Thursday, November 15, 2007

Spelling Duhlimmah [sic]

I loathe so-called "invented spelling". To me, it symbolizes the "dumbed down", hippy-dippy, feel-good, "Whole Language" fad so popular in government-run schools in the '90's. My youngest brother had to endure this approach, which placed so much emphasis on building children's "self esteem" and so little on actually teaching them to read, spell, and write properly. I am convinced that it played a large factor in his scoring about 100 points less on the SAT than my other brother, dad, mom, and I did. It wasn't just my brother who struggled, either. There was a marked slump in the school's MCAS (state standardized test) scores for his entire grade compared with previous grades. When it came time for college admissions, significantly fewer of them won spots at top tier schools than was typical. Now either they were simply a dumber bunch of kids (something I doubt given my knowledge of my brother & his friends) or the school simply did not teach them as well as it had previous classes.

In our homeschool, I've decided to reject the "Whole Language" approach in favor of systematic & explicit instruction in things like phonics and grammar. So far, it seems to have worked very well. DD has made great progress in reading and her knowledge of the English language. She's been flying through First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind by Jessie Wise and will probably finish it in late January or early February.

I had not planned on starting a formal spelling or written composition program until she was a bit older; instead, I've been having her dictate compositions orally and do Charlotte Mason-style copywork. The reason for this is that there is a significant lag between her ability to physically write letters and her cognitive ability. I am not concerned by this since I'm pretty confident that her fine motor skills are normal for a girl her age.

In the past week or so, I've noticed that DD has decided on her own to start writing. She'll now do things like write up a menu for her dolls' tea party, a Christmas wish list, a map for Daddy to "show" him the route to his office, labels for the doors to the rooms in our home, and so on. I'm a bit torn by this. On the one hand, I think it's fantastic that she enjoys writing and that I don't have to prompt her to do so. On the other hand, they are full of "invented spellings":

  • WATR
  • VLAN (violin)
All of these are good guesses for words that follow more complex phonics rules. I wouldn't expect a 5 year old to be able to spell them. But they now create a dilemma for me as to what to do about them. What I've been doing so far is praising her attempt and then writing the correct spelling next to her "invented" one. I'm wondering if this will be enough for now or whether it's time to start a formal spelling program like Spelling Power or Starting a Spelling Notebook by Mari McAllister.

I have bad memories of spelling lessons from when I was a kid and part of me is cringing at the mere thought of word lists and quizzes. However, I'm not sure how much of that is due to the fact that the lists were the same for the entire class and consequently far too easy for me. Would I have felt the same utter tedium if the words had been appropriately challenging? Obviously, with homeschooling, I can individually tailor the spelling program to DD's needs in a way impossible in a class of 20-30 students.

I wish I knew what the best course of action would be- to start a formal spelling program now to nip the "invented spelling" in the bud or whether I can hold off on that until she's a bit older.


Christina said...

A lot of it depends on your daughter's personality - is she a perfectionist? If she is, then I think focusing on her incorrect spellings at this age is most likely to make her cringe at the idea of writing because she knows she won't get it right. My kids are older (8, 11) and they're doing a formal spelling program now, mostly for the elder because the younger is a natural speller. (Excellence in Writing is what we use.) What I have done at earlier ages is not to point out the mistakes in the context of their writing, but to keep in close observation and use their common errors in grammar and spelling to guide me in what to cover with them. Now that I've got older kids, I show them errors in their writing, but I don't insist on acknowledging every single one; it's still more of a springboard to work with them on the mechanics of a particular problem they're having. With my elder for example, when she's progressing through drafts of a piece, we'll take it in steps - a spelling rewrite, a punctuation rewrite, a grammar rewrite, a style rewrite. It can be offputting for her to watch the errors accumulate, given her temperament - I believe in building skills gradually!

I guess I see a big difference in encouraging inventive spelling at the expense of instruction, and letting it go by unhighlighted while proper spelling is taught.

Nancy J. Bond said...

My youngest brother had to endure this approach, which placed so much emphasis on building children's "self esteem" and so little on actually teaching them to read, spell, and write properly.

