Why correct students' spelling?

Sometimes parents call and ask for spelling tutoring.  It's a request for which I never seem to have a good answer.  Bottom line: I don't think that spelling tutoring is a good idea.  I don't think it's very effective (We've tried it!  I've personally tried it -- and not only is it no fun, it doesn't work well!) and it's hard for me to imagine the student whose single biggest academic need is spelling.

And, having said all that, I think that correcting spelling, as a matter of daily homework correction, is critical.

Our students hate it.  They absolutely want to spell things right when they're doing spelling homework.  But when they're answering reading comprehension questions, doing a science worksheet, or adding labels to word problem answers, spelling goes out the window.  And they look at us like we're crazy when we insist that the fix spelling errors.

"Why do I have to fix that?" they ask.

"We use spell check when it matters," they insist.

"My teacher doesn't care about spelling -- this is math!" they whine.

And, I feel a little bit like a hypocrite when I disuade parents from spelling tutoring but insist that students spell correctly on their homework. But we do it anyway.  Why?

Because our experience shows that spelling (and attention to spelling) can only be learned through sustained and on-going correction.  How do we learn that we have spelled a word wrong?  When we have to correct them.  Why do we choose to put in the effort not to spell words wrong?  Because we don't want to correct them.  What pushes us to dream up some mnemonic to help us remember how to spell a particular word?  When we keep getting it wrong!

Think about the student who spells 10 words wrong when answering a science question.  If 5 of the words were written out in the question, is that student a bad speller or just a lazy speller?  I'd say the latter.  And, I'd say that the only way to train that student to pay attention when he writes is to show him the cost of not paying attention: having to respell the words.

Spelling is annoying.  And, for those of us who are reasonably good spellers, spell check does the trick.  But have you ever seen a student who doesn't spell well use spell check?  They spell atrociously and then accept all of changes that the computer suggests -- even the ones that change the spelling of their names!  This process often yields a document that is incomprehensible (and a student who exclaims, "But I spell checked it!").

Some schools and teachers argue that correcting spelling impedes the creative process and stilts writing.  We often see students from these schools who have no sense of spelling.  In fact, we find that students from these schools often spell one word three different ways in one essay.  This suggests to me not that the student is a "bad speller" per se, but that the student does not even consider spelling.  The student has been trained to think -- conciously and subconciously -- that spelling just doesn't matter.  Teaching that older child to think about spelling is a much harder and more tedious process than it would have been if teachers and been correcting the child and training him or her to think about spelling from first grade on.

I've seen 6th graders spell without vowels.  The path from there to good spelling is a long and hard one.

And, as much as spell check is great, we often live without it -- in that quick post-it note we leave for a colleague, the form we fill out for a child's class, the thank you note we write for a birthday gift.  Who wants these little moments to be fraught with anxiety ("Did I just make a fool of myself?") for our kids.

So, as silly as spelling seems sometimes -- and as minor as it is in the grander scheme of "school subjects kids can need help with," it's a big part of life -- and one that can be taught through minor everyday corrections.  The students whose parents or tutors or teachers corrected their spelling when they were children can write stress-free note to their own children's teachers in 30 years -- and that's why we should correct our kids' spelling, even when they hate us for it.