Chalk Talk: The case for spelling

  • Molly Watkins Courtesy photo

For the Gazette
Published: 2/19/2020 8:31:23 AM

My work as a reading tutor frequently leads me to specialized websites that probably do not interest most people. For example, I am fascinated by the history of silent letters and the schwa in English. I search tirelessly for multisensory ways to practice the eight long sound spellings for the vowel e. The history of English was shaped by invaders with other languages, and knowing the origin of words can help us read and spell correctly. The study of Latin and Greek roots provides information about meaning and spelling that can be generalized to groups of words. Incredibly, about 85% of words in English can be spelled accurately if students are aware of various possible spelling patterns.

I regularly see how empowered my students are when they can tell me why they chose a particular spelling over another possibility. Spelling should not be a guessing game. When children learn rules and spelling patterns, they are able to read more complex texts. Researcher Louisa Moats writes about the strong link between spelling and writing. When too much cognitive energy goes into thinking about spelling, a young writer’s increasingly complex ideas may never make it on the page.

In addition to explicit teaching of spelling rules, I also think about writing as a means of self expression and communication. The sentences I assign in a session, such as “The players pouted and whined about the curfew,” are meant to provide opportunities to practice certain vowel and consonant combinations. But I often wonder, what do my students really want to say? What would they write if I asked them what they believe to be true?

I met recently with a colleague to plan for an upcoming youth writing event. Our workshop is based on Edward R. Murrow’s “This I Believe” radio show, which first aired in 1951. The premise of the program was that people will be happier if they know what they want from life. Contributors wrote brief personal philosophies, some of which were influenced by the economic uncertainties and fear for the future brought on by the Cold War. In our project, we asked middle-school-age students to ponder and share with the group what rings true for them. I remember being astounded at last year’s workshop when these young people, many of whom had met for the first time that morning, were unabashed as they called out their beliefs. We were face to face at that moment, technology free.

I dash out an occasional opinion on social media platforms, but I don’t know who is listening unless I remember to check back later for a “like.” I censor my language because I want to avoid conflict in public. So then, what do I truly believe?

I believe that what I teach my students about English, its roots as well as contemporary usage, will help them see that spelling with confidence at least some of the time can free up space for the real, good work of writing. I believe that I can guide them to connect their growing certainty of the words they read to the words they write.

What do we know for sure? Novelist Anne Lamott made a list of everything she knew for sure a few days before her 61st birthday. I find myself at a similar age motivated to solidify, at least for now, a few truths that ground me and require no thumbs up from my peers. (Note the silent b in “thumbs”.)

Molly Watkins has taught at the elementary school level in San Francisco, Boston and Amherst. She is currently an Orton Gillingham tutor in training and a teacher-consultant with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project.

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