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Why Stevie Can't Spell

It's a shame, because I love words as much as they seem to hate me. I love learning them and using them and having fun with them. I'm an incurable punster -- wordplays pop into my head so constantly that I have to make an effort not to blurt them out like a Tourette's sufferer. My literary idols are such master wordsmiths as P.G. Wodehouse, William Faulkner, Patrick O'Brian and Richard Ford. I read tons. I have a robust vocabulary.

I just can't spell.

The author poses with third-graders, from left, Amalia Perez, Isabel Hendrix-Jenkins and Dillon Sebastian. (D.A. Peterson)

I know many people assume it's because I'm too lazy to reach for the dictionary. One of my colleagues recently summarized her 'nuff-said attitude toward misspellers by quoting to me the entirety of Stuart Little's curt spelling lesson to a class of grade-schoolers: "A misspelled word is an abomination in the sight of everyone. I consider it a very fine thing to spell words correctly, and I strongly urge every one of you to buy a Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and consult it whenever you are in the slightest doubt. So much for spelling. What's next?"

Ah, the pitiless doctrine of Just Look It Up. It's hard to explain to my colleague, much less to E.B. White, that I'm "in the slightest doubt" with about every 20th word I write. Or that I'm sometimes too far at sea to even find it in the dictionary. (I once spent 20 minutes rewriting "mosquito" because I couldn't even get close enough for spell-check to take over.) Or that in the instant between looking up from the dictionary and turning to the keyboard, I can entirely forget what I've just seen (leaving me, at worst, with one index finger on the page while I peck out a letter at a time with the other).

A far more appealing diagnosis of my affliction, if you ask me, is a growing body of evidence showing that some chronically awful spellers have an actual neurological misfire, a kind of dyslexia that keeps the most well-intentioned brain from remembering what words "look" like when it comes time to write them. One thing I can spell, people, is d-i-s-a-b-i-l-i-t-y. If this pans out, I may be able to get a better parking place at the mall.

But what most people tell me, particularly those who bemoan the national deterioration of spelling in this age of Toys R Us storefronts and "i luv u 2" e-mails, is that what failed me was liberalism. I am, they say, a collateral casualty of the Reading Wars that have raged through elementary classrooms since the 1970s. That's when disciples of "whole language" reading instruction -- young academics addled by Vietnam and fed up with authority, rules and standards -- sent the Friday spelling quiz the way of slate chalkboards and penmanship training. For decades, parents schooled under more rigorous methods have been puzzled -- and often outraged -- to see their kids' work come home riddled with the uncorrected errors of "inventive" and "magic" spelling.

"We've been shortchanging spelling for about the last 30 years," says Richard Gentry, a Florida author who champions better spelling instruction in school districts across the country. Most whole-language approaches ignore the individual phonemes that are the building blocks of words -- the /eye/, /tin/, /eh/, /rare/ and /ee/ that make up itinerary -- in favor of teaching the "whole word," all of a piece and only in the context of other lessons.

"The notion with whole language was that spelling wasn't all that important," Gentry says, "that if kids became good readers and writers, they would 'catch' expert spelling. We now know that they don't."

It's not that all of those progressive enthusiasms were wrong, says Gentry, who ran Western Carolina University's reading center for 16 years. He cites the growing emphasis on good children's literature, for example, as a vast improvement over Dick and Jane's anesthetizing plot lines. And encouraging kindergartners to write, even in their emergent scribble-scrabble way, was a great leap forward.

"A lot of good practice came out of whole-language theory," Gentry says. "The piece they got wrong was spelling. And spelling is phonics."

Could it really be that itinerary stymies me to this day because a tie-dyed American pedagogy assumed that correctly spelled words would simply accumulate like sandburs as I explored the richer pastures of reading for pleasure and creative writing?

Maybe it's time to go back and learn my letters.

I CHOSE ROLLING TERRACE FOR A MIDLIFE SPELLING INTERVENTION because it's where my two daughters attend school. It is, in fact, where my daughter Isabel won the second-grade spelling bee last year. It turns out they're teaching spelling again.

When I asked Melissa Salvesen, the reading specialist, if Montgomery County's new "word study/spelling" curriculum, which seemed to be serving Isabel so well, had anything to offer her dad, she agreed to create a souped-up variation of the program.

My first test, the one for which I posted a dismal 52 percent, was meant to set a benchmark. I would take another one after the lessons to see, basically, whether the lame shall ever walk.

"You do have some trouble with basic patterns," Salvesen said after poking diagnostically through the ashes of my quiz. "You have a little trouble with double consonants. And you're not really sure how to use y as a vowel."

I squirmed a little. Could we close the door?

"But most of what you get wrong are irregular words. You know the letters that are supposed to be in the word, but you put them in the wrong order, or you replace a correct vowel with an incorrect vowel. You're trying to spell it the way it sounds, and you're basically just guessing."

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