Do you use Canadian or American spelling in your classroom? Do you “correct” your students when they write color instead of colour? Have your students ever asked why you write metre when their dictionaries say meter?
A Trivial Matter?
Some people consider spelling a trivial matter. These people are probably not immigrants studying English in a LINC program or international students at the University of Guelph scaling that mountain called English. They are probably not Arabic students, who have always spelled from right to left, but now need to retrain their brains to spell from left to right. Spelling is a huge roadblock on their journey to English competency.
Did you know that Italian children spend much less time learning spelling than English children? That’s not because they inherit better spelling genes, but because Italian only has about 400 irregularly spelled words. Compare that to the 3500 common English words that don’t conform to spelling rules. Consequently, even after our students master English phonics, their writing will probably still contain many spelling errors.
In 1755, when English spelling was standardized in Dr. Johnson’s authoritative dictionary, little thought was given to matching each phonetic sound with a specific spelling pattern. In fact, words with identical pronunciations, such as there and their, were each given a unique spelling. Since then, English pronunciation has changed considerably, and foreign words have entered the language with their foreign spelling, further increasing the spelling chaos.
Many people have attempted to simplify English spelling. Noah Webster took a stab at it in his American Dictionary of the English Language. Thanks to his efforts, Americans now spell words like centre and metre with “er”, and harbour and colour without the silent “u”. Generally, Canadians have not adopted these logical changes.
A most eloquent advocate of simplified spelling was George Bernard Shaw. He wrote:
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for pear and bear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose
Just look them up- and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward.
And font and front and word and sword.
And do and go, then thwart and cart.
Come, come I’ve hardly made a start.
In his will, Shaw left an entirely new phonetic English alphabet that some reformers wish would be adopted in the English-speaking world. Although that’s probably not a realistic option, it’s not difficult for individuals to figure out a simplified spelling system. If we droppd al silent letters and reemovd unnesesary dobl consonants, owr riting wud stil bee eesy to reed. Ther ar eeven websites that provide free programs to convert tradishunal spellng to simplified spellng.
Yet, we are tied to traditional spelling out of habit, and because variations in spelling imply ignorance. How much value should ESL teachers give to spelling, or what percentage of a grade should be given for accurate spelling? Very little class time is dedicated to spelling instruction, yet students are expected to use traditional spelling in their assignments. When students ask how to learn spelling, I tell them to pay attention to spelling when they’re reading English material, and I direct them to spelling websites.
What solutions have you found for the difficulties spelling presents?
Marinelli, C. V., Romani, C., Burani, C., & Zoccolotti, P. (2015). Spelling Acquisition in English and Italian: A Cross-Linguistic Study. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 1843. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01843