Teaching Kids How To Spell Makes You Realize How Lucky You Are

I recently picked up a part-time job tutoring elementary schoolers from low-income homes in English Language Arts. I was given a “Student Learning Plan” for each child. The usual suspects were on these lists of expectations: students need to know the difference between adjectives and adverbs, be able to identify synonyms and antonyms as well as prefixes and suffixes, and be able to make graphic organizers and break down essays into main ideas and supporting details.

Here’s where things get complicated. I need to make sure my students learn all these basics so they can pass the multiple choice post-test they’re going to take in a few months. At the same time, I need to somehow teach these children how to spell. Because they can’t spell. They really, really, really can’t spell.

Teaching someone how to read and write in English makes a person realize exactly how f—ed up the modern English written language actually is. Working with someone who can’t spell makes your long for the Elizabethan Age, back before the written language was standardized, back when there was ONLY creative spelling. Now we live in an English-language world where the classic “Sound it out” will get you out the gate, but barely. When my students ask me why “person” is spelled with an o instead of a u (“But the ‘u’ makes the uh sound!”) or why “people” has an o in it (“But it only has an “ee” sound, it doesn’t have an “oh” sound, why is the “oh” in there?”), I have to give them the most dreaded of grown-up responses: “Because.”

I hate being the grown-up who says “Because.” I never wanted to be the grown-up who said “Because.” But I only have a limited amount of time to teach them spelling, I have to devote the bulk of our afternoons and evenings together to drumming reading and writing comprehension concepts into their brains, making sure they can take effective notes on written passages and pass multiple choice tests. Still, my heart drops into my stomach when I go through the sentences they write and correct the mistakes. Seeing a perfectly spelled sentence with these kids feels like finding the holy grail. It’s the rare sentence where only two or three words are misspelled. It’s terrible how often I come across a sentence where EVERY word is misspelled. Those sentences feel like a punch to the gut and face.

Reading out loud is no less a challenge for them. They stumble and stop and start. I can see their little faces turn red. They’re tired of stumbling. They want to skate through sentences. They don’t want to hate reading or writing. But how can they not hate it a little bit? How can you not hate climbing a mountain when you never seem close to getting to the top?

It’s something I haven’t thought about often enough, how lucky I was to be born into a reading household. It is a privilege to come from a family with bookshelves in almost every room, a family that regularly visited bookstores and libraries, a family where both my parents regularly read to me before bed. I’ve been a reader for so long I forget sometimes that I didn’t come straight out of the womb with my nose buried in a book. I forget that I was taught, because I was taught at such an early age and in such an organic way that I can’t remember the learning being a struggle. I remember struggling through my multiplication tables and Spanish verbs, but I never remember struggling with reading.

I want so much for the kids I work with. I want them to be able to pick up A Wrinkle in Time or From The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and be able to dive into the pages as easily as they would cannonball into a swimming pool. I want them to rock their college admissions essay and I want them to go to a great school and read great books and write great essays about those books.

I have gargantuan dreams for my students, but we have to take miniature steps to cross the great divide between where they are now and where I hope they’ll someday be.

So here’s something to be grateful for today. Be grateful if reading feels like breathing and be grateful if you can write a sentence without wondering if all the words are spelled correctly. It’s so easy to forget that being literate isn’t a give-in, it’s a privilege we have so, so, so many people in our pasts to thank for.

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