The rote learning of spelling is an old tradition in American elementary schools and the spelling bee competition has evolved into a popular nation institution. Nonstandard spelling is routinely taken as indicating a lack of intelligence, illiteracy or lower socioeconomic status. Hoosier U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle’s misspelling of potato at a 1992 spelling bee in Trenton, N.J., was widely taken as a strong verification of his alleged lack of intellectual chops.
Of course, many folks (mostly poor spellers) take an opposite view, such as President Andrew Jackson, who once said, “It’s a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word.”
Back in 1978, spelling reform advocate Abraham Citron, from Wayne State University, vehemently attacked our system of spelling, as well as tradition educational methods saying, “At the portals of education we have laid, not a highway, but a labyrinth.” He described spelling as “difficult, irrational, deceptive, inconsistent, clumsy, frustrating and wasteful.” He called it “one of the basic sources of academic discouragement and failure.”
Godfrey Dewey, a chairman of the national Phonemic Spelling Council, found that Americans use 561 different spellings for the 41 separate sounds that make up our spoken language. The 26 letters of our alphabet are pronounced in 92 different ways. English spelling rules are so irregular, rote memory is the educational strategy of choice. If mathematics was organized in the same haphazard manner, our society would have screeched to a halt long ago.
Citron — who founded Better Education thru Simplified Spelling — argued for creating a more rational spelling system. While major spelling reforms did not occur, many school systems banished spelling textbooks and de-emphasized the spelling curriculum for many years.
Last year, however, Boston Globe writer Linda Matchan reported that spelling is making a dramatic comeback nationally, with an increased interest in spelling clubs, as well as the reissue of spelling books and the reestablishment of weekly spelling tests in many schools. Matchan also notes the growing popularity of spelling bees with fabulous prizes, like the legendary Scripps National Spelling Bee, which is now broadcasted live on ESPN.