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SPELLING IN THE ELEMENTARY
SPELLING not only has always held an undisputed place as a special branch of instruction in schools, but has been given great consideration as one of the most important and essential subjects of the whole curriculum. Indeed, in popular and also professional esteem, it has ranked as coördinate with the time-honored three R's. That we do not hear of four rather than three cardinal branches of the common-school requirements may probably be ascribed rather to the accident of alliteration and a popular appreciation of the perfection of the number three, than to any underestimation of the relative value of spelling as a fundamental of an elementary education. The failure to give it specific mention in the common formula is apt to be explained by a reference to its implicit recognition and estimation in the places assigned reading and writing.
The generally high appreciation of accurate spelling is evidenced not only in the prominence accorded the subject in elementary schools, but also in the frequent employment of relative accuracy and facility in spelling as a measure of the educational status of the individual. The badly spelled letter is apt to be regarded as an unmistakable sign of illiteracy, and even when internal evidences of culture exclude such a charge, the orthographical blunders are deemed at least significant of a partially defective education, or of a neglect of essentials that is almost morally reprehensible. It is true that one often
hears highly cultured people laughingly detail their difficulties with the orthography of this or that particularly difficult or confusing word, but the sin of actual commission is not so lightly regarded; it is, in fact, more frequently the occasion of a deeper chagrin than would be excited by a fault intrinsically less venial in character. Were the same care exercised with the details of vocal language that is given to those of the written, there probably would be much less complaint than now obtains of American phonetic barbarisms.
Whether perfection in spelling is so desirable or attainable as an ideal of instruction that it should continue to hold its present exalted place in the popular consciousness and in the mind of the professional pedagogue, is another and important question which will be given some attention later; but that it does hold such place is evidenced not only by such general considerations as have been just mentioned, but by matters of fact easily accessible to any one sufficiently interested to inquire. The time actually devoted to special instruction in spelling, as given upon daily school programmes, ranges from ten minutes to an hour, the latter being more than one fifth of the available time for instruction, and the spelling lesson is almost invariably one of the "staples" for home study when such work is required of pupils. The great number of spelling books put forth each year by the publishers of text-books is another significant index of the time, thought, energy, and money expended in meeting this demand of the schools.
The interests of orthography are also carefully and zealously guarded by Boards of Education. While such bodies, as a rule, represent popular rather than professional opinion in pedagogical matters, they are potent influences in the determination of the practical conduct of the schools under their jurisdiction. The Board of Education of a large city becoming alarmed lest the "necessities" of education are being subordinated to alleged educational luxuries, is a periodic occurrence. One of the com
mon indictments of the work of the schools is that the pupils are lamentably poor spellers, however great their capabilities
may be in drawing, music, and other branches. The result of such agitation is usually the placing of additional emphasis upon the spelling drill and general instruction in spelling by the schools thus criticised.
I have no intention, in this connection, to discuss either the justification of the indictment or the value of the remedial measures that are suggested or applied. The facts are cited merely as additional evidence, of the views that obtain upon the subject and of the position of orthography in the schools affected by them. It should be said, however, that these views reflect, as a rule, nothing more than hasty judgments aroused by superficial examination of the facts, and influenced by the many preconceptions and prejudices apt to be associated with opinions upon a subject of universal interest, and upon which every one deems himself competent to decide. It is even to be regretted that the mere opinions and personal judgments of the enlightened professional pedagogue are allowed to influence so strongly the practical workings of the schoolroom in cases where it is possible to reduce expressions of opinion to matters of fact by a not too laborious investigation. I do not presume to assert that in all matters of educational practice we shall ever be able so to determine the facts that we may be freed from acting in subservience to enlightened albeit unverified opinion; but some problems of education give ready answer to statistical inquiry, and such answers when determined should be accorded very respectful consideration before the adoption or rejection of changes in the school régime.
Yet recourse to statistical or experimental investigation, even if only to aid in the solution of purely local questions, is singularly rare.1 This is all the more remarkable in view of the
1 An instance of the practical value of such inquiry may fittingly be mentioned in this connection. The Philadelphia school system having been criticised for its inefficiency in certain particulars, poor spelling of the pupils being one of the alleged defective results, data based upon the results of some very simple but thorough tests were submitted to the consideration of a committee. This was, perhaps, the most valuable of all the evidence of a careful and extended investigation, and aided materially in forming the opinions and
facility with which such investigations may be pursued in this particular field of inquiry. Even the important movement for spelling reform does not seem to have stimulated experimental investigations of the problems presented by the necessities of teaching. In a very complete bibliography of spelling reform, which includes articles upon all questions of even indirect relationship to the general one, I find no citation of any such research.1
The failure to attempt statistical research upon certain pedagogical questions may readily be explained by the almost insuperable difficulties involved in the undertaking. With spelling, however, it is an easy matter to gather from a group of children supplied with paper and pencil, material for exhaustive analysis. The data may be readily given quantified expression, and when studied with reference to age, sex, mental and physical status, and environmental conditions (social and pedagogical), may be made to yield important contributions to both psychology and pedagogy.
From the pedagogic standpoint this neglect of inductive inquiry cannot be due to the belief that the solution of the problem has been practically determined. The difficulties of English spelling have always been proverbial, and there has been much a priori reasoning upon methods of teaching it, resulting now in the adoption of special methods, and again in reversion to the practices which these methods had superseded. The spelling book, for example, has been from time to time banished from the schoolroom, only to be re-admitted at the dictation of new educational fashions, or perhaps from sincere effort at intelligent reform. But these extremes of practice have been resorted to without sufficiently careful and extended investigation of the facts of experience.
determining the findings of the committee. See Annual Report of Superintendent Philadelphia Schools, 1896, and "Psychology of Spelling," by Lightner Witmer, New York School Journal, September 12, 1896.
1 "Bibliography of Spelling Reform," by Robert M. Pierce, Journal of Communication, Chicago, March and November, 1898.
One extensive statistical inquiry, however, has been conducted by Dr. J. M. Rice.1 Conspicuous not only for the singularity of its presence within the field of pedagogical discussion, but equally so for the skill and discernment with which it was carried to a conclusion, this investigation has done much to clear up vague opinions as to the place of spelling in the elementary school, and to establish many important facts concerning the effect of the age, environment, etc., of the pupil, and of the methods and other factors of teaching upon the results of instruction. The writer has found this investigation very suggestive, and has employed some of Dr. Rice's tests in experiments to be described later.
The phenomena of spelling offer material for psychological investigation and analysis, apart from any pedagogical application. Spelling, whether oral or written, depends upon the association of certain arbitrary symbols obtained through one or more sense channels, the subsequent recall of these symbols in a conventional order and the expression of this ordered group of symbols by some form of motor activity. Spelling is a sensori-motor habit which expresses itself in every concrete instance of the spelling of a word as a synthetized motorial reaction following, at more or less remote temporal intervals, certain complicated sensory stimulations. Errors in orthography are more instructive than the correctly spelled words. Granting that a child has at some time seen, or heard, or otherwise received sensory impressions of the constituent elements of a word in their proper order, a misspelling of such word may be viewed as a mild form of aphasia, using that term in its broadest signification, as any disturbance, however slight or temporary, of the function of language. This question will be treated more in detail in the consideration of the various classes of spelling errors.
Enough has been said in the foregoing pages to emphasize sufficiently: (a) the great importance ascribed to spelling and the consequently large expenditure of time, money, and energy 1 "The Futility of the Spelling Grind," Forum, April and June, 1897.