What does it mean to spell well?

February 7, 2011

I am lucky that I am a decent speller.  I don’t have to wonder how to spell most words, and I can recognize it immediately when I’ve misspelled something.  Growing up, I attributed this to being a voracious reader.  My parents also spelled well and were eager readers.  My brother preferred nonfiction and didn’t read much for fun as a boy, but his spelling was still pretty good.  So I decided that reading must have some connection to spelling.

As a middle school teacher for ten years (and now a 4th/5th grade teacher for the last three years), I observed many things about spelling, and I’m more confused than ever about what good spelling correlates with.  There were, generally speaking, four categories of students in terms of spelling and other academic work.

Category One — students who excelled in all areas, including spelling.  These are the students who get all their words correct every week, no matter what the spelling rule or the challenges given.  They like to read, they like to write, they spell well.  This was the category I would have been in as a child, and it fits my initial thoughts on spelling.  These kids spell well, I would have guessed, because they read.

Category Two — students who struggle in all areas, including spelling.  I don’t have as many of these students as one might expect, but I do have them.  Everything academic is hard, whether it be spelling or math or writing or reading.

Category Three — students who struggle in most areas but excel at spelling.  I encountered this group in middle school and was told by an expert language arts teacher that one reason we had spelling tests was that for some students, it was the only thing we could say in the report was “excellent.”  I guessed at the time that maybe these students memorized easily but had trouble processing complex things.  I’m not sure about that now.  As a middle school teacher, I saw a fair number of students like these, but I see fewer of them now, either because of the age difference or because students have changed in some way.

Category Four — students who are voracious readers and eager writers, but are lousy spellers.  This was a group that, according to my childhood concept, should not exist.  If heavy reading made you a good speller, you should not have readers and writers who spell terribly.  But I do.  Lots of them, actually.  I would say that over the last thirteen years, my category three group has diminished while my category four group has grown.  I don’t understand how you can be an avid reader and NOT notice misspelled words everywhere, but some of my students seem to completely overlook misspelled words.

So what accounts for good spelling?  It’s clearly not just a function of reading or writing.  And it’s clearly not a key correlate of general academic prowess, either.  In fact, the other observation I’ve made over the years is that spelling doesn’t even correlate with spelling;  that is, I’ve seen students ace weekly spelling tests and yet misspell the same words repeatedly in their own writing.  How can you spend all week staring at a word, learning how to spell it, and yet not be able to spell it again days later when you’re writing?

The point of this musing is not to wonder about the future of spelling.  Many people predicted the downfall of spelling with the advent of computers with spell check programs.  The problem with those programs is they don’t actually know what you’re trying to say.  Knowing when to use “it’s” vs. “its” is not something the computer recognizes as an issue.  If it’s a word, it’s spelled correctly.  So I don’t think, at least not yet, that spelling is a dead issue.

But I do wonder what being a good speller or a poor speller means, as spelling doesn’t seem to correlate with much.  I am pleased that my son is a naturally good speller only because I think things are easier that way, but I’m not sure I’d be wringing my hands if he struggled with spelling while continuing to do well in other areas.  Just as some people do math easily in their heads, some people automatically spell well, and in both cases it’s helpful but not required for a meaningful life.


9 Responses to “What does it mean to spell well?”

  1. I feel like you are missing the category that I would have fallen in as a child: successful at school, but not an avid reader or good speller. I remember doing well in all my classes but spelling. I hated spelling tests, because I just couldn’t picture what the word was supposed to look like.

    I am a horrible speller, and I definitely only read when I had to. Without a great teacher or librarian to take the time to listen to my interests (common comment thread?) and find books that I would have loved, it took until I was in college and beyond to start loving books. As an adult, I’ve certainly listened to more books than I’ve read… another reason I’m not a good speller perhaps.

    My daughter is a good reader, but a bad speller. I’m not really sure why that is, and like you, assumed it would get better the more she read. It doesn’t seem to be getting better. Funny thing, she does seem to do well on her spelling tests.

    I wonder how “kid spelling” helps her hinders. Many of her misspelled words are logically spelled, but flat our wrong. I’m not a spelling teacher, or a good speller, so I find it difficult to know how to help her besides trusting that a computer will help her one day, and telling her to read more!

