Is Your Child Inventing Spelling?

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In what now seems like that long, long ago land before I gave birth myself, I babysat for a wonderful family. I had known their daughter since she was eight months old and I adored the mom and dad. I was teaching freshman English at North Carolina State University when I started babysitting and I was still teaching when their firstborn started school. The proud mom showed me a story that her daughter had written, while still in kindergarten. I started reading it and noticed a lot of misspellings. "It’s okay about the misspellings," the mom had told me, seeming to read my mind, "teachers now just want students to express themselves and worry about the correct spelling later."

As a teacher of first-year students at NCSU, I knew that later would probably never come. At that moment, I began to understand why many of my freshmen didn’t know the difference between "hear" and "here" and other such homophones; I began to see that if spell check didn’t catch it, a mistake wouldn’t be caught.

Nonetheless, the mother and her also well-educated husband didn’t seem concerned that their child was learning to spell incorrectly.

Fast forward to a California homeschool park day a few weeks ago when a mom who used to teach first grade told me that handwriting books have arrows for a reason: When a child is learning to write, he or she needs to start at the top and go toward the bottom, following those helpful arrows. "It’s easier to learn it the correct way first," she told me, "It’s difficult to go back and relearn handwriting."

What, I began to wonder, is the difference in learning to write wrong and learning to spell wrong?

I was talking about this learning-to-spell-wrong thing yesterday as I presented a session, "What’s So Funny About Grammar?" at the California Homeschool Network’s Family Expo in Ontario, Calif. A dear audience member told me that learning to spell wrong has a name these days: Invented Spelling.

I took a few minutes from my session to ponder aloud what was going on here. I remember a dear and wonderful writer friend of mine whose son sent my child a note once, with my child’s name misspelled. One thing that I learned reading Dale Carnegie books (hey, I was a bored 13-year-old, okay?) is that you should always spell someone’s name correctly. Always. And if you don’t, you can always apologize. The sweet note from my friend’s son had indeed spelled my son’s name as it sounded, not as it’s actually spelled.

So, what’s the problem with this invented spelling stuff? And why are well-educated middle-class parents putting up with it?

When I asked this question of another friend the other day, whose child is also learning to spell wrong, she told me that "the teachers have master’s degrees and Ph.D.s," as if an education degree means that a person is qualified to help shape children’s minds. How can an educator with a master’s degree allow a child to spell incorrectly? A parent doing the same thing will probably soon be charged with child abuse by our overzealous, taxpayer-funded, grossly misnamed "Child Protective Services."

But it’s okay if a child learns it at school. Why?

Could it be that "Invented Spelling," also known as learning to spell wrong, is part of the giant plan to dumb us all down? Taking a look at Charlotte Iserbyt’s work, one begins to see how it’s in the government’s best interest if we don’t know how to spell. Iserbyt worked with the Department of Education during the Reagan era and had believed that Reagan would shut down the Department of Education. He didn’t, of course, and Iserbyt made some interesting copies of documents that describe plans for government schools, some of which are just now coming to fruition. Guess what? Those plans are not for your children to achieve their full potential.

Invented spelling and other whims of education are quite effective in making students into ineffective communicators. Writing is a direct reflection of thinking, and learning to spell correctly is imperative to learning to express oneself effectively. When students learn that it’s more important to express themselves per se than to do so correctly, what ensues are very expressive individuals who behave like boorish idiots. Supposedly intelligent talk becomes the emotionally-based regurgitations one hears on Oprah or the rude shoutfests of AM talk radio. It’s no wonder that mainstream media look upon the intelligent, thoughtful, calm, and rational Ron Paul as a dinosaur. The argumentative logic of Aristotle has been replaced by the emotional pleas of a Britney Spears meltdown.

I am making sure that my children learn to spell correctly. We talk about how a word sounds and how it would seem to be spelled versus how it’s actually spelled. Our informal spelling lessons, which take place everywhere, from the car to the bathroom, sometimes lead to a trip to the regular old standard dictionary, where we can find out the origin and meaning of a word, and sometimes they lead to a trip to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) on compact disc, where we can learn more about how a word came into our language. I required the OED from anybody who wanted to marry me. My now husband gave me a copy of the OED and I said yes to his marriage proposal. After almost ten years, things seem to be working well on both sides of that bargain.

Photo by Morris Vaughan

As we were leaving Ontario on Sunday, we happened to be following an SUV. On the dusty rear window, someone had written "We are fucken awsome." Maybe I should have been concerned about the profanity, but what struck me more was the spelling. It’s hard to be awesome when you don’t know how to spell the word.

Tricia Shore [send her mail], Comic Mom, currently lives in Los Angeles, but misses the sweet tea and grits of her home state, North Carolina. Despite her academic and corporate background, she has recently become hip enough to be on MySpace. Her book, What’s So Funny About Grammar is scheduled for publication later this year. She is a thinking mama to three energetic sons.

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