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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Does Spelling Count?

Shira Loewenstein

Associate Director of New Teacher Support at Yeshiva University

"Does spelling count?"

This is one of my favorite and least favorite questions all rolled into one.

As a science teacher, I gave an assignment to my students to create a children's book. "In your book, I want you to explain everything your readers have learned about the different types of clouds and how they relate to weather patterns." Before I even have the chance to hand out a rubric, no less than five children call out, "Does spelling count?!?" I am sure they're hoping for a simple "yes" or "no" (and more specifically a "no"), but this seems to be a teachable moment if I have ever met one. I'm going to seize it . . .

Math by Any Other Name

What is the purpose of learning spelling? Grammar? Math? Why do we break these subjects down? Why do these subjects seem so parsed from our students' lives that they need to know if something "counts?"

I ask my students these very questions. Why do I care if you learn spelling? Most of the answers are pretty accurate -- we need it when we grow up, so we don't make silly mistakes, so people understand our writing. So then I ask their own question back to them: "So should spelling count?" Through some groans and sighs, we agree that it makes the most sense for spelling to count. But those groans and sighs tell me something that is so endemic in our society. These children have been taught from a very young age that their "grades" matter more than the actual purpose of the assignment -- just like "subjects" trump true learning.

My six-year-old came home from his first day of first grade and declared to his little brother, "When you get into first grade, you are going to love math and science!" This declaration from my older son is accurate. My younger one will most likely enjoy math and science when he reaches first grade. How do we know this? Because he loves math and science in nursery school -- it's just that no one calls it "math" or "science." In nursery school, math is called cooking, building or drawing. Science is called gardening, exploring or playing on the yard (finding bugs and figuring out what they do is a specialty). What happened between nursery school and first grade that made us forget this? Why is it so critical for a first grader to learn "math" as a stand-alone subject? What happened to building?

Changing the Subject

I understand the need we have for teaching children isolated skills in order to enhance their deeper understanding of a subject. It makes sense that we're teaching them the concept of addition in order for them to successfully apply this concept to their building techniques. We do need to teach children spelling patterns because that will allow them to communicate in a more sophisticated and comprehensive manner as they advance in their writing. But how did these skills become the be-all and end-all of education? How did "math" become a stand-alone subject that has to be taught between 9:15 and 10:00 five days a week?

What if we were to eliminate subjects? What if we said there was no more "spelling" or "writing" or "math," and we just had "school"? In school, we want to advance the capacity for learning and knowledge of our students. There is no need to get stuck in the constraints of subjects and all the baggage this entails. What would my "science" classroom have looked like if this had been the culture of the school?

"We are going to write books about clouds for the kindergarteners to read. We are going to have to learn and practice all of the skills to do this effectively."

There is no more room for the question, "Does spelling count?" Of course spelling counts -- as much as accurate facts about clouds, weather patterns, and of course neatness also count. How is a kindergartner going to understand and learn from your book if it isn't legible, or comprehendible, or accurate?

I am not the only one who thinks this way. We can call this method problem-based learning, project-based learning or many other variations on the concept. Whatever you do, please, just don't call it "science."

What would happen if you were to eliminate subjects in your classroom?

Shira Loewenstein

Associate Director of New Teacher Support at Yeshiva University
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Candace Hackett Shively's picture
Candace Hackett Shively
Lifelong teacher and ed tech person. Creativity is my passion.

My answer to the "Does spelling count" question is the same as my answer to many classroom queries: "What do YOU think?" (I also use this reply to "Is this good?" This questioning reply, like removing "subjects," puts authenticity of audience and clarity of communication over grades, assignments, and "subjects." And it is amazing to watch the reaction when a student realizes his/her thoughts matter. The shift in responsibility is palpable.

Doreen's picture
Doreen
Retired principal who does contact work in Staff Development

I wrote a book recently called "When Spelling Matters" (Pembroke Publ., 2013, Stenhouse Publ., 2013) which deals with the question you raised and may be helpful to anyone who is interested in pursuing the question further . The premise of the book is to encourage students to love words, look for patterns in words, have fun with metaphor, puns and word origins, and learn how to edit their writing. In my opinion, spelling does not matter when writing is informal, or when students are fledgling writers, or when they are making lists, or drafting ideas, but when writing becomes public and is shared and used to communicate clearly, then spelling really matters! I would be happy to continue this dialogue at my email address doreenrose@rogers.com

Janet Moeller-Abercrombie's picture
Janet Moeller-Abercrombie
International Educator, Certified by the NBPTS | Educational Leader, Licens

When I taught 5th grade, I often got the question "How do you teach spelling?" Parents believed that, without a Friday test, spelling wasn't being addressed.

My response: I expect every final copy piece of writing to have 100% correct spelling. My students use word processors. I teach them to find and evaluate homophones and correct uses of apostrophes. I teach them to find peer editors and more. They must correctly use a 'no excuse' list of high-frequency words on all assignments in order to 'meet standard' and they can re-submit work until they hit standard.

My response would be different in lower grades. As a school leader, I'm challenging the K-2 teachers and the 3-5 teachers to work together to form a philosophy of spelling and word study. Then, they will look for appropriate materials, procedures, and expectations aligned with the philosophy.

Spelling counts. Our expectations are high. Our evidence is... These things should be clear to both students and parents before they ask.

Glenn's picture
Glenn
Middle School Math from western New Jersey

But the students know that in the "real world" of grades on report cards and teacher evaluations, which breaks learning down into subjects, students with a high aptitude in L/A will get a higher score on a written paper even if both students have fulfilled the SCIENCE requirements on the rubric equally. When is the last time that you have seen a student lose points on an English paper due to faulty science or incorrect math? The lofty goal of removing subjects from the curriculum is a one way street now, and the students are asking for equality of subject grades.

Vic Tripathy's picture

Yes, the "siloing" of subjects occurred in academia a century and a half ago when the sciences and math were sliced and diced and humanities was sliced and diced as well. I agree that the labeling of subjects leads to a misunderstanding of the world around us. Meaning, the " I do not like math (science, reading, pe, music, you name it). On the other hand, I think it is ok to label disciplines if the projects themselves have an integrative approach. Science can be communicated with stories. Art techniques and sketching as thinking can be utilized for design and engineering projects. First: Teachers need to be trained in content as well as process, With an understanding that content does fluctuate and process allows flexibility. If it is meaningful and a child cares , spelling does count because where there are writers there are readers. Yet it may not count right away, drafts and prototypes are not perfect.

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