    • As you’re saying you did well in subjects at school other than spelling, I assume you did okay on reading even if you didn’t enjoy it (and thus fall into the category of students who do well at everything but spelling). I’m sorry that your teachers didn’t try to help you find a book you’d love, though I have to say from experience that sometimes this can be really hard. (Sometimes I know a student would love a book but it’s hard convincing him/her to try it. With my son, who can be stubborn like this, I just start reading the first two chapters aloud to him, and then he’s so into it he’ll voraciously continue on his own.)

      The reason I am surprised that you’re not a good speller is because you are a visual person, and one thing I think of spelling is recognizing what words are supposed to look like. Sometimes I look at a word I’m reading and instantly know it’s not right, even if it takes me longer to see why, and I assume that’s because my eyes are scanning it and it doesn’t visually match what it’s supposed to in your brain. As I said, though, I’m not sure what spelling correlates with. Might be an interesting summer research project…

  2. Missy said

    Zeke is a category 4. Read tons of books as an elementary student (though he reads less now, and says he doesn’t like it anymore, which confuses me) and still did crazy things like spell floor “flore.” He has big problems with “s” and “c,” you will see him do something like “suspence,” and similar words, constantly. I worked a lot with him in elementary school, though I rarely see his homework now, and it never seemed to make much difference. He still makes the same mistakes, from what I can tell, and it doesn’t seem to bother him at all.

    • Zeke’s pretty busy these days and the books get more complicated as you get older. Plus he’s a teenager who probably knows something about how irritating/confusing you find it that he says he doesn’t like to read. I have had periods in my life where I had less time for pleasure reading, and I survived, and I was glad at later times when I could read more often again. I wouldn’t write Zeke’s reading off just yet.

  3. David said

    I am definitely a category four and I will hold my vocabulary up against that of anyone. But spelling? Worst speller ever. The link above, does not directly address your questions, but it does speak to how the mind recognizes words. This recognition seems to have some correlation, but not complete dependence, on how the word is spelled. This could explain how some voracious readers are poor spellers. They know lots of words but are more focused on the meaning than the spelling.

    • I don’t remember you having trouble with spelling, and you were quite a competitive student. (I do remember that.)
      As for your link, I can imagine that some faster readers process words so quickly that they don’t note the misspelled part and instead are forming more interesting thoughts about what they’ve read. I took some courses in graduate school on reading comprehension, and good readers tend to already be thinking about what’s ahead even before they’ve read it. Your brain is trying to make meaning even before your visual system has finished decoding. So your thoughts on that make sense to me.

  4. Bryan said

    First, I have to tell you that I never fell into any of the categories that you summarized, but I would imagine that a lot of students would. I almost always found reading to be a bit boring and would rather proactively be in action rather than sitting still reading. The Chronicles of Narnia in Eileen Siedler’s 4th grade class is the only exception to this personal rule of thumb; thus, we can weed out Category 4. I didn’t struggle in most areas, but I was a great speller when I was younger at least (so I’m not Category 3). I didn’t excel (Category I) or struggle (Category 2)in all my classes either.

    My ability to spell well was simply facilitated by Michelle W. at Brown School. She had taken some class called Sprint that helps you to read faster, understand better, and absorb more. I could have cared less, but in Sue McV’s class I would read after Michelle. It doesn’t bother me one iota if people don’t think I’m smart, but it rattles my cage plenty if people think I’m flat out stupid, so I had to study. I forced myself to read, got acquainted with my dictionaries, and learned a new word everyday for years. I didn’t study for good grades, or for a teacher to appreciate me. I got up close and personal with books because it was easier to face their pages, than it was to face Michelle W’s outstanding reading abilities. I was simply a victim of my circumstances thank God.
    Thanks Michelle ~ from 5th grade to the ends of time.

    • What a wonderful tribute to Michelle! And it also shows how hardworking you are, because you worked your tail off to make sure you didn’t seem stupid. (And I would say it worked mighty well, too.)

      Of course, every generalization will have exceptions. And it’s kind of exciting to be an exception to a generalization. 🙂

  5. Mitchell said

    I have realized thorought my eleventh grade Honors English class, that spelling vocabulary words is easy ten points weekly. However, to get a perfect on these vocabulary tests, we are also expected to become familiar with the corresponding words’ definitions. In some sense, learning the definitions helped me remember the spelling, because of simple prefix, root, and suffix rules, but also, I knew what the word meant, so I could use the words correctly in my writings for other classes. In my own opinion, I believe all spelling test should include the definitions, so the children become knowledgeable with their spelling words.

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