America's Spelling Is a National Disaster

Politicians learn that teaching spelling is important for success in life.

Posted Feb 17, 2017

Not since Vice President Dan Quayle misspelled potato has spelling been such a trending topic. But the ignominy of tacking the letter e onto a student's spelling of potato while the whole nation watched doesn't hold a candle to the multiple spelling snafus within the new Trump administration. Misspellings recently reached a crescendo in the U.S. Department of Edukashun under newly confirmed Secretary Betsy DeVos (or is it De Vos, Du Vois, or De Bois)?

During Black History Month 2017, the U.S. Department of Education tweeted a quote from a revered African American scholar misspelling his name: “Education must not simply teach work—it must teach life. – W.E.B. DeBois” Whoops! It should have been spelled W.E.B. Du Bois (pronounced doo-BOYZ). Then the U. S. Department of Education sent out a correction expressing "deepest apologizes (sic). Yet another misspelling!

Dear Department of Education: Let’s put teaching spelling back in education

Maybe it’s just a Twitter thing, poor eyesight, or failure to have a proofreader on hand to review a post prior to sending it. In any case, it isn’t the first spelling faux pas in the new Trump administration. On his first full day, President Trump tweeted "I am honered to serve you, the great American People, as your 45th President of the United States!" He meant honored. During the 2016 campaign, his tweets included “…commercials…bought and payed (sic) for by special interest groups"; “[Ted Cruz] will loose (sic) big to Hillary"; along with slips such as leightweight for lightweight, scape goat for scapegoat, shoker and choker for shocker, and (yikes!) Barrack, for Barack Obama. But I think President Trump is more conscious of spelling in 2017.

He's improving in spelling, and the Department of Education (ED) must do the same—within the department, in all forms of social media, and especially for America’s school children. In the wake of the ED's Twitter debacle, the NAACP (co-founded by Du Bois), tweeted this thoughtful response: "In the days of loose and careless logic, we must teach thinkers to THINK." — W. E. B. Du Bois"

As a spelling and literacy researcher, I would add, “... teach thinkers to THINK and to SPELL.” Twenty-first century neuroscience and cognitive psychology have taught us that spelling is a thinking skill for both reading and writing. It’s more than a polite amenity or a politically correct convention. Spellings stored in the word form area in our brains affect the way we read, write, and think.

Why is spelling a national disaster?

Our nation’s debacle with spelling has caused decades of flatlined reading scores. It’s a historical fact that one of the nation's most widely used standardized exams, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, showed elementary school spelling scores rose from the mid-1970s to the 1980s when explicit spelling instruction was widely used. When Whole Language became popular, states such as California de-emphasized explicit spelling instruction. As a result, Californians saw their children’s reading scores decline, so much in fact, that in 1994, California students' reading scores were on the bottom nationally. Abandoning standalone spelling books took a measurable toll.

This spelling catastrophe continues today with spelling components placed willy-nilly in giant money-grabbing reading programs that serve up the wrong words at the wrong grade level. Further, these “spelling components” teach bogus chunks such as CVVVC (Consonant-Vowel-Vowel-Vowel-Consonant) as a spelling pattern. (Can you guess what it is?) First graders using these reading programs muddle over mastery of mysterious, recently minted chunks such as V_V for the long /e/ sound. (Guess that one!) These “new” reading series patterns should be replaced with the common research-based, syllable patterns that Noah Webster was teaching in 1783. CVVVC and V_V are fake spelling patterns, which were made up in the twenty-first century to sell reading programs.

The spelling crisis in America is not a laughing matter.

Twenty-first century scientists have documented evidence proving that proficient, fluent reading and writing require spelling knowledge. It’s not as simple as memorizing a list of words for Friday’s spelling test (and promptly forgetting them by Sunday). It’s about explicit study of words in a grade-by-grade curriculum. It’s about building a large body of high frequency words and spelling patterns ready for automatic retrieval that students can use for proficient reading and fluent writing. It’s especially important for children with learning disabilities and English Language Learners because English is the hardest language to learn to spell.

Spelling knowledge will lead to better reading scores in America. And whether our students grow up tweeting or sitting in solitude to think and write a Gettysburg-like address for generations to come, having deep knowledge of spelling patterns and strategies in the brain will serve them well throughout life.

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Spelling Connections for grades Kindergarten through Grade 8. Follow him on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.