Someone who writes with misspellings is someone who is not detail-oriented. But who cares? Only half the world pays attention to details. Spellcheck insures that when the writing counts, the spelling will be right. I imagine many of you are up-in-arms thinking your kids can’t get a job without knowing how to spell.

But here are five reasons why focusing school time on perfect spelling is not only superfluous, but maybe even harmful to your kids:

Children learn to write better without worrying about spelling. Writing is about finding your voice. Each of us has a unique voice, and no one can teach us to find it. It’s inside ourselves and we have to bring it out on our own. When people tell us to focus on how to spell each word, then we focus on the letters instead of the sentences and we disrupt our natural cadence. A quick way to tell if someone is thinking about spelling and words instead of sentences and rhythms: do you hear “utilize?” Natural language never includes utilize. It’s a word people use when they are not using their own voice.

Proper spelling no longer signifies education. You used to be able to gauge someone’s education level by the accuracy of their spelling. Today there is spellcheck, so people who are careful to double-click those underlined words will have mostly accurate spelling. And, similarly, educated people who don’t bother to use spellcheck could send more misspelled words than someone who is uneducated. Technology has leveled us. And in fact, the texting world means that some misspellings actually signify especially good creative thinking. Which brings me to the birthday party that I bought happy birthday candles for and the kids ended up using only three of them. (That’s the photo up top.)

Focus on spelling encourages perfectionism. The real purpose to spelling everything perfectly is to feel like you are safe from reproach. Perfect spelling is something people do when they are scared of doing something wrong. This perfectionism rarely stays within the walls of spelling. And living the life of a perfectionist actually puts a person at high risk for depression. Because of course there is no way to be perfect, even in spelling.

English spelling is irrelevant in an Internet world. My kids call people online “mate” and they had no idea it was an Australian colloquialism. Which tells me that kids are effortlessly crossing international boundaries in the Internet Age, especially in English since so many non-native speakers use it online. So I read that grey is one of the words kids frequently miss in a spelling bee, but now that English is largely the universal language, the distinction between the British and American spelling is irrelevant.

It’s not the spelling, it’s the content. I’m reading A Midwife’s Tale, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and the focus of this Pulitzer Prize-winning history of women is their diaries. Women in the 1700’s in America did not concern themselves with proper spelling when they wrote. However the act of writing down a woman’s daily journey was so innovative and inventive that these diaries, full of misspellings, are essential reading for US historians. When you are writing something we haven’t seen before, no one cares about the spelling.

You’ve taken such a huge step to keep your kids home from school. You’ve opened the world to them. Why undermine that grand act by insisting they spend time at home learning to spell?

Plus, your huge step has primed your children to make their unique contribution to our world. Maybe they will do that through writing. Or maybe through painting or pottery or sprinting. But one thing they will never do is make their mark on the world as the spelling police.

23 replies
  1. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    I find my 6-year-old son has been learning to read and spell from watching Youtube videos, mainly minecraft and some other real or fake videos. He get some reading and writing/spelling homework from school, and the school recommends we spend 10 minutes each night reading and a few more minutes learning how to spell the words. I have to confess that I never bothered. And it’s reassuring to know from you, that I don’t need to :)

  2. Lisa Gylsen
    Lisa Gylsen says:

    Thanks so much for this post as I’ve been pondering it lately. I’ve tried the weekly spelling words and although my daughter can get them all right by the end of the week she forgets later. I’ve now embraced the unschooling approach and wondered if they would just get it at some point? I find she does learn online, or asks me or by spellcheck so now armed with your thoughts I’m just going to let go of it and let her inspiration flow!

  3. Cj
    Cj says:

    Totally disagree
    1) many don’t bother with spellcheck. I trash resumes with awful misspellings
    2) English spelling is related to phonics and helps with reading

    • Karmen Paterson
      Karmen Paterson says:

      CJ- you are correct on one. If a resume has awful misspellings then they did not yak the time to run spell check which is a lack of concern or attention and probably not worth hiring. However, spelling is not related to phonics in an understandable way because there are so many exceptions to every phonics rule. While understanding phonics can help a reader be more proficient I don’t see how spelling can help with phonics or vice versa.

    • Jay
      Jay says:

      Spellcheck is also not nearly as good a fix as this article suggests, because there are a great many words in English which are similar enough to be easily confused – both are spelt correctly but the meaning is wrong. And that loses marks at college/gets resumes or application letters put into the ‘no’ pile/loses opportunities… not noticing the difference between manor and manner, where and were, been and being, definite and defiant, are the sorts of errors which spell checkers can’t catch, and which make the writer look either careless or ignorant. Relying on spell-check is not a good thing!

