What is spelling?

What is spelling? Does this seem like a strange question to ask? Maybe “Yes”, or maybe “Not”.  According to a prominent researcher, “Spelling is a linguistic task that requires knowledge of sounds and letter patterns”.  Before I comment on the above quotation, I want to quote another expert’s definition of reading. “Reading is a process of reconstructing sense from text written in a language that we already know and understand”.  What I want to bring out is the fact that both reading and spelling are linguistic activities. They are two sides of the same coin.  Spelling is a means of representing spoken language as written text, and reading is constructing meaning from written text. You are not actually reading unless you understand the text you are engaging with. Both reading and spelling require understanding the language in question.

Since this post is about spelling, I’m going to concentrate on spelling.  Let’s take a closer look at the definition of spelling quoted previously: “Spelling is a linguistic task that requires knowledge of sounds and letter patterns”.  This definition presupposes that spoken language precedes written text: there must be a language first before it can be written down as text.  Spelling is how language is written down as text. Therefore, when you deal with spelling, you are dealing with language.  You cannot divorce spelling from the language it represents and let spelling make sense. Spelling is a language activity! Every language has its unique characteristics, so to write down language as text the people who know that language decide how to represent those characteristics in a way that makes sense.  Because every language is unique, its spelling system is unique as well.

English spelling is notorious for its complexity. The question that we need to ask then, is “What aspects of spoken English does spelling seek to represent in text that cause such complexities?” Spelling is a system, and as a system it is established on principles and conventions.  The task of the speller is to know how his or her language is represented as text.  That idea is what is contained in the second part of the definition: “.. knowledge of sounds and letter patterns.”.  You have to know how your language represents its sound patterns using letters. This is known as grapheme – phoneme correspondences.  For some languages, this definition of spelling may be enough.  However, for English this definition falls short because English spelling represents not only sound, but meaning and history as well.

So, for us as educators, parents, and students the most important question to ask about spelling is how English spelling represents the English language as text. Our quest to find the answer to that question can help us gain valuable insights into the English spelling. You see, spelling involves more than simply copying a word over and over again or simply memorizing the letters in a word.  Spelling is language written down as text.

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