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Why Stevie Can't Spell

She gave me a sheaf of work sheets she had copied from one of the books the county uses in its new spelling program. My homework.

The Miss Grundys among you will be glad to know there is a growing level of spelling accountability in Montgomery County schools. Starting in first grade, classrooms feature a list of high-frequency, grade-appropriate mots justes on the "word wall," which lengthens through the year, and students are expected to get these right when they write. Kindergartners still get a pass with their starter list (he, she, the, and), but in first grade the rules of engagement now allow teachers to unholster the red pen.

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

These days, however, word study is about more than word lists. For beginners, it's about breaking words into individual chunks of sound and the letter combinations that make them up -- lots of variations on sounding out the separate syllables while clapping out their rhythms and other basic phonetic training. In first grade, after most kids have broken the essential code of reading, word study becomes more about sowing the rules of English spelling into little minds -- "i before e, except after c," except when it's not, and other such fickle tenets -- without scaring the bejesus out of them.

"Okay, kids, your job is to help me collect all the words in this book that end in the letters e-d," says Mrs. Burn, clapping her hands in the universal teacher semaphore for "Quiet down, we're starting something new." The 20-odd third-graders gathered on the brightly colored rug at her feet tame their twitching enough for her to go on. "As I read Galimoto, I want you to pay attention to any word that ends in e-d. If you hear one, raise your hand, and we're going to make a list at the end of each page. Now, who can tell me what it means when a word ends in e-d? Amalia?"

Elizabeth Burn is my daughter's dynamo of a third-grade teacher. She has agreed to let me audit a word-study lesson, so I squeeze into a pygmy chair and listen hard for the e-d words as she reads Karen Lynn Williams's story of a Malawian boy who collects wire to build a toy. (It happens to be a book I've read to my own kids dozens of times, which gives me, I think, an edge on the other pupils.) After we collect a list of 40 words, we sort them into three columns based on the sound of their endings: /t/ (looked, rushed), /d/ (dried, shrugged) and /ed/ (illustrated, guided).

"It's not spelled with a t, is it?" asks Mrs. Burn, pointing at the word "pushed." I shake my head. "It just sounds like that."

By the time she gets through some of the "soft rules" for e-d words (double the last letter on some, change y to i on others, etc.), I'm hearing basics laid out in a way I sure don't remember from Miss Pedrow's class.

"Look how excited they are by spelling," Mrs. Burn says to me as my classmates break into groups to sort words. "It's like a treasure hunt to them. We used to give them these hard and fast rules, and the kids would find so many exceptions it would freak them out. Now we get them to see the general tendencies and patterns that hold true more often than not."

As a guest in the class, I decide it wouldn't be appropriate to climb up on a desk and shout at the kids to run for their lives. But someone should warn them that the task they've been handed -- making sense of English spelling -- is one that would have had Hercules looking back wistfully on his Augean stable days. The "general tendencies and patterns" of English orthography are about as consistent as congressional ethics rules.

Ours is a Gordian knot of a language, a tangled skein of threads pulled from dozens of alien dialects and balled into the richest, most expressive and downright maddening lingo on the planet. There's plenty of blame to go around -- curse you, Greeks, Saxons and Normans -- for the fact that oven doesn't rhyme with woven, laughter does rhyme with rafter and colonel is identical to kernel.

"We call them wacky words," says Burn. "O-n-e is pronounced one? Explain that to a first-grader."

The combination o-u-g-h variously makes the sounds of tough, through, though, thought and plough. O-e serves goes, shoes, does and amoeba. This is like an arithmetic in which 5 plus 3 sometimes equals 8, and sometimes 11, 23 or 75, for no particular reason that you can learn other than memorizing hundreds of irregular equations.

It doesn't need to be this way. Did you know they don't really have such a thing as misspelling in Italy, Spain, Portugal and other countries with a more straightforward orthography? Ask a fellow on the streets of Lima how to spell abogado, and he'll simply repeat the word more slowly. It's like asking someone in Washington to spell FBI.

"Those are simpler, phonetically based systems," says Gentry. They enjoy something much closer to a one-to-one correspondence of a single letter or letter combination to a single sound. "In Italian, they have 33 letter combinations to spell 25 sounds. In English, we have about 1,120 letter combinations to make 44 sounds."

It isn't confusing just for bad spellers when there are at least a dozen ways to spell the long e sound: peel, key, tea, phoebe, tangerine, protein, fiend, she, people, ski, debris and quay. The bizarro spelling makes English incredibly difficult to learn, particularly for adults studying it as a second language, and acts as a drag chute on efforts to boost literacy. Ever since a 13th-century monk named Orm, no doubt tugging his halo of hair in frustration at the unholy mess he was forced to transcribe, became the first evangelist for spelling reform, men of letters have called for some serious tidying up of the English lexicon. They've included Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt, the editors of the Chicago Tribune and George Bernard Shaw, who famously pointed out that "ghoti" could logically be pronounced fish using familiar English letter combinations (the g-h from rough, o from women and t-i from motion).

Until about 350 years ago, spelling didn't even count in English, according to Naomi Baron, an American University linguistics professor and author of From Alphabet to Email: How Written English Evolved and Where It's Heading. Before the mid-17th century, Baron says, there was no notion of standardized spelling among the few who were taking quill to paper.

"The Shakespeares and Miltons of the world might have spelled fish three different ways in a single work," Baron says.

Shakespeare couldn't spell? And you're giving me a hard time?

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