Review: The Art of Spelling
A book that is both fun and useful, depending on who you are
Normally, I cringe when I see Pat browsing the bookshelves in a thrift shop. We already have far more books than we have shelf space for, and he inevitably brings home a few more.
The Art of Spelling: The Madness and the Method, by Marilyn vos Savant, which Pat picked up for two bucks, is an exception. First, it’s nice and small, so it doesn’t take up much of the precious shelf space. Second, the value of the information it contains is huge.
The first two-thirds of the book (“The Madness”) is an analysis of spelling – its importance, characteristics of good and bad spellers (less intelligent people are generally poor spellers, but poor spellers are not usually less intelligent), psycholinguistic processes involved in spelling, and why English ended up being the most infuriatingly inconsistent language to try to spell. The second section (“The Method”) has a more practical orientation: It gives the reader specific analysis and strategies to help the reader develop a customized method to deal with his or her own spelling bugaboos.
The first section of the book will appeal to scholars, word-lovers, history buffs, amateur psychologists, and the like. Vos Savant has put together some very good research with a few interviews with primary sources, and she presents the material in a light-hearted way that makes for more entertaining reading than the typical scholarly tome.
It’s the second section, however, that I find most useful. For ages, I have been searching for something that will be useful for those of my students who have trouble spelling (and thanks to spelling-checkers, that number is growing). These students are classified as “developmental,” although I prefer to think of them as “pre-college” – that is, they do not yet have the writing skills to succeed in college-level courses, so they’re working on developing those skills. These students are not helped by advice to “read lots and lots, because the more you read, the more you will learn how words are supposed to be spelled.” Yes, children who grow up amid great heaps of books and who therefore read a lot for pleasure will assimilate good spelling. That doesn’t help a high-school dropout who never associated reading with pleasure and who now has no time for recreational reading because she’s working two jobs to support her 3-year-old daughter and pay the rent while also attending college.
Another method of dealing with spelling is to bombard the student with a gigantic heap of “rules,” most of which aren’t really rules anyway – they’re just descriptions of how, in most cases, words operate. Not only are these rules overwhelming; because they are simply telling how spelling operates most of the time, they don’t cover all situations. A student who blindly follows such rules (assuming he can remember them all) will make mistakes.
One more piece of advice I often see about spelling is just simply to memorize and memorize and memorize. That may work for a 13-year-old spelling bee champion (although such a champion does learn shortcuts to cut down the required memorization). Rote memorization separates words from their meanings, while my students need to learn to spell words within a living paragraph, the words’ natural habitat.
For a short time, I had found a Website that gave good spelling advice, in a way that was helpful, accurate, and non-overwhelming. Unfortunately, that site was only available for about two semesters, and then it disappeared – no forwarding address. I Googled the site’s author to see whether she might show up somewhere else, but I came up dry. I was left with whatever advice was in the grammar text my community college’s department was using in a particular term (ranging from generally inadequate to totally inadequate) and my own advice (mostly inadequate).
Now, I have discovered this book, published nearly a decade ago, that in its second section deals with spelling in a way that, except for a couple of forays into erudition, is exactly what my students need. The first section of the book, with all of its scholarly stuff, will go way over their heads for the time being – but if they can get through the pre-college work and into college studies, they’ll be able to get it eventually. What’s valuable for them right now is the practical stuff in the second part of the book.
In that part of the book, vos Savant provides a couple of diagnostic tests that will allow a student to find a pattern in his or her spelling errors. This diagnosis is hugely useful: I often find that a student with poor spelling says, “I can’t spell anything right; I’m hopeless.” But what’s really the case is that the student has problems only with one or two issues, such as unaccented vowels or doubled consonants. Because the student has usually run his work through a spelling checker, I can’t always tell what that student’s error pattern is – all of the words in his essay are correctly spelled; they’re just not the right words. If the student knows what his particular spelling issues are, then when he’s proofreading (which he should do BEFORE running the spelling checker), he can look primarily for those particular problems.
In addition, vos Savant gives advice for dealing with each particular spelling problem. Once a student knows that her spelling problems deal with apostrophes, she can learn the relatively short list of rules about apostrophes, and she’s home free.
Another issue that vos Savant deals with is different learning styles. Something that works for a student with an auditory learning style may be totally useless for a student with a motor learning style. So vos Savant will recommend that a student with a motor learning style write a word (both with a pen and on a computer) repeatedly to embed the shape of the word in the student’s motor memory, while for an auditory student, she will recommend pronouncing the word carefully and hearing how its sounds reflect its spelling.
Now I have some tools that I can give to my students to help them with their spelling. Thank you, MvS.