“Reading, writing and arithmetic”. The pillars of schooling. But where is spelling?

Is spelling omitted because it doesn’t fit alliteratively? But arithmetic isn’t quite a perfect fit either, r not being the lead letter sound. Is that why sometimes the phrase is written “reading, writing and ‘rithmetic”?

Perhaps it was originally “reading, writing and reckoning.” That would work alliteratively . . . but still bypassing spelling.

How could spelling not be included in the list of foundational educational subjects?

Is it possible that spelling really doesn’t count? That people can admit with a certain flamboyance to a spelling deficit, taking courage and endorsement from others who take the deficiency lightly?

A spelling error can be attributed to a typo, or a printing error, or to a spell check tool failure . . . each plausible, but not necessarily the authentic explanation. But really, who cares?

One could make the case that spelling is only important in so far as it serves to reproduce the approximation of a word and once the approximation is apprehended, comprehension follows. Misspelling is at most just a momentary interruption, a blip, in written transference of meaning.

But consider the different reaction to illiteracy. “I can’t read” is not a facile declaration. The disability is secreted away, kept closeted with ploys such as “I’ve forgotten my glasses” or “I’ll have what you’re having.” When this deficit is exposed or admitted to, it generates a host of reactions: shock, sympathy, advice . . . but never levity.

Why the difference? Why the omission? Why the imbalance in value?

Could spelling gain worth if it was viewed as the key to literacy? If decoding is acknowledged as an essential step in learning to read, then “coding” is the foundational base, right? The discovery made eons ago that oral speech could be transcribed, coded through a sound/symbol system, transformed human history. It started with spelling.

Sadly, that seems all forgotten.

Encoding is gone from the conversation. In fact, there’s not much discussion or innovation in spelling instruction. An internet search for teaching spelling results in all sorts of printable worksheets which by their very design bypass the essential defining transient auditory aspect of encoding. More likely than not a child’s spelling homework assignment will consist of copying, alphabetizing and writing sentences all directed toward the weekly test. If lucky, the list will have some unifying spelling principle, but frequently the words are only related by their association to some current social studies or science subject.

The objective of spelling instruction today is largely utilitarian. Once the test is done and/or the subject matter covered, words which have been practiced as icons rather than encoded constructs run the risk of being misremembered.

But imagine if spelling was given priority. Imagine if encoding was viewed as the key to unlocking reading. Imagine if the learning to read process was flipped and the deconstructing of a visually displayed word was moved to the conclusion of the lesson, not the initial step as it is done so frequently now. Imagine if decoding was the end product of an explicit process wherein each grapheme was linked to its sound and systematically used with known sound/symbols to build words. . .all mediated by a cognitive weighted developmental presentation of the principles of the English code.

That would put spelling at the helm!


Emily Goldberg (support@alpha-read) is a retired teacher trainer. The alpha-read Learning Kit that she co-created with Sylvia Goldsmith over 30 years ago for use by teachers in their kindergarten and first grade classrooms as well as parents in their home settings is now a free iPad app supported by the website.

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