ten kids.

Accountability?  Who knows?  Or, maybe it’s, who cares?  To be redundant, it’s March 1, he hasn’t had a spelling test.  We wouldn’t want to crush his ego by testing him.  No, let’s give him a pat on the back and some words of encouragement. “That is creative, the way you chose how to spell was.  Of course, I can understand why you thought it was whas. It sounds so much like what and where. Oh, you thought where was spelled w-e-r-e?  Is it correct?  Well, correct can be such a relative term.  Let’s not ask too many questions, after all, ignorance is bliss.  You just go ahead and sound out wait, wing and want, we’ll get there eventually. Stupendous!”

Don’t even get me started on basic sentence structure.  I suppose that’s kind of useless too.  Speaking of grammar, you know who has really bad grammar?  Me.  You know why? They stopped teaching it.  Grammar drills don’t work, they stifle creativity.  I guess that’s why all those classics are so damn boring.  You know who has really great grammar? My mom.  She went to Catholic school in the sixties. They thought drills and memorization were important. I think she is horrified sometimes to read my writing. I took my first intensive grammar course when I went back to college to get my teaching certificate in, get this, English.  I already had a BA in English.  I found the course tedious, yet fascinating.  All these rules, who knew?  It didn’t stick.  You know why? Because it wasn’t drilled into my head.

What’s happening to public education?  Have we lost so much faith in our children that we don’t believe they are capable of memorizing words and learning basic rules of grammar.  If school districts believe in high frequency words, then let’s make them memorize them, so when they use them over and over again, they do so correctly, in sentences that make sense.  We’re not teaching philosophy.  Spelling is black and white, it’s either wrong or it’s right.

People used to talk about teaching to the test, and by the test I mean state mandated tests that are supposed to measure a school’s performance.  I wasn’t sure what that meant, teaching to the test, and I was a teacher, who was responsible for teaching students to pass the test.  I now know what it means.  Send home a picture prompt, tell my son to write a story based on said picture prompt, don’t worry about spelling, because your not judged on spelling, but use some quotation marks.  It looks good, gives you a few more points with the scorers, and makes for a more interesting story.  I suppose it does, if you can read the story.  I usually can’t, sometimes my son can, but he has a really good memory.  Of course, he could be using that memory to actually learn how to spell words, but let’s not get carried away here, I don’t want to overwhelm anyone, certainly not the public education system.

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