Once I was a good speller. I'm being modest. Actually, I was a superb speller, and that made me confident, not to say arrogant, about my intellect. And when I began to teach writing at UC Santa Barbara, I looked forward to working with young people who would be bright, articulate, thirsty for knowledge. It never occurred to me that reading thousands of their papers would cause me to lose my ability to spell.
I could spell well because I have a good visual memory; I could remember what a word looked like. But that memory has also been my downfall, because my students' spelling is so creative that I have now seen too many words spelled too many ways, and I can't remember which is correct.
It turns out I am not alone. Prof. Michael Gerber, program leader of the UCSB education department's Special Education program, has been researching the dynamics of spelling. "After teaching for years," he says, "I can't spell well anymore. I see this as the result of a loss of confidence--I see too many possible ways a word might be spelled."
Losing my ability to spell suggested an idea that I found humbling: that good spelling bears little relation to a person's intelligence. I've also become convinced that after a certain age (say, for argument's sake, 16), people spell about as well as they are ever going to, and that, though people can marginally improve their spelling by learning a variety of spelling rules, a bad speller can't become a good speller.
This is especially true if by "good speller" we mean someone who can usually deduce the spellings of unfamiliar words. Actually, no one can spell well within that definition because of the flexibility of our language and culture. The great bulk of our words derives from foreign languages. To figure out a correct spelling, one would have to know the word's root language, the rules of spelling for that language, and the changes the word had undergone since entering English--and then rapidly reconcile all these factors with the spelling rules of English. Can't be done.
I asked Gerber if he thinks that some misspellings arise from an individual's knowing too much about words. "You could look at it that way," he says. "I find many elementary school students' misspellings to be the result of very creative attempts to spell unknown words by generalizing from the spellings of known words. But our expectations change as children get older. Spelling that seems clever in a 5-year-old seems troubled in an 8-year-old. The process of spelling is a complex one."
My students, for the most part, are the products of this area's advantaged homes. More than 50% of UCSB's freshmen come from Southern California; their parents' incomes are among the highest in the nation. According to the California Master Plan for Higher Education, the UC system selects from the top 12 1/2% of the state's high school graduates. And yet, many of them can't spell even common words, and 70% to 80% of incoming UCSB freshmen are required to take remedial English. And the problem isn't limited to Southern California.
Why are so many students such bad spellers? Television? I don't think so. Growing up, I watched a lot of television. But I also read a lot, and that is key--if good spelling is indeed largely visual. Students need to read more, and they need to read aloud and work more on clear enunciation (one of my students once informed me that "Western morality is based on the Judo -Christian ethic"). As they become more careful about pronunciation, they hear the letters in the words and become better spellers.
Gerber thinks that another cause of poor spelling lies in student attitudes toward writing. "Somewhere they are getting the idea that all they have to worry about is content," he says, "that how they present their thoughts is irrelevant." This mirrors my own experience. A depressing number of students think that it is quite sufficient to do a first draft and hand that in, warts and all. (A number of my university colleagues ask their students to hand in their early drafts as well as the final drafts.) Parents and teachers should require students to complete drafts that satisfy both the assignment and the student, and those drafts should be rewritten for neatness, grammar and spelling.
Students should also be encouraged to use computers, which can greatly ease the writing process. The spelling burden can be lightened with spelling-checkers--programs that compare the writer's words with a word list in the computer memory and then flag each word without a match. The word isn't necessarily misspelled; it might be a proper name that isn't on the list. Some programs offer alternatives to the flagged word: If the user types in frend , say, the program will suggest friend . One of the newest even tries to identify words misspelled in context: their for there , it's for its.