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On Writing and Spelling

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“I’m a bad writer because I can’t spell…” a student’s answer when I asked them who they are as a writer.

One of the oft-repeated conversations in room 235d is dispelling the notion that to be a great writer you must be a great speller.  While, of course, students need to work on their spelling, I spend a good deal of time helping them realize that content is different than grammar.  That sharing their words is more important than spellcheck.  Now before anyone gets upset with me, yes, I believe that spelling should be taught.  Yes, I believe that students should work on it.  Yes, I believe spelling matters.  BUT.  It can’t be the biggest thing we focus on as students get older.  There has to be a balance.

So all year we talk about how we work on our spelling but we develop our writing.  How we shouldn’t let our fears of misspelling a word stand in the way of the message we are writing about.  I cannot tell you how many students are relieved to hear that their content and their spelling are assessed separately.  That the two represent different skills and are treated as such.

So few children believe that they are writers if they are poor spellers and that’s on us.  That false notion comes directly from how we frame our writing instruction.  From what we focus on when they hand us their stories, their opinions, their words and we focus on how it was written rather than the what even though the assignment was to write a story.

What if we told kids that yes, spelling, grammar, mechanics matter, but they are not the most important skill in writing at all times.  That as a teacher we can support them through the clean up of their work.  That we want them to play with language.  To be fierce in their word choice.  To write what they feel like without the fear of judgment when we take apart their hearts with the symbolic red pen.

So we find a balance in room 235D.  We work on spelling and grammar as their ideas develop, but we give as much or if not more attention to what the idea actually is.  We celebrate the kids that try new things.  That use new words.  That stretch their burgeoning spelling skills as they reach for language they are unfamiliar with.  We look at mentor texts where words were played with, grammar rules foregone, and spelling changed to see how they used these changes to push their truths.  We make a safe space to play with language rather than be worried about what the teacher will say.  It takes time.  It takes trust.  And it takes a deliberate conversation about what writing really can be for our kids.  We need both; focused mechanics instruction but also writing for the sake of discovering who you are as a writer and while the two are not mutually exclusive, we have to be careful with how much emphasis we place on one over the other.

When students year after year tell us loudly that they cannot be great writers because of how they spell, then that should be the impetus of change that spurs us to examine what message we are giving students.  Because as I tweeted last night; when students share their truths with us and we take it as a chance to question their grammar and spelling skills instead of listening to their words, we are once more complicit in the killing of student voice and engagement with school – that’s on us, that’s a choice.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

6 thoughts on “On Writing and Spelling”

  1. I had a wonderful child in my fifth grade class who was a gifted writer. She wrote all the time, but she couldn’t spell. I stopped bothering her about spelling, saying that that was an editor’s job. By the end of the year, her spelling had improved by 75%. But she got this in her head because her fourth grade teacher told me that she would never get an A in writing because she couldn’t spell. I had quite a few of these types of students. I tried to educate (nicely) my fellow teachers about how writing isn’t about spelling but they wouldn’t listen.

  2. I was lucky enough (retired now) to teach students writing on the computer from rough draft to final, and also often found what you write about – that some students’ fear of misspelling seriously hindered their writing, for some it caused utter paralysis. And that’s where your words, Pernille, about balance, trust and helping students play with language are really important. Being a believer in worrying about edting later on in the writing process, I first proclaimed that students should just skip the misspellings and go back to spellcheck later (this was years ago when there wasn’t autocorrect). That worked great for some, but other students needed the freedom of spellcheck…it took their worry away and freed them to write. It gave them some control of the writing situation. When writing by hand, we’d write important content words on the board (for those who wanted, posted as students asked) or individually on a post-it (especially for those who were obsessed w/spelling correctly). As the year goes on, they trust you, the process, and then themselves and it’s not as much of an issue. Great piece, thank you!

  3. As a dyslexic non-teacher, I am reading your posts with memories of a long past school experience, rewriting possibilities for the child still inside me. That child’s essays were returned to her liberally decorated with red markings, even question marks where the markers didn’t actually remember the correct spelling any more, never a note about content. Any early progress made was despite a fear of getting it wrong again with the spelling. I loved this post. I still dance around words I am not sure of, maybe I shouldn’t. Away from a spellcheck this makes my notes less colorful, I have been painting with a limited palette. This retired woman is going to be a little bit braver now.

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