One of the Most Overrated Skills in the Classroom

Whilst I can obviously see the value of teaching spelling skills, I don’t think it is anywhere near as important as schools make out.

The emphasis that spelling gets when it comes to teaching allotments, testing and reporting is astounding. Surely there are more vital skills such as maths, writing and reading that can profit from taking some of the ‘treasured’ spelling time.

Many skills now have specialised spelling programs complete with up to 5 weekly periods per class from the Second Grade upwards. Talk about overkill! My daughter recently brought home a form requesting our written consent to take her out of her classes in order to strengthen her spelling skills. What makes this request even more bizarre is that she is only in the first grade! I can understand taking her out for maths or English, but spelling?

What upsets me most about the obsession with children and spelling is what it does to our students. Our children know whether they are good spellers or not. They have been tested countless times and their work is often given a ‘dose of red’ where every misspelled word corrected. What then tends to happen, is that students become self-conscious about their spelling capabilities and try to avoid the dreaded red ink corrections. Instead of using the most appropriate word for their written work, they choose words they know how to spell. This has a severe negative impact on the quality of their writing.

I am a big fan of minimising the emphasis of spelling. I want my students to write freely, to choose words that best fits their work and have a fearless approach to spelling difficult words. To me, a free and unhampered piece of writing replete with spelling errors far outweighs a dreary, disjointed piece of work with correct spelling.

I’m not against the teaching of spelling and I certainly believe that spelling rules and the understanding of morphographs have a place in the classroom. I just don’t think these skills are anywhere near as important as many would have you believe.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

10 Responses to “One of the Most Overrated Skills in the Classroom”

  1. John Tapscott Says:

    Spelling is easy to measure and count. What the counters of our education system haven’t woke up to yet is that the things that count most in education are things that can’t be counted.

    • Michael G. Says:

      Absolutely John. That’s precisely what frustrates me so much. If you can get concrete data of improvement on a given skill spend all your time on it regardless of its real worth.

  2. John Tapscott Says:

    It seems another example of removing creativity from the classroom.
    A couple of examples of creative spelling from my experience:

    mideswell – might as well
    metantatepi – meat and potato pie

    I’ll spare you the gems I got for pennies (in the olden days) and horse.

  3. Nick Vannello Says:

    I disagree. As Isadora Duncan said, “Through technique, there is freedom.” Spelling is elemental: it is either correct or it is not. Having students learn proper spelling goes beyond just having words appear correctly on a page, it introduces the fact that there are rules in grammar, as well as sentence structure and usage.

    There are rules in accounting, law, physics, and yes, languages. Each of these disciplines have their basic elements that are building blocks to higher levels of understanding. If you give creative licensing to spelling, you undermine the foundations of language.

    In the end, it will be those with the ability to use language (in its correct form) who will end up toward the upper classes. You are doing your students a disservice if you allow them to think that their creative spelling will be accepted and tolerated outside of your classroom.

    Technique leads to freedom. The more one develops technique, the more freedom one has to stretch their technique so that their message can reach a broader audience. Start a child out grunting like a pig and he will only have the company of other pigs. Teach the child to progress from grunting to speaking eloquently, and he shall be able to converse to a broader congregation.

    I also notice you did not take liberties in your spelling. Perhaps you didn’t want to come across as uneducated? an oaf?

    • Michael G. Says:

      You make some good points Nick. Ultimately, I believe that self expression rather than technique leads to freedom.

      You are most welcome to correct any of my spelling errors. Thanks for the comment.

      • Nick Vannello Says:

        Let me take my analogy to an actual example. As a former dancer and choreographer, I taught hundreds of students who didn’t think they needed to put time in at the barre or do floorwork. They were certain that through their “self expression” that they would have all that they needed to succeed in the world of dance.

        So they danced. They danced to their own drummer. They danced with all of the self expression they could muster in their hearts.

        Today, not one of them has a job in the performing arts. They never learned the “vocabulary” of dance. They never learned the rules. And without knowing the rules, you don’t have the ability to know *why* your self expressionist dance is succeeding or failing.

        Moving on to language skills. Not everyone is a J.D. Sallinger or a Stephanie Meyer. But they truth is that they have learned the basics of writing – sentence structure, plot, characters, and yes, even lowly spelling. Its part of the arsenal a writer has.

