Department header
Bewildering Stories

Spelling and the Playground

by Don Webb

A side discussion has raised a question of general interest: how do we learn?

A little context is in order. I had mentioned that teaching English spelling is a waste of time beyond the second year of school; children would learn more by reading.

A provocative response came from another Review Editor:

In other words, you are a supporter of the deductive method? You truly think that all kids are able to make out the rules as they read? Practice before theory? You believe that if they read enough, they will notice the patterns?

Maybe. That's a way to learn a foreign language, by immersion. It doesn't work for everyone, not for all age groups and learning styles. I am a believer of rules first, practice last. Some parents teach their kids to swim by throwing them into the water. Others teach them the arm movements out of water first.

No child will learn to swim simply by being tossed into a swimming pool. Anyone who “teaches” swimming that way ought to be locked up as a menace to life and limb. Human beings are land animals; we do not naturally know how to swim. We can learn by trial and error, given a long time and a safe environment, but it’s a lot easier to be taught.

Human beings are born knowing how to learn language — any language. Children learn it automatically; that’s what they’re designed to do, just as fish hatch knowing how to swim.

But children are not born learning how to spell. Writing is not language; it’s a representation of language. And that’s why any system of writing must be taught formally. There’s no way children can figure it out for themselves.

Children do need to be taught the rules of spelling up through the end of the second year of school. But that’s enough: once they’ve learned the rules, repeating what they already know with “drill and kill” makes life very easy for the teacher and very dull for the pupils.

What about the exceptions for which English is infamous? Someone — I forget who — has estimated that English spelling is about 15 percent irregular. That’s a disgrace, but it is not an insurmountable obstacle. Exceptions can be taught as such, when needed, not as rules in themselves.

Children who learn to read in German, Italian, Russian or Spanish have life almost absurdly easy. Once they know what the letters of the alphabet represent, they can start reading. If those children knew what their English-speaking counterparts have to endure, they’d shake their heads pityingly: “Two years learning how to spell? Is this some kind of ethnic joke?”

The only exception I know of is French. The language’s unique phonetic system has made true spelling reform — like that of Italian and Spanish — impossible. The spelling is exceedingly intricate. However, it is also rigorously consistent. If you know the rules, you can pronounce correctly any word you see without having to consult a dictionary. But if you hear a word you’ve never seen written, you have no chance of spelling it correctly. Therefore the best way to learn French spelling is first by learning the rules and then by reading.

It’s somewhat the same in English. You have seven chances in eight of spelling correctly a word you’ve heard but have never seen before. You have somewhat less chance of pronouncing correctly a word you’ve seen but not heard. Those are poor odds, but they’re better than zero.

I’m presuming, of course, that spelling is taught phonetically. The “look-say” or “whole word” or “word-guessing” method was originally devised to teach reading to the deaf. In recent times it has been misapplied to children who can hear, as though an alphabet, which is based on sound, were a visual representation like Egyptian hieroglyphs or Chinese ideographs. The consequences have been unfortunate.

How do we learn language, anyway? There’s a story told about a little girl who comes to America from a country in Asia. She’s about seven years old and is put in school with her age group. She knows only her own language. She watches what goes on in the classroom but never speaks.

Sometimes a special education teacher comes in to teach her some vocabulary. The little girl listens politely but never says a word. At recess she goes out to the playground and watches her classmates at their games.

This goes on for seven long months. Then suddenly one day the little girl begins speaking. In English. In complete sentences. With perfect pronunciation. But what language is she speaking? That of her teachers? No, she’s speaking the language of her classmates, which she learned by watching and listening to them, out on the playground.

To be fair, the teachers and classroom may have helped incidentally, but the little girl — like everybody else — learns what she understands and what she can use.

Teach spelling rules, yes; but don’t waste years repeating them. Let children go out to the playground of literature; let them see and hear language in action; that’s what they’ll understand and that’s what they can use.

Copyright © 2011 by Don Webb

Home Page