Spelling It Out

By Kevin Shannahan/Opinion

Just as I was trying to remain somewhat hopeful about the state of education in our parish, the great spelling kerfuffle of 2018 erupted. So much for cautious optimism. From what I’ve been able to gather, a teacher was caught red handed in one of our elementary schools teaching spelling – as a separate subject. Things got a tad complicated from there. In the halcyon world of modern curriculum design, teaching children how to spell is best done in context, with errors corrected as they arise rather than teaching spelling in isolation. Evidently, the old ways lead to no end of problems and these lists of spelling words, further compounded by homework and weekly tests, were an impediment dooming the children to a year of drudgery. One can’t have that.

The teacher, an honorable title I have always preferred to the pretentious “educator”, sent a note home to the children’s families that stated that, as spelling was no longer to be taught in the Natchitoches Parish Schools, she would no longer be giving spelling homework or spelling tests each week.  After the social media explosion, accusations back and forth, and yet another addition to the growing list of dubious robo calls, one might be tempted to dismiss the whole sad sequence of events as a tempest in a tea pot. Such is not the case.

That is how I thought of the whole affair, as a tempest in a teapot, until I clicked on the link for the Louisiana Department of Education’s K-12 Student Standards for English Language Arts. The following paragraph is on the second page.

“Students in Louisiana are ready for college or a career if they can read, understand, and express their understanding of complex, grade-level texts. This means students should be able to pick up any text, such as a picture book, newspaper article, or painting, understand what the text means, and be able to speak or write about the ideas they learned or challenge from the text and why.”

I’ll leave aside, for the moment, how one is supposed to understand the text on a painting. A student is ready for, not second grade, but college or a career if they can understand a PICTURE BOOK? That is the lofty standard these “educators” hold out to for our state’s children?

The whole controversy presents a false choice. I was in third grade in 1972 in St. Ambrose School in Endicott, NY. Most of the school’s students were no more than a generation removed from the working class immigrants that staffed the factories of our parents’ and grandparents’ time. It was not a wealthy school. We had spelling words. We had homework. We had spelling tests. Spelling, as well as grammar, was an integral (for some odd reason, I remember that word from a spelling word list) part of the curriculum. Teaching spelling need not, nor should it be, an either/or choice.

Our parish’s schoolteachers (another honorable title, quite refreshingly absent from the dreck that is the K-12 Student Standards for English Language Arts) should be treated like professionals. I’m still flabbergasted that I am writing an editorial defending the assignment of spelling words to third graders. Years from now, a former student will be on the jobsite or in a college classroom and will thank that teacher who laid a foundation for success.

17 thoughts on “Spelling It Out

  1. For those who didn’t believe that was Melanie McCain who wrote the comment to the Spelling It Out article. I knew it didn’t sound like the Ms. McCain I had heard about so often, that is why I said it was a shock to me. I don’t know if it is her, but I think if there is any question, if I were running the NPJ, I would be checking out the IP address and who might have sent the comment. It is wrong to use someone else’s name at any time, and writing a response like this should surely be a time inquires were made as to the writer’s name. After all, we do have to list our email address in order to post anything here. NPJ, have you bothered to verify that it was Ms. McCain, especially since the reply to the article was not very nice.

  2. Spelling needs to be taught as a individual subject in school because there are words which are pronounced the same way but all have different meanings. Not only do you need to know how to correctly spell words but also know the definition of them and when/how to use them in a sentence.

  3. Kevin, As you well know, there is only one chance at a first impression. Very often spelling IS that impression. When you showed up at the 4315 Combat Crew Training Squadron and signed in, exactly how many minutes do you believe you would have remained had you spelled at the elementary level? It’s time that professional, experienced educators be held accountable for raising students to the level of standards and not lowering the level of standards to the students. It would be disastrous to the psyche of the world of academia to actually be forced to inform someone ( in this world of “no losers”) that they quite simply – failed ! If instructed correctly, that look of shock from failure will not be repeated. If not, a foundation has been set for a life of failure. (And failure is a part of life). Embrace the true nature of the issue, don’t sidestep it.

