English spelling is not as difficult as people make it out to be. The
problem is that there are two major ways of teaching people to spell in
English. One works. The other doesn't. The one that works is phonetic
pattern recognition. It is highly effective. The one that doesn't work is
word recognition, and this is unfortunately the most wide spread method
used to teach spelling.
The reasons for this dominance aren't completely clear. Lock-in may be one
reasons. Spelling was originally based on the use of blackboards and
primers and all teaching was somewhat routinized. That tradition accounts
for much of the fossilized teaching methods we still use, particularly in
teaching people to spell. The other reason may be economic. Phonetic
pattern recognition requires individual coaching at many points. It is
therefore labor intensive at the early stages in comparison to word
recognition which is traditionally taught by showing words to an entire
class and asking them to pronounce the word while looking at it. It may be
that labor cost accounts for the durability of word recognition. This seems
foolish to me, in that we lose those savings many times over in the
economics of education when students who have never been adequately
prepared attempt tasks for which their training is inadequate. This means
much correction, coaching, redoing, and problem-solving for people who
could have done far better had they developed skills at an early age. Some
never recover from the effects of bad teaching. The larger economy pays a
price for this in many ways. Genuine illiteracy and functional illiteracy
are two problems. A third is a problem faced by people who can read well.
Even though they can read well, they can't read with such natural ease that
they comfortably handle the massive flow of written material that powers
the knowledge economy.
My own experience bears this out to some degree. As a child in Connecticut,
my mother taught me phonetic pattern recognition. I entered school with a
thorough ability to read English. Along with this, I developed the solid
ability to spell that emerges naturally from a mind that is taught to
recognize and assemble patterns. Needless to say, as a six-year-old first
grader, I wasn't perfect, but I was reading college level books with no
discomfort. That doesn't mean I understood everything I read, but I could
understand the words. When I was willing to put in the work, I was able to
wrestle with their meanings until I understood what the books meant.
In every field of learning, teaching people to recognize patterns and to
generalize from them enables them to take a better grip on knowledge than
by teaching them to recognize and memorize specific incidents, one by one.
Word recognition depends on the development of a large stock of single
words. Pattern recognition permits the development of inferential judgment.
The problem here is not the peculiarities of English spelling. It is the
way students are taught, and not just in English. In most subjects,
students are given to believe that knowledge is a stock of stable facts and
that progress from ignorance to knowledge is the memorization and
possession of a stock of facts. This is not so. Knowledge involves mastery,
familiarity, a substantial grasp of that which is known. The word itself
implies an active relationship to that which is known: a dictionary, an
encyclopedia, a computer contain information that can be defined as
"knowledge" but they know nothing. In contrast, a human being must know to
have knowledge, and human knowledge is therefore dynamic.
Teaching people to memorize and recognize single words is a quantitative
teaching method. Teaching pattern recognition is qualitative and dynamic.
Grey, Knights and Wilmott describe a process that engages "quality of
thinking, not the quantity of what is thought. Relating to, and thereby
understanding, knowledge as a dynamic process eradicates the need to
memorize it, since like language such knowledge will have become part of
While I don't teach spelling, I do teach in English to students for whom
English is not a native language. As classes move forward, I find that it
is possible to help people improve their language skills through simple,
effective techniques that build on the native human ability to master
patterns. That's the issue here.
English is, in fact, a language with a simple, regular spelling pattern,
That pattern is built up of a series of fairly regular phonemes, each with
their own series of sounds depending on the position they hold in a word.
There are exceptions, and those exceptions are exceptional. The grammatical
structure is also fairly regular and relatively simple. With the exception
of a few problematic words, English is easy to teach and learn. One can
make far more progress with clear, simple English than with nearly any
other major language. What's needed is better instruction.
Ken Friedman, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Leadership and Strategic Design
Norwegian School of Management
Box 4676 Sofienberg
N-0506 Oslo, Norway
Phone: +47 22.98.51.07
Fax: +47 126.96.36.199
e-mail: <[log in to unmask]>