      Learning to WRITE freely then EDIT painstakingly seems more logical to me. I wish at school I’d been told that those things were two separate components, both needed to create a good piece of writing – thinking that way definitely improves my writing and my ability to talk to students about writing (I work at University level). Both are important, both need attention… and neither can be replaced with spell check or spelling lists!

  4. Sarah M
    Sarah M says:

    My son is in 3rd grade, has awful handwriting and spelling, and we actually figured out it was a form of dyslexia. I always felt it in the back of my mind that he could have that, from different ‘symptoms’ in the past, but I never thought twice about it once he learned to read fluently. Now he reads at a much higher grade level but still, the spelling and the handwriting suck. It’s bizarre to me that he can read years ahead of his peers, and yet struggles to spell common five letter words. All that to say is that I never even thought of ‘teaching’ spelling, I assumed he’d pick it up later, but now we’re actually having to do remedial phonics work for an underlying issue that I wouldn’t have known about if it wasn’t for a teacher pointing it out to me (we homeschool but long story short-up here in BC we have 2 options, enrolling with a school for funding money or registering and being off the grid). I just always thought dyslexia was an inability to read. My plan of never teaching it has turned into the exact opposite situation…

    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Sarah — I am in a similar boat in that my daughter has at least a minor form of both dyslexia and dysgraphia. Taking her out of school took so much of the pressure off of her that she has naturally improved quite a bit. However, now at the end of 5th grade and still misspelling words like “was” as “waz”, I’m incorporating some spelling and really like the approach promoted by Dianne Craft utilizing her visual memory, working through the most commonly used english words. That said, my 1st grade son is a natural speller and reader so I have no intention of doing this with him…his misspellings are minor and more in line with what Penelope is probably envisioning with her post. Kids like him probably don’t need to be taught spelling.

    • Kim J.
      Kim J. says:

      I am so glad to see this here! My daughter, now 14, had a terrible time spelling while writing (she would misspell “the” multiple ways multiple times) , but she would get every spelling word in a spelling test correct. She has always been an advanced reader but a slow, messy, painful writer. I also think it’s a type of dyslexia.

      What we did to help her: 1) Took her out of a school where the primary method of evaluation was writing. 2) Taught her the rules for spelling (using All About Spelling) and taught her to use her fantastic visual processing to catch her own misspellings while editing. 3) Kept the spelling OUT of the writing process so she could find her voice and be less anxious about writing. 4) Encouraged her to type and use spell check.

      Right now she’s editing the novel she wrote last year, she writes a funny sketch or two a week, as well as the assignments I give her (which are still like pulling teeth… I bet Penelope would advise me to back off =) She writes more than I do, probably more than my husband.

      And to the person who tosses resumes with misspellings, sending in a resume that you haven’t used spell check on and had multiple people read and edit is a sign of lack of judgement, not lack of spelling ability. Teaching spelling (or not) won’t necessarily help with that.

    • Louise
      Louise says:

      Hi Sarah, my 8 year old daughter is the same. Reading crazy amounts of novels well above her age, but awful spelling. I was searching to see if there’s a natural age that it might click, but my 5.5 year old seems to have already clicked more than the 8 year old. What did you end up doing to help him? I’m thinking in will have to do some sort of work books with her (nooo!)

  5. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I’m a natural at spelling, so your idea stings a little bit, Penelope, but I think your basic point is right: it is so much more important to help kids find their voices, and frame their stories. Mechanics only get in the way until those things happen. Worse, some kids think mechanics is writing. Horrors.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      I’m a natural at spelling too, Jim. And I’d bet that you didn’t get there by studying spelling either – you’re just naturally good at it, like I am. You read a word, and you remember how it’s spelled, and that’s it.

      Those who are really good at spelling probably don’t have to study it, ever. Those who are really bad at spelling probably won’t ever be good at it no matter how much they study it. Studying spelling only isn’t a waste of time for a small group in the middle who could move from somewhat bad at it to somewhat good at it. This diversity makes spelling a topic that’s not very susceptible to standardization.

      Spelling is one of the things I didn’t bother specifically addressing with my son, along with grammar, vocabulary… His spelling and his grammar are both excellent, and his vocabulary is years ahead of his grade.

      I don’t think spelling and grammar are irrelevant, or don’t still function as markers of education. I do think that. But I also think that kids are perfectly capable of learning spelling and grammar without special attention or forcing the matter. It’s like getting agitated if your kid doesn’t read already on their fifth birthday. It’s not going to help at all in the long run to force them.

  6. Denita
    Denita says:

    I mostly agree with first finding your voice, but I have a child who wants to spell correctly so much that it was slowing down and interrupting her flow of ideas. I started doing 10-15 minutes of spelling a couple times a week and she loves it! Sometimes it just depends on the kid and what they need and like.