My older daughter faced the same stress in elementary school. She wrote an essay on squirrels one day, and misspelled "squirell" -- when I praised her for her essay and pointed out this one tiny mistake, suggesting she correct the spelling before handing her project in, she eventually dissolved into tears, saying that she would get into trouble if she erased the word and changed the spelling. I ultimately had a meeting with her teacher who told me that they didn't like to "thwart the children's creativity" by being "too fixated on spelling at this stage". I'm certain she was in Grade 4 or 5 by this time.

It's the very reason why a large percentage of university students can't spell simple two syllable words. And it drives me nuts!

Alasandra said...

I think your approach of writing the correct spelling next to the word she attempted to spell is a good one. Obviously she wants to know how to write these words.

If I had known now what I didn't know then, my youngest son would have never went to public school. They did the whole language thing, it was called "Writing to Read" at his school and the kindergartners were encouraged to write stories and spell the words however they thought they should be spelled. The next year when they actually wanted the words spelled correctly he refused to learn the correct spelling; after all his made up spelling had been OK for a whole year. We struggled with this issue for years after I started homeschooling.

Rebecca said...

Thank you for this post, I must say i sympathize. You could be describing my oldest. My middle child actually does better than his older sister with spelling when writing of his own volition. My dd on the other hand, spells well and writes reasonably neatly during lessons (we also do CM) but when she is writing of her own accord, her handwriting is barely legible and her spelling is entirely of her own contrivance, even words which she spells correctly during lessons.

We have done formal spelling lessons off and on (WISE Guide to Spelling); I hesitated to do this because I was afraid it would turn dd off spelling, but she LOVES it and is always asking when we are going to do it again. The WISE Guide teaches words in order of most common usage, so the first few sections cover the 260 words which comprise over 50% of what we read and write. Mastering those words at least means that half of what she writes will be spelled correctly :)

I've watched dd's spelling s-l-o-w-l-y come along since she first began reading and writing three years ago, and I think the key is to observe the kinds of contrived spellings she makes. Are her inventions logical? Are her errors logical? Phonetic? Do you see her beginning to grasp the underlying phonological rules? Do you see some of the more common words appearing more and more often with the correct spelling?

So, I think the formal spelling study has helped. But I think there is a developmental issue at play here and that the rest will come in time. She still has some letter reversals and issues with sequencing (she just caught on this year that when writing in a notebook, you have to start at the beginning and progress through each page!)

Now if someone can inspire my confidence as to her penmanship...

Linda said...

A great post which raises a great question!

Continuing in phonics will make a huge difference (or it does with most kids!) If you informally work on spelling which follows the phonics she is learning, she will begin to put the two together. I am a fan of phonics based spelling programs. Not just random lists, but lists grouped according to phonics rules and principles.


Timothy Power said...

Our own 5-year-old daughter is going through exactly the same thing. Her spelling isn't bad--especially given that she's only five, for crying out loud--but she certainly misspells words, and we don't want her to assimilate the incorrect spellings and then be unwilling to fix them later.

Recently she made a picket-style sign that proudly announced "I AM THE WINER"! As mommy and I contemplated all the possible pronunciations and meanings of the word "winer", we had a good laugh at all the things our daughter was inadvertently saying....

Anna said...

My understanding is that as the child learns the rules, the invented spellings will get better, and eventually the switch will happen to wanting to spell it correctly.

My oldest is five and doing making very similar shopping lists. :)

Chili said...

Oh, PLEASE don't correct her spelling right now! My daughter just turned 7 and I'm homeschooling her this year (1st grade). She was in public school for kindergarten and we were delighted when they taught her to read, and she too started writing spontaneously, leaving adorable notes all over the place. Then they "taught" her to write. Now, no more notes. It's like pulling teeth to get her to write anything, because she is so freaked out about misspellings. She HATES writing now, and just about refuses to do it unless she can copy something. I understand your concern with the Whole Language thing, but I'm convinced that in most avid readers, spelling is self-correcting: as they see and become familiar with more words, they will naturally spell better. If not, it's not too late to start spelling at 2nd or even 3rd grade.