        I’m sure by now you’ve seen this:
        gurl stops meking out n asks boi to get potartz.
        he dus.
        den gurl teks deep breff. den gurl sais “bf i am pregnent will u stay ma bf” n he seys “no”.
        gurl iz hertbrokn. <////3
        gurl cried n runz awaii from boi wiffout eatin poptart n she has low blood suga so she fols.
        boi runs ova 2 her.
        she ded </333333333
        boi crie "i sed i no b ur bf…cuz i wona b ur husband!"
        he screems n frows poptart @ wol….a bootiful diomand ring wus insyd.
        *** LIK DIS IF U CRY EVERTIM***

        So, you applaud this? It's a creative story. Spelling is obviously secondary.

      • John Tapscott Says:

        Nick’s point is valid. Actually I would have been delighted if some of my former students had produced writing like that. Well only in the sense that at least I was getting SOME writing.

        The class of boys I have in mind avoided written work like the plague. Why? Until they came to my class, at the age of 12+, they failed time and again, not because they were not intelligent but because the system failed them.

        Inexperienced teachers stuck doggedly to an inappropriate syllabus setting a large number of students up for failure, year after year. By the time they came to my class school was no longer, if it ever was, a part of their quality world.

        The most difficult work for a teacher is to convince a young teenage boy that he can do something of value at school. A lot of my spelling lists inhabited lists of ingredients in recipes (or lists of sports equipment for certain games. Their sentence writing came from the cooking method: sentence completion exercises. When the English work, spelling, grammar and writing was done it came time for reading: following the recipe to produce something tasty to eat.

        I must confess that my use of the syllabus was creative, to say the least. If a supervisor questioned a given outcome and ask for its number from the syllabus I didn’t have time for any of that. I’m sure what I did was in the syllabus but the best place to begin teaching is not the syllabus but in ascertaining precisely what the students can do as a certain point in time and proceeding from there. More and more I am coming to the position that teachers need to be thoroughly trained so as to be able to take students from where they are to where they need to go. By slavishly following the syllabus one takes students from where one hopes they are on an uncharted journey to an unknown destination.

        I agree, spelling is important, but I often wonder, if an English speaking child can learn to recognise the word “cat” and to sound out and spell c-a-t what is a Chinese speaking child meant to do with “猫”? (pron: mao = cat).

      • Nick Vannello Says:

        Subconciously, the student isn’t just spelling the word “cat.” The student is learning the rules of English sounds. “cat” are just scribbles on paper that represent the sounds that represent the word that represent “cat”. (THAT’S a LOT of subtext learning going on.) When you teach a kid the word “cat” – you’re reaching them on all of those different levels. The Chinese student is no different. The symbols represent sounds which represent a word which represent an actual cat.

        Because you learned how to spell “cat” ages ago, you don’t even think that the scribbles in front of you represent an actual cat. The brain makes that leap.

        What if I gave you the word “defenestration”? At first, your brain needs to look at the word. Now, you’re probably sounding it out (as the way you did “cat” when you were a child.) Once you’re more comfortable with the spelling, you might be looking for root word or words from other languages.

        AH-HA! Without spelling and understanding that words are structured for specific meanings, you can’t get to this level. “Fenetre” is French for window. In this case, “defenestration” mean to literally throw something out of the window.

        Without years of spelling, my brain doesn’t recognize patterns in words and that foreign word – defenestration – would have been lost on me.

        The reason kids don’t write isn’t because spelling is holding them back. It’s because they don’t want to fail. No one wants to look stupid in front of their peers or their teachers. Giving a kid a safe environment is a good thing. Let their creative juices flow. But that kid is in for a harsh reality when what was a happy environment in Mr. Finch’s class (where everyone threw out the rules) is gone and the kid transfers to another classroom or boardroom.

      • John Tapscott Says:

        “Without years of spelling,..” indicates a principle that can be illustrated in the building of a brick wall. As each course follows the next a missing brick in one course will leave no support for 2 bricks on the next course and so on.

        I don’t think anyone is saying that spelling is not important, even vital; that’s not the issue. Failure to learn spelling leads to failure in so many other areas as the bricks in the wall are not supported. Problems with spelling emerge long before wholesale testing is applied. As in all foundational learning problems need to be addressed as soon as they are apparent. My concern is that the curriculum is so cluttered with mandatory courses that time for proper learning and consolidation of learning is crowded out. Suddenly, in grade 3, a teacher goes, “Oh my goodness, Jane can’t spell. ” and by then a whole lot of other deficiencies are becoming apparent because Jane has slipped through the cracks – cracks created by the stresses of trying to do too much, too quickly.

        The obsession with testing is pointless if all it indicates is a case of too little, too late. Testing is fine but it can’t take the place of teaching.

  4. makethea Says:

    Reblogged this on makethea.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: