Do kids still come home with spelling lists?

June 28, 1998|By GUY FLETCHER

Is spelling taught in Washington County schools?

It might seem like a dumb question, but for much of the 1990s it hasn't been an easy one to answer.

Whether a child was taught spelling sometimes depended on what school they attended or which teacher they had, according to several parents interviewed for this story.

School officials don't deny there were some inconsistencies over whether spelling, a staple of the phonics method of teaching language arts, was to be part of the curriculum.


"It was done away with in some schools and kept in others," said school board member Doris J. Nipps.

The situation was so confusing that administrators sent a memo last Oct. 8 to every English and language arts teacher in the school system to clarify, in boldface type: "Spelling will be regularly taught to students in Washington County Public Schools, and spelling will be appropriately assessed."

Earlier this month the school board underscored the message by agreeing to return a grade for spelling to the elementary school report card.

The steps were needed, said Donna Gelwicks, a parent of two children in the school system - a girl at Pangborn Elementary and a boy at Northern Middle - who was frustrated when her children would come home without spelling lists.

"I kept thinking, What is going on with this?" she said.

According to Gelwicks and other parents, the problem started in the early 1990s, when the school system began moving away from phonics - the traditional method of teaching reading, in which children learn basic sounds and are discouraged from guessing or skipping words. They learn spelling through dictation, drills, and tests that emphasize accurate spelling.

In its place came whole language, a method through which children are taught reading and spelling as a form of natural expression, without much rigid instruction. Children are encouraged to spell "creatively," in whatever way they feel right, and eventually learn the correct spellings at their own paces.

But in a study of the school system's curriculum last year, auditors found that teachers and parents expressed concern over the inconsistencies in the whole language program.

"My son is in the fifth grade and he has still not been taught to spell," one unnamed parent is quoted as saying in the report.

Stories abound of teachers who hid phonics flash cards in their desks, believing they would be reprimanded if administrators found they were using them.

"I remember thinking there was a philosophy that reading books were bad," said Carol Corwell-Martin, a teacher and curriculum coordinator at Salem Avenue Elementary School.

School officials, confirming what teachers interviewed for the audit said, place much of the blame for the confusion over spelling on a lack of staff development in whole language.

Officials also said that the school system must recognize that going entirely in the direction of phonics or whole language is not the answer - because students all learn differently. A combination of both methods is a better choice.

"People should know we are not throwing whole language out and putting phonics in. We are incorporating the best of both," said Frank Finan, director of curriculum and staff development.

related stories:

Curriculum audit finds deficiencies

Curriculum audit's findings were many

Dissection of county school system is under way

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