Spelling Trauma: An Anecdote of Frustration

This summer, students in READ 6313 Literacy Development and Language Study were asked to contribute a post to this blog.

By M.R. Graham

Young writers go through a period during which they want to use words they do not know how to spell. They cope by inventing a spelling, just like very small children invent or mispronounce words. The standard teacher response to these attempts seems to be not praise for an expanding vocabulary, but criticism for nonstandard spelling. This is a problem.

Let me take you back a decade and a half to a fifth-grade classroom in a sizeable public elementary school somewhere in the bowels of Houston, Texas. The pudgy, bookish child at the end of the middle row is looking over the comments on her most recent Writer’s Notebook entry. She loves this activity. She writes reflections, poetry, and short stories. She writes lists and notes to herself and observations on her environment. Often, she illustrates them as well. Last night, she wrote a daily schedule for herself.

Unfortunately, she spelled it “SHEDULE,” and now there is a red mark at the top of the page, demanding that she copy over the entire passage using the correct spelling. She does the logical thing – raises her hand and asks for the correct spelling. She is told to look it up in the dictionary. There are thirty pages of words that begin with the sh sound, and schedule is not among them. She asks for help. The teacher tells her to try a different dictionary. A bigger one, perhaps.

She obtains a hall pass and makes for the library, aiming for the huge book on a podium by the door, the one she is not able to lift. There are more than fifty pages of sh words. Schedule  is still not there. She asks the librarian for help, but the teacher has contacted the librarian while the student was wandering the halls, and the librarian informs the student cheerfully that they are teaching her to find information for herself.

The student returns, defeated, to the classroom. She turns the page and begins to write a story, one that does not include the word schedule. The teacher takes the notebook away and insists that she keep working on her scheduling problem.

No one thinks to mention that there is an alternate pronunciation, similar to school, that could shed some light on the issue.

The student produces a number of attempts:

SHEDULE

SHEDUL

SHEDUAL

SHEDUALL

SHED YOU ALL

She remembers that vacuum has two Us, so she tries that.

SHEDUUL

Or maybe she was just enunciating too much?

SHEJULE

The teacher looks at the last couple of tries and tells the child that her attempts are stupid and getting progressively worse. Only bad writers spell like that. Having previously been praised for her poetry, the student is confused and upset. Is it possible that writing quality is determined exclusively by spelling? Can a good writer become a poor one? Is she a bad writer?

I hope this account sounds as ridiculous as it felt to me at the time. I was saved by having a reading specialist for a mother, one who refused to put up with this kind of garbage, but other students are not as lucky. Consider this a plea. Children learn to speak by imitating what they hear, and to write by imitating what they read. Look at what the child says, not at the mistakes they make while saying it, and give them good models to imitate. Language cannot be pulled from thin air.

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