Spell It Out (by David Crystal)


When and how to teach spelling is a constant topic of conversation for ELA teachers.  The Common Core considers spelling to be a “Foundational Skill” and sets benchmarks for each grade, but of course the age-old question of how to reach these benchmarks remains.

David Crystal’s book, Spell It Out (St. Martin’s Press, 2012), reminds us of why the subject of spelling is so fraught with difficulty.  He begins with the assumption that the spelling of English words was doomed from the outset when scribes attempted to match the numerous phonemes of Anglo-Saxon speech to the limited symbols of the Roman alphabet.  His book is an engaging history of how writers came to adapt this system to create the modern spellings we encounter today.  While he offers little concrete or practical advice on how best to teach spelling (although the book includes a brief set of suggestions in “A teaching appendix), he does provide a clear philosophy:

I believe, as army generals sometimes say, that the best way of defeating an enemy is to get to understand him . . . I am convinced that the reason people find English spelling difficult is because they have not understood ‘how it works’.  The explanations are linguistic in character, to do with word history, word structure, and the way sounds and letters interrelate.  I think this kind of perspective, which for the most part has been lacking in pedagogical practice, is essential.  Spelling is a linguistic problem, which can be alleviated only by using linguistic tools . . . (pp. 267-268)

Crystal’s book is a light, accessible introduction to the linguistic complexities that have resulted in our modern spellings.  It is also a good reminder of how important history and geography are to our modern language, offering glimpses of how teachers might integrate these topics with spelling.

I highly recommend this book as background reading for any teacher who would like to have an answer other than “Because that’s the rule,” to the ageless question of, “But, why?”

Link:  To learn more about David Crystal and his work in linguistics, follow his blog.