  7. Ruth
    Ruth says:

    Maybe I just have a totally different process, but who thinks about the spelling while writing? Fixing spelling errors is part of editing a piece, not the writing.

    Of course content is more important, but if you are not easily intelligible, the content is irrelevant. Correct spelling helps other understand what you are saying, but it is a discrete issue, to be either taught separately or addressed while editing, so it shouldn’t interfere with writing style at all.

  8. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    There is still another half of the population that does care about spelling. I am one of those people. I haven’t taught my kids any spelling though, but their Ipad keyboard will help spell things out when they are trying to type words and will give suggestions or prompts. Unless that counts, then I haven’t incorporated any type of spelling program. Yet even without anything official, when they write by hand they spell correctly about 90-95% of the time. My oldest does have writing challenges sometimes and yet other times she does really well with nice handwriting too. I think consistency would be nice. (Not consistently being inconsistent)

  9. Joe
    Joe says:

    Love it. That is how unschooled kids should learn how to write. They need to figure out what kind of writing fits into their interests and desires and their life. School writing, like many other things, really turns kids off from being creative writers who are more concerned with their thoughts and content than anything else. It is about conveying an idea. I get what what you’re saying penelope.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s fun that you found it. It’s only been on the site for a day. I’m trying to figure out the best way to use it. Let me know if you have ideas. Should it be more organized than it is? Right now it’s by date that I mentioned the book on the blog.

      Penelope

      • Mali
        Mali says:

        I like the way it’s organized. It’s very similar to what I am use to on other sites. Def better than nothing. I use to search ‘read + book’. Maybe list alphabetically by author’s name?

  10. Karmen Paterson
    Karmen Paterson says:

    I love this! My oldest (21) was just pulled aside today by one of her college professors and praised for her ability to write. This is the child who spent years being tormented by teachers because she couldn’t spell (like would misspell the same word three different ways in the same paragraph. She gets the writing flow and her thoughts are so well stated and organized that spelling problems become secondary.

    • Louise
      Louise says:

      So nice to hear that as a mother of an 8 year old atrocious speller! Did it just click one day or did she work to get there?

  11. Sarabeth
    Sarabeth says:

    I don’t think spelling is critical but in my experience awful spellers have a subset of a specific type of visual pattern recognition weakness or disability. Includes bright people but spelling is a useful skill

  12. Erin Wetzel
    Erin Wetzel says:

    When I was in kindergarten or 1st grade, my parents paid me for good grades each quarter: $1 for each A, $10 if I got straight As. Spelling was grueling for me to perfect, but it still showed up on the report card. I’ll never forget the time my report card came back with straight As…except for a B in spelling. That cost me $4. I was livid.

  13. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    I’m a spelling snob. (can’t count the number of times i’ve silently scoffed at others’ spelling errors) Spelling (and writing) always came naturally to me, of course, I always read a lot. My one childhood regret is not devoting more time to my goal of making it to Washington for the national spelling bee. I placed in the top 5 and 6 in two (non consecutive years). But I didn’t put in enough effort to place first. That failure subconsciously lingered because when I watched Akeelah and the Bee years later, I broke down in tears.

    My 13yo is an avid reader (and now writes a ton too-Nanowrimo, etc), but having been unschooled up to this point (she opted for high school next year), she was a late reader (3rd grade). She thinks my obsession with spelling is stupid. I could have easily been a tiger mom if she weren’t an ENTJ, although i unofficially committed to the idea of unschooling when she was about 3: when her intellectual capabilities became really apparent.

    But I was so determined to try to encourage her to participate in the spelling bee, I took into her the (neighboring) most dangerous city in the U.S. to watch the regional spelling bee. It was a bit of a culture shock to me, not because of its crime as we’d been there numerous times before, the spelling bee was huge where i grew up: a Friday night event, over 100 students, super competitive, it would sometimes go (from 7pm) until after midnight. The one we attended occurred during the school day, had 30-some students, mostly inner city. After the first round, only about a dozen students remained, and the winner was from a very wealthy neighboring school district. To this day, I still have no idea why so many of the other districts in our county don’t participate in the spelling bee?

    I did try to force a few spelling lists when my daughter was elementary-school aged and was unsuccessful. We’ll probably take a similar (unschooling) approach with our younger kids, especially with our preschool-aged son who is shaping up to be an identical male version of his older sister, which is still mind-boggling to me because they were nothing alike as babies. But if he (or his younger sister) gets all giddy like me about studying lengthy word lists all summer long, I’ll be prepared!

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