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Why Johnny Can't Spell

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Is your child orthographically challenged? He or she is not alone. “I was just at a neighborhood get-together where parents were complaining about it,” says education researcher Louisa Moats. “Spelling has become summer cocktail talk. That says something.”

Moats, 56, the author of three books on reading and director of an ongoing study of reading education by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, thinks the parental concern is on target. “Spelling problems are so common it’s frightening,” she says. Indeed, Moats sees a significant decline in children’s ability to spell—and she blames the way reading is taught in most schools. Two decades ago the prevailing method was phonics, which requires students to memorize the combinations of letters that form the sounds of words. But many kids found that process tedious. In an attempt to turn them into enthusiastic readers, schools gradually adopted the “whole language” approach, which emphasizes comprehension over technical mastery. In the process, Moats contends, essential spelling skills have been sorely neglected.

While whole-language advocates dispute her theory, the Bush Administration is applauding Moats’s back-to-basics message and has asked her to serve on an upcoming task force on reading instruction. Says Lynne Cheney, the Vice President’s wife and an education fellow at a Washington, D.C., think tank: “She’s a national treasure.”

No matter that Moats herself is not a stellar speller. Growing up in Princeton, N.J., she says, “I never won a spelling bee.” Still, she managed to graduate from Wellesley College and get a doctorate in reading and human development from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Moats spent 15 years training teachers before being hired in 1997 to head up the national reading study (results are due next year).

Twice divorced, Moats lives in Fairlee, Vt., where she teaches a summer course in language instruction at the nearby Greenwood Institute. But for all her expertise, Moats has had a hard time getting through to one stubborn student: her daughter Charlotte, 20. “She always screams at me, ‘Just tell me how to spell the word—I don’t want a lecture!’ ” Moats says. She talked with correspondent Linda Kramer about the trouble with learning to spell.

How do you know there’s a spelling crisis?

Statistics are scarce, but statewide tests in Iowa, which tend to reflect national trends, show spelling achievement may be close to an all-time low. And I hear from people in the field and see in school districts where I visit that things are as bad as they’ve ever been.

Why is spelling important?

Lots of reasons. Spelling skills help kids learn to read, since children who know more about word structure are better at sounding out words. Our society values spelling. If you misspell words on your résumé, you might get rejected by a potential employer. And spelling is important for clear communication. For instance, you see signs all over the place with apostrophe “s” when it means a plural, not a possessive. It’s really getting alarming.

Then why don’t schools put more emphasis on spelling?

We’ve had a predominant philosophy that children will learn to spell if we encourage them to read and write—that in the process they’ll just figure it out. But that’s not enough. The whole-language era has been marked by scorn for teachers who want to teach spelling systematically. Instead we have invented spelling.

What is invented spelling?

Children are told to spell a word any way they want because the important thing is concentrating on the ideas they have to express, not getting bogged down by worrying about spelling.

Why is that a bad idea?

It’s fine when children are first matching letters with sounds. But that stage ends by the middle of first grade for most kids. Spelling is a skill, and if it’s practiced wrong, that leads to a habit that has to be unlearned.

How should spelling be taught?

It can be taught in an interesting way using the history of words, sounds of letters and patterns in language. If fourth graders are given the word “vision” to read in a story, one can teach a lesson on the root “vis,” which means “see,” and all the words it’s related to, like “visible” and “visor.” There should also be weekly spelling tests from second grade on. Concepts should be taught along with enough practice to make spelling right a habit.

What kind of concepts?

English has rules, such as “i before e except after c.” Even teachers don’t know these things. I was speaking at an institute for teachers in Virginia, and I asked the audience why there’s an “e” on the end of “love.” Only one person knew you never end a word in English with a “v.”

Do kids really enjoy learning those sorts of rules?

Oh yes, they find it fascinating. Children are surprisingly responsive to good instruction when they get it.

Are there some children who just can’t be taught to spell properly?

I would estimate that 5 to 10 percent of the population would be mediocre to poor spellers even with good instruction. There is such a thing as true dyslexia. But most people can learn to spell reasonably well.

Lots of us adults need help with our spelling too. What can we do to improve it?

There’s no quick fix. Get a good dictionary, make friends with it, and take it to bed.