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Does Spelling Count?

Shira Loewenstein

Associate Director of Teaching and Learning
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"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?

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CarolArc's picture
Business-Entrepreneurship/technology/career/personal finance

Your post couldn't have come at a more appropriate time. I gave back graded tests for senior personal finance class and they criticized me for taking 1point off for misspelled words. "do you believe she took off 1pt. for their/they're....Ms. Are you kidding? really?" When did learning become students making the rules?

Elizabeth McCarthy's picture

I would hope that it doesn't count so much as to define the quality of their message or who they are as a learner. If that is the first question a student asks when challenged with a writing activity then I begin to wonder. Yes, spelling is important and needs to be taught, as well as how to use spell check when writing a paper.

Becky's picture
Gifted Education Specialist

I used to be in charge of correspondence for a national organization. A woman in CA often had good ideas but they were buried in awful spelling, poor grammar, and convoluted structure. I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out her message. I don't think most people would have spent the time necessary to parse out the message because of how it was presented. I always tell my students that story. In this world of spell check and grammar check the tools make it much easier to present one's message in a clear and professional manner. I am not a good speller, but I do my best to present my ideas with proper spelling and grammar and encourage my students to use the tools at hand to do so, too. (I sure hope there are no errors in this posting!) I'm pretty sure that if they take the effort to express their ideas, they want them read and seriously considered. It's a matter of respect of both the writer and the reader.

Doug Pederson AKA SpectateSwamp's picture
Doug Pederson AKA SpectateSwamp
Supported numerous library systems over the years

I have a friend that is an extremely poor speller. I have no trouble with the messages. I would never correct him for fear of losing a friend. Maybe because I am not that great of a speller myself (use spell checks) I can easily understand?

Me's picture

In response to one person's post on here about how the kids get angry or say "I can't believe she took off for that!" when referring to basic spelling. I teach high school and the same happened to me and almost always happens when I ask them to capitalize the first letter of their sentences and put a period at the end. I would say about 40% of my new class this year does not know or remember this basic rule. Even now, five months into the year, I still catch about 5-7 who just won't put a period, question mark or start a sentence with a capital letter. The number is only going down because I take off .5 of a point on any answer if they forget it. Spelling is a whole other issue that needs work as well! Their spelling in both English and Spanish is generally awful. I teach mixed regular education language classes, but have to wonder, what are they doing in the primary levels to the point that once they reach 9-10th grade, remembering to write a period is such a challenge in either language?

Glenn's picture
Middle School Math from western New Jersey

Thread has strayed from the original concern of the students, who asked in a NON-L/A class if "spelling counts?"
Of course, to be taken seriously in the world, spelling, punctuation and grammar "count". But it is not fair to expect a student who struggles in L/A to expend MAJOR processing capacity on spelling when trying to perform in science, math, etc. In effect you would be handicapping a student who probably already struggles in school.

Eman Elhosiny's picture
Eman Elhosiny
Science Education Curriculum Specialist

(((please, just don't call it "science." ))).....this sentence is very enough to describe what we have done in our classroom ...
but i have one misconception between (( let student to describe as you do at the first & hold a hands on activities or projects or discussion. ))?? can you clear it

Tom p.'s picture

I once taught in a district that had allowed second graders to use "inventive spelling"--if they could read it there was no concern, it was considered right. I got them six years later, and it was hard. Very hard.

I now have scored standardized tests for years. The lack of ability to spell even simple words in responses, let alone write in sentences, is amazing.

Teachers can forgive and understand how a student writes after a year with them. Scorers and those who do not know them can't be as kind. And the students need to learn that sooner instead of later.

A flat "yes" should be the required answer in all classes. If a student is already struggling, you are not helping them grow and learn by letting them skip basic spelling and writing rules.

Toby Aickin's picture
Toby Aickin
High School History and ToK teacher

It is ironic that students start out their education (in EC classes) learning in an "un-siloed" way, we split up the subjects by first grade, and then try to put them back together (at least in the IB program in Theory of Knowledge) during their junior and senior years. I agree that it would be a great idea to start breaking down the barriers we've created.

Also, in regards to spelling, whenever my students ask I always shoot back, "Which answer will make you try your best to spell correctly?" The question itself seems so if a student might put forth less effort if spelling "doesn't count." I suppose it is a symptom of what the author mentioned. A student who asks the question is mostly concerned with grades and not learning (and possibly because our system has taught them to value grades and not learning).

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