The Lost Art of Spelling


I know that some people look forward to the Superbowl as a major event in their year. Others live for the World Series or the World Cup. Personally, I find team sports dull and have never been able to muster up an interest in any of them. The event I anticipate every year, my personal “Superbowl” so to speak, is the National Spelling Bee. I was very sad that I had to miss it this year, but most years, Spelling Bee Day finds me ensconced on the couch with my snacks, shouting encouragement to the spellers on the TV screen. It’s so refreshing to see that spelling is still important to some Americans. Unfortunately, we spelling enthusiasts are a dying breed.

Why does it matter? I’m told (by students) that as long as they make themselves understood, communication is achieved and the purpose of reading and writing is fulfilled. (Actually, they rarely word it that way: they generally say something like, “So what? You understood it, right?”) Well, I’ll tell you why it matters. Has anyone else noticed that as spelling abilities fall, so does reading proficiency? Kids find reading tedious and difficult, rather than enjoyable and informative. I think I know why this is.

You see, I would like to blame texting and the electronic age for the poor spelling and reading skills of this generation of students, but I’m afraid the problem started a long time ago. Now please don’t misunderstand me: I am a great proponent of teaching children to read phonetically. But the emphasis of phonics in reading instruction has done a lot of damage to potential readers. Listen to a student read aloud. Then listen to an older person, one educated before the 1980’s, read aloud. Can you tell what the difference is? Children who were taught to read phonetically are still trying to sound out nearly every word as they come to it, as if they’d never seen that word before. The mechanics of reading get in the way of the process and little understanding is accomplished. Relying entirely on phonics to read IS tedious and difficult! No wonder kids don’t want to do it. Learning to read should begin with phonics, but should quickly progress to whole-word recognition. Relying on the sound of the words for recognition slows the reader down; sight readers don’t need to hear the word pronounced to know what it is. The more words a person has memorized, the quicker he can read and with greater comprehension. Sounding out words phonetically can still be used when confronted with an unfamiliar word, but the best readers rarely need to sound out any words. They just know them at a glance, like recognizing an old friend. This is the advantage of having a reading vocabulary as well as a speaking vocabulary.

But there are over a quarter of a million words in the English language! How can one memorize so many? Well, obviously, most of those words are jargon; scientific, medical, or technological terms that the normal reader will rarely if ever come across. A great many of the rest are formed from the same root words, with prefixes and/or suffixes added. Here’s where spelling comes in. Recognizing a word means knowing what a certain combination of letters mean without having to sound it out to hear what it sounds like. Spelling is the art of putting letters together correctly to form meaningful words. The more common root words, prefixes and suffixes one knows, the more words one can recognize.

Once upon a time in the Middle Ages, people spelled words however they liked. (Even in the 1500’s, spelling was not completely standardized. Shakespeare spelled his own name at least 6 different ways.) Reader proficiency was poor in the Middle Ages. Can you imagine, trying to memorize all the potential spellings of any given word? How about “phonics”? Let’s see: fonics; phonix; fonnics; fonicks; pfonicks; ffonix. Ever tried to wade through a manuscript written before 1500? It’s tedious and difficult. There’s a reason spelling was standardized. Arguments can be made as to how efficient or sensible a job those spelling-standardizers did, but the fact is, it’s so much easier to memorize words that look the same all the time.

I am a great believer in spelling lists. I don’t understand modern educators who don’t require them in high school. I had spelling lists to memorize in college, and my reading vocabulary is very much above average as a result. Every word a student learns to spell correctly adds to his reading vocabulary, thereby improving his ability to read more quickly and with better comprehension. And, one hopes, with greater enjoyment as well.

However, the best way to learn to spell correctly and to read well is to practice. In this way, reading is like anything else–sports, music, any skill one wishes to acquire. Practicing to increase proficiency in reading has the extra perk of also providing the reader with information or with a good story in the process! I practice reading every day and hardly even know I’m exercising a skill–it feels more like having a good time.

As for those who still contend that it doesn’t matter how one spells a word as long as it is understood: to you, I say this. Picture in your mind, if you will, a familiar work of art. Let’s take the “Mona Lisa”, for example. Now picture her with bushy eyebrows. You still recognize the painting. You still understand that this is the “Mona Lisa”. But it is now more than a little disturbing, isn’t it? A little bit wrong is still wrong! And while the error is calling attention to itself, it draws attention away from what the artist or writer was intending to communicate.

(Now I’m in great fear of posting this, as I’m sure I’ve misspelled something in this essay. . . .)

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Lost Art of Spelling

  1. Like it or not, people do judge writers by their spelling, as well as their grammar. A poor speller is communicating more than one message.

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    • Very true. Poor spelling portrays a great lack of respect for the language, for one’s reader, and for oneself. It also reveals the writer to be lazy–there’s no shame in not knowing how to spell a given word, but great shame in being too careless to bother to look the word up in the dictionary. Thank you for commenting, Laura, for you have thereby brought your blog to my attention, and I’m enjoying it immensely.

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  2. Laureleaf

    I didn’t know that there were different kinds of ways to read… I’ve always just READ it. After reading your blog, I realize I’m a whole-word reader, and you can definitely tell when I read out loud. I always wondered why people my age sound so clunky when they read, instead of letting the words flow like natural speech… As you said, practice makes perfect!

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  3. I’m so glad you enjoyed this. It’s one of my favorite blog entries!

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