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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories Discusses

Spelling and the Playground

with Carmen Ruggero, Cheryl W. Ruggiero, and Don Webb

Spelling and the Playground” appears in issue 459.

[Carmen Ruggero] Excellent article, Don. Your story about the little girl and the playground reminds me of another story. When my family and I came to the U.S., my youngest sister was four years old. We lived in Bloomington Indiana, and my parents had hired a graduate student from Indiana University to give us group lessons. My four-year old sister sat with us, but like the little one in your article, she said nothing.

We had some excellent neighbors who came by and helped us learn the practical usage of language in everyday situations. Those of us who were of school age eventually learned the rules, but you’re right: our best teachers were our classmates, while recess and the cafeteria were the best classrooms.

One day, about a year after having moved to Bloomington from Argentina, a neighbor was trying to explain something to our Mom, but none of us could give her an accurate translation. Except for my little sister, who was by then almost five years old. She gave Mom a perfect translation from American English. The rest of us sat there looking and feeling like a bunch of idiots. None of us knew she understood the language.

My sister also had a learning medium we didn’t have as kids. She had educational television programs. We had learned Spanish from family and friends and books, because we all learned to read rather young. But I bet anything that the morning programs for children gave my sister a big push, since her family couldn’t help her and none of us could read English, anyway.

Here’s another factor: all of us siblings are good readers because we were influenced by parents who were readers. Having worked for public schools, I can tell you that that’s not always the case. Sad set of circumstances. And you’re right: family, friends, and playgrounds are the first teachers. After I had an understanding of the language, then the rules made sense.


[Cheryl Wood Ruggiero] I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your Issue 459 editorial, “Spelling and the Playground,” as well as the comments of the other Review Editor you quoted.

I know students in my university classes who had spelling training all through their elementary school years, and who read widely and thoughtfully, and who still make more spelling errors than spellcheckers can help with. I often ask if they were read to as children after they themselves were able to read, and often they say no. Just think what children learn by sitting next to a parent, hearing a story, and seeing the text while hearing it.

But I also know a few students who were read to for many years and who still can’t spell well. I don’t know how they were taught to read — that’s probably a factor. I didn’t know that the “whole word” method was developed to teach deaf children — thanks for that info. It makes sense of what didn’t make sense at all to me before.

I don’t think all children can learn enough of the patterns — I prefer “patterns” to “rules” — of English spelling in two years that they can simply absorb the system (more accurately, almost-system) of English spelling simply from reading, but there are many more effective things teachers can do than “drill and kill,” and I deeply wish our schools would do them.

Of course I fully agree that children need to read much, much more than they are allowed to these days, and that if drilling time were replaced with reading time, things would be better.

Simply reading good prose aloud, even memorizing passages of prose or poetry, would do children worlds of good. Then I’d like to teach children the backgrounds of words, which any children I’ve talked with find fascinating: sky and school have the same initial sounds, SK-, but they’re spelled differently. Kids like knowing that’s because one was anciently a Viking word (more or less, and what child doesn’t love images of Viking warriors?) and the other was anciently a Greek word (and what child doesn’t love pictures from the Greek myths?).

Done right, teaching the reasons for our crazy spelling — which lets children know that it’s the history and the system that’s crazy, not them — empowers children to learn by showing them that language is a flawed and constantly developing practice of all humans, not the property of the teacher who knows where the Spelling Commandments are stored and is stingy with the keys.

Thanks for a thoughtful and thought-provoking editorial — as usual.


[Don Webb] And thank you, Carmen and Cheryl, for your very thoughtful contributions to the discussion!

If we took a survey, we’d find that most people think they’re terrible spellers in English. The consequences are unfortunate; poor spelling carries a social stigma, and that does not help people’s self-esteem!

Actually, very few people are “terrible” spellers; most people are just not great spellers. They would not win spelling-bee contests. But is that a shame? Do such things even exist in, say, Spanish or other languages?

Most of us have spelling “demons,” words we have a hard time remembering how to spell. And nobody has a whole lot of “demons,” maybe half a dozen. One of the simplest and most frequent are homophones such as “their,” “they’re” and “there.” I’ve caught myself spelling by ear many a time.

Double consonants often form another set of “demons.” Do we write “installment” or “instalment”? Unlike, say, Italian, English phonetics does not use gemination, and the choice of one “L” or two does not affect the pronunciation in the slightest. In any event, “installment” is American while “instalment” is British and Canadian. Only my computer’s spellchecker really cares which is which.

Some 250 years ago, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in Emile that his objective in early childhood education was not to save time but to waste it. His ironic paradox makes sense in view of his revolutionary idea that children learn differently from adults.

As I see it, children are ultimately logical beings; they manage their time very economically. But they haven’t a grain of common sense; that’s why adults often don’t understand them. And yet a child’s objective is entirely natural and instinctive: survival. In society, children spend all their time figuring out how both their and adults’ games are being played.

Adults know from experience — i.e. common sense — what structured lessons are and what they’re supposed to do. For example, formal language lessons were a great time-saver for the little girl’s teacher; she had only a simple lesson to present. The little girl — like any student — had another objective; she was trying to discern what the teacher wanted. If she learned any words in the process, so much the better, but that was incidental.

As long as children are taught to read, they’ll learn what they’re taught. And they’ll learn more or less rapidly depending on the teaching method. However, Rousseau was most interested in motivation. Children learn to read because they’re told they have to. But why should they want to learn to read in the first place?

Rousseau’s solution was simple; he brings us back to adults’ reading aloud to children. But he doesn’t stop there; he takes the process a step further. When you see the child is interested in the story, invent an excuse to interrupt it. Leave the book with the child while you go attend to something else — or to nothing at all. The child will draw the logical conclusion: if she could read, she could continue the story herself.

Is the adult playing a game? Yes, in the sense that the adult has an ulterior motive. And no, because the child does not have to guess what the game is. Rather, the adult presents the child with a simple reality: reading is fun, and it’s all the more rewarding when one can do it oneself. The child won’t say that, but she will think it, and that is what counts.

And it’s the same with anything else. Rousseau is stern and strict — with teachers. Whenever a child asks, “What good is it?” stop. The child has no motivation to learn. The teacher, like any author, has to show — not tell — the child what good it is.

The teacher who gave the little girl vocabulary lessons knew they were a good thing. But that’s common sense; how could the little girl know that? For her, the lessons were artificial and unreal. On the playground she could see for herself that her classmates’ language was something she could understand and use.


Copyright © 2012 by Bewildering Stories

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