A few days ago, one of those incessantly appearing Facebook quizzes caught my eye. “Can you spell the 25 most commonly missed [sic] words in English?” Well, it turns out I could in all by one case: noticeable was the noticeable mistake (I mis-clicked on another one, but I’m not counting that). I will quietly await the accolades a 2nd place finish deserves.
The quiz got me thinking: To what degree should spelling be emphasized in the ESL classroom? On the one hand, our learners need to be able to communicate competently, and spelling is undoubtedly a part of competence. On the other hand, English be crazy, yo. The time and resources we must muster for this task may outweigh the benefits of having impeccable spelling. Especially in the age of spellcheckers and emojis and text-speak, standard spelling (to whatever degree that is even a thing), it could be argued, is something of a deprecated skillset.
Consider the second sentence in this popular meme. Through, tough, thorough, thought, and though all share ough in their spellings, but the sounds produced by those same letters vary.
- through : ˈthrü
- tough : ˈtəf
- thorough : ˈthər-(ˌ)ō
- thought : ˈthȯt
- though : ˈthō
This may be an extreme example, but you can easily come up with many more: do and no, cow and bow (like a ribbon), and knead and bread are some more examples. It’s pretty clear that English is not a phonetic language. Our 26 letters corresponds to roughly 44 phonemes which are, in turn, represented by a staggering 250 different spellings (source).
The reasons why English is this way are legion; if you’re interested in that, check out the podcast series History of English, or read something like The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. Suffice it to say, the many different tributaries that fed into the language in its formative centuries played a big role here, and no king or queen of England ever decreed a standardization of the language. By the time critics and academics realized that this would be useful, it was too late: the language had spread too far to try to impose order.
English is the wild love child of old Germanic, Anglo dialects, Norman French, and several other sources, and it roots show. On top of that, no one agreed how to spell things, and different monks and scriveners wrote words in the ways they thought they sounded, which naturally varied around the British Isles. Eventually, spelling finally began to settle into something like what we have now, with popular forms getting added to the dictionaries and school books, leaving English with quite a mess of its phonemes as depicted by the alphabet. As an interesting bit of trivia, outside of English-speaking countries, spelling bees are rare. Since most major languages have clearer relationships between their phonemes and spellings, there isn’t much challenge in spelling words correctly.
So, given the challenges of English spelling, is it worth devoting time and energy on in ESL? Maybe. Probably. Consider this passage from Why Teach Spelling?:
Investing instructional time in spelling can be profitable if the English language
is not treated as a haphazard writing system that can only be learned through
rote memorization. Students need to be taught how to learn and remember the
spellings of the words. This can be accomplished through:
* explicit instruction in phoneme-grapheme correspondences, phonemic
patterns in letter sequences or syllables, rules for joining syllables
or adding morphemes, elements of morpheme preservation in word
formation, and strategies for encoding irregular words;
* careful selection of spelling words that capitalize on students’
developing knowledge of the underlying structures of words; and
* repeated and cumulative practice in coordinating phonemic,
orthographic, and morphemic knowledge with immediate error correction.
Accurate spelling is a laudable goal, and not only because poor spelling is often
interpreted as a sign of laziness or a lack of intelligence (vos Savant, 2000).
The authentic benefit of being a strong speller, however, goes
beyond the superficial. A skilled speller is a stronger reader and writer. A
teacher can have confidence in affording spelling significant time and space in
the literacy curriculum.
There is value in being a good speller. Research generally shows that good spelling is associated with and may even encourage good reading and writing. It’s not a waste of time, assuming you do it effectively. But, how do we teach spelling in an effective way? We’ll explore that in another post. Same bat-channel, same bat-time.
In the meantime, what do you do about spelling in your ESL classes? How much time do you spend on it as a separate skill/sub-skill? How you found any effective methods or resources related to spelling? Please share!