  4. As a college instructor, I can already see the negative consequences of this instructional method. Students often cannot spell a difficult word well enough for their electronic device to recognize it. This leads to unusual and incorrect words used throughout essays.
    The other issue is using the same words over and over because they do not have an extensive vocabulary to draw on. Some of these students recognize the issue and use the thesaurus function on their devices, but they do not recognize the words it returns, again leading to using the wrong words frequently. When handwriting anything, spelling is awful.
    And don’t even get me started on all the students who cannot write or sign their names in cursive.

    • Thank you for your reply, it is exactly how I feel. Yes, I’m a product of those good old days, the 50s and 60s, but back in those days, teachers taught us what we would need as adults. Handhelds should not be allowed in schools in my opinion. They allow students to cheat when it comes to using their brains. I believe when schools teach the basics in math, english, science and HYSTORY, they use their brains and fill those brains with useful information that they will use for the rest of their lives. Don’t dumb them down now when our country needs the intelligence of our youth as they inherit the problems our country. They won’t always have a hand held device,
      but thank goodness their brains go with them always and they have been taugh how to use them.

  5. Kevin…the world that children will go into today is far removed from the adult world you entered as a well taught speller! Today with handhelds, Alexa, etc spelling is not the end all be all of being well-educated (unless you are going major in Spelling Bee contests😂😂)!

    It would be too lengthy for me to explain the standards and why spelling is not included. So why don’t you stick to what you know professionally and get a professional, experienced educator to write your editorials regarding matters like this!!! You are totally living in the 50s!

    • What a shock I received as I read Melanie McCain’s reply to Kevin Shannahan’s opinion written to the NPJ on Dec, 29, 2018. I am normally a lot fan of Ms McCain, but there is no way I can agree with her somewhat rude answer to Mr. Shannahan. I believe he gave a very logical explanation as to why children need to be taught spelling as a subject in school. Her explanation was that children had handhelds now so they can just use that instead of their brain to know how to spell a word. Tell me please, what a person should do if a handheld device is not available. Their spelling would be atrocious and an embarrassment to them. I believe that Ms McCain’s method of teaching is a very effective way of dumbing down our children. She has lost a measure of respect I once had for her, and that saddens me. I hope she changes her mind about this method of teaching, and teaches the child what he will need to know in life and not just how to take the SAT tests that will improve the school’s standing in the state.

      P.S. Rudeness is not becoming

  6. Some good points but I think it somewhat careless to lay blame at the feet of our Parish when the problem obviously emanates from edicts at the State level. Want to fix it? Eliminate the unholy and incestuous alliance between “educators” and our reps in Baton Rouge.

  7. Perfect example of why SPELLING LESSONS will continuously be important to young students. Did anyone else read the “Letters to Santa” in the Natchitoches paper? I still cannot believe they published those.

  8. I’m appalled: the ELA Standards themselves don’t stand up to careful reading. There must be a word missing in the quoted passage: Students must “be able to speak or write about the ideas they learned or challenge from the text and why.” Or challenge … what? “Challenge from” is nonsensical.

    Is it too generous to assume that the writers of the ELA Standards want students to be able to challenge “the ideas they learned from the text” when the authors of those standards failed to “read, understand, and express their understanding of complex, grade-level texts” to notice that the very goals they set out for students make no sense as written?

    What a boondoggle. The methods of teaching spelling are not the only problem when the very standards for student success are inarticulate and unintelligible as written. What are teachers supposed to do with this? Why is our state such an educational embarrassment?

  9. Thank you, Kevin. Just a side note: spelling can and should be taught in context, as well as in isolation. This point can be substantiated by the overwhelming use of “text spelling “. As a teacher I am appalled by the use of “text spelling” in the classroom as a tool in writing!

  10. Louisiana is but one example where there are glaring deficiencies. All states face similar problems. On the main those of my generation received a wonderful 1-12 education; learning the basics that prepared one for the world. Spelling, arithmetic, civics, public speaking, and cursive were taught and learned with pride. Change is often the way of advancement, but not always as noted in your excellent editorial.

Comments are closed.