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Spelling and Phonics

The second pillar of education is spelling. Unfortunately, this skill is, like handwriting, going by the wayside. Many think that with the cultural takeover of computers, a personal knowledge of spelling is no longer necessary because of spellcheck. This is a great fallacy. If you can't spell well, spellcheck can't always decipher what word you are attempting to write. Then the computer program will guess at the wrong word. Or, if you have used a homonym spelling for the word you want or another word entirely (e.g., if you type in a mistake, but the mistaken typo is an actual word, such as hone instead of home), the computer won't catch it because what you typed is a real word.

Consider this quote by reading specialist Susan Jones: "In the hands of the student with good language skills, the spell checker is a real timesaver. However, it can actually interfere with the learning process. The writer must rely on starting the word correctly and getting most letters right, and the spell checker will not correct when a misspelling is another legitimate word. . . . In other words, spell checkers give us reason to teach spelling and precise word usage more thoroughly, not less." The skill of spelling enables us to edit and check our own work. Although computers help in the edit/checking process, they cannot and will not catch everything. One of our educational goals for our students should be to help them eventually reach the point where they are able to check their own work.

Besides the limitations of spellcheckers, the inability to spell well greatly slows down the writing process. Spelling is foundational to good writing and to speed in writing. (Remember that writing is necessary for ALL subjects—even mathematics. One of my daughters is studying math in college, and she had to write a couple papers for her Advanced Calculus class.) Good handwriting and proper spelling are the early skills upon which hang all other writing skills: "As your child gets older and progresses through various grades, he or she will have to write reports and papers. Instructors at all grade levels, including the university level, will grade harshly on poor spelling. This will invariably affect your child’s grade and possibly determine his future success in life."

Spelling is inseparably linked with phonics. Without a good grasp of phonics, spelling remains a mystery or something that can only be learned by rote, word by word. But there are too many words in the English language to learn how to spell them all by rote! An understanding of phonics enables our students or children to apply consistent patterns to a multitude of words. Because the English language borrows from many other languages, spelling is challenging. One letter can say several different sounds and several letters can say the same sounds. Some, then, are tempted to throw their hands up in defeat and declare that phonics and spelling are impossible to learn. But there are patterns and, believe it or not, most words (97% of them, one phonics program claims) fit phonetic/spelling patterns. With a good foundation in phonics and spelling, the English language begins to make sense and is readily decoded.

Sometimes a new word that we aren't familiar with will cause a problem, and spelling it seems like a huge guessing game. But if you know the phonetic spelling principles, you can at least make an intelligent guess. And, if using a computer, an intelligent guess will usually enable the computer to come up with the correct word and spelling. But if you can't even make an intelligent guess at the spelling, spellchecker won't help nor will a dictionary. Good spelling goes hand in hand with good reading. If a child cannot decipher new words through the use of phonetics, then he/she is confined to a very limited number of words. Phonics enables children to read new words that aren't familiar to them and to read them correctly.

Susan Jones also addresses the link between spelling and reading: "The path to fluent reading includes a firm foundation in the sounds represented by letters and their spelling. Spelling can and should be an integral part of language instruction for every student. It is mortar that helps students master the basics of language, especially students who may struggle with reading. Rather than dismiss it as a frill to “focus harder” on reading, teaching spelling and handwriting enables a struggling student to use different senses and strengths to learn and master the relationship between the sounds and symbols of our language, which is the backbone of reading."

Not everything we do is done on computers. Good spelling helps prepare our children for life. Sometimes job applications have to be filled out by hand. Research shows that good spelling puts a job applicant at an advantage above those whose spelling is poor: "A study examining resume preferences found that misspelling and poor grammar would usually screen the applicant out of the hiring process." And, "Surveys of Fortune 500 companies in 1978, 1985, and 1995, published in the Career Development Journal, focused on trends in the evaluation of resumes. Compared to earlier years, the later survey found more emphasis on grammar and spelling: More weight was given to a candidate's spelling skills than even their grade average or previous work experience. With spelling and language skills on a continuous decline, mastery in this area is more than ever taken as an indicator of a superior education, an [sic] hard-working character and intelligence."

As spelling skills decline, so do the old-fashioned skills of taking notes during a sermon or lecture, writing a letter to a grandparent or a friend, sending a personal thank you note when someone has shown you some kindness, or simply taking down a phone message. Good spelling is essential for so many things in life, playing a major role in our communication with others. Once learned well, good handwriting and good spelling give ease to almost everything else in life.

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