Child spelling

… and the mechanical conventions of writing.

Exhibit A, a drawing that my grand-daughter Opal made for me on the occasion of my 70th birthday, back in September:

(Those are 100 candles, because Opal didn’t think 70 were enough.)

The point is the carefully outlined spelling of my name: ARNLD.

Now, some time before this, Opal had ARNOLD down pat — but she wrote it laboriously, letter by letter. What happened in the intervening time is that she’d begun to rely on her abilities to use her knowledge of sound-symbol correspondences and spell more rapidly, more automatically. And she ran up against the fact that what comes phonetically between the [n] and the [d] is, in her pronunciation and that of almost everyone around her, a single segment, an (unaccented) syllabic lateral — so of course it’s spelled with L.

Unfortunately, the syllabic lateral is almost never spelled in English with a plain L. Instead, there’s a whole raft of spellings: AL in MEDAL, EL in CAMEL, IL in PISTIL, ILE in (American) STERILE, OL in PISTOL (and ARNOLD), UL in SPOONFUL, LE in METTLE, etc. Spelling correctly means laboriously memorizing which words have which spellings (though in some cases you can get clues from the spellings of morphologically related words, like METALLIC and STERILITY).

Now she’s relearned the correct spelling for my name, as on this thank-you note she gave me yesterday, Exhibit B:

Inside was a set of photos of her taken by her mother, one for each month of 2010. HEXABUGADOTIOS is a HEXABUG (a Hexabug Habitat was my Christmas present to her) + ADOTIOS representing the last portion of EXPIALIDOCIOUS in SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS, as it is spelled in the song title from the movie Mary Poppins. Her version of that portion makes perfect sense (right down to the TI for [ʃ]), but again there are all sorts of surprises in the correct spelling: the initial unaccented vowel, which could perfectly well have been spelled with an A (Opal’s version) rather than I; the rendering of [ʃ], which could perfectly well have been spelled TI (Opal’s version) rather than CI (note the sophistication of her choice of TI rather than SH); and the final unaccented vowel plus [s], which could perfectly well have been spelled with OS (Opal’s version, as in THERMOS) rather than OUS.

It’s a minefield.

Exhibit C is actually from the year before Exhibit A. From Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky’s blog (Elizabeth’s comments are in parentheses, and my few notes are in square brackets):

Aug 26, 2010 A few weeks ago, Opal brought home her work for the past year. She is in general proud of it, and it’s fun to see how her work changes over the course of the year in most subjects. But my favorite is her journal. Every day there was a journal question; on Monday it was always “What did you do over the weekend?” and on Friday (when it did not go in the journal) it was “What was your favorite thing this week?” In between it varied, although there’s a strong tendency to ask about favorites. Each page has a space for a picture and some writing. The pages do not have the questions; this makes the beginning of the year, when she often gave bare answers, rather challenging to make out.

09/16/09 “MYFAVoritEMAMMALiSACHEEtAH” 09/10/09 “IliKE THE PLAYGROUND” 09/24/09 “Mozart is playing violiN.” 10/06/09 “Iwouldliketoownacat .” 10/08/09 “I LOVEAustralia” 10/14/09 “A FamLe of ciNcille” (“A family of chinchillas” and no, I don’t know what that’s the answer to.) 10/21/09 “iliketoetheArginteninBred” (“I like to eat the Argentinian bread”, and no, I don’t know what Argentinian bread.) 10/27/09 “i love thispikthur bukwzitha za womin” (“I love this picture, because it has a woman.” This sentence is accompanied by a picture of a woman, but probably refers to somebody else’s picture.)11/11/09 “this is apgmy marmoset it isthe smallest monkey in t he world. This monkey isfondintheAmazon Rainforest.” 11/13/09 crossed out, followed by 2009-11-13 “my Dad” (Again, your guess is as good as mine as to the question) 11/17/09 “Bruegel liks to pAnt he liks to pantlanskaps.” (“Breughel likes to paint. He likes to paint landscapes.”) 11/17/09 crossed out, followed by 2009-11-19 and 11/19/09 “red pink gren bronprplblak” (This is probably the answer to “What is your favorite color?”) 2009-12-01 “i love to se flwers gro.” 12/30/09 “The latebugs [ladybugs] have No BakboNs the latebugs ar invertebratets” 2009-12-07 “i want to a fanse denr and ilikd denr and i love it.” (“I went to a fancy dinner and I liked dinner and I love it”) 12/09/09 “lokwaryou Ar goin so you dont folin a howl .” (“Look where you are going so you don’t fall in a hole.”) 12/23/09 “I loved to play with the papr Ball and i love toplay with toys.” 01/06/10 “I rile want to see ashrk” (“I really want to see a shark”, which would be a question about what she wanted to do at the Monterey Aquarium). 01/21/10 “panuma is a land cnecdid to two pisis of land” 01/28/10 “I love the poison-dart frog.” 02/02/10 “Iam gong tolokk vare olld.” (“I am going to look very old”, perhaps a question about what she will do when she is older?) 02/04/10 “I love tomak valintins cad’s for May reltf’s” (“I love to make Valentine’s cards for my relatives.”) 02/17/10 “Johannes wasaflute palyr and He wontid to pay the piano and His father sed piano’s are for rich people and tatment tat ment tat He didint want Hem to play the flute” (Brahms, perhaps?) 02/10/10 “I love to snugl up weth MoM and anmls”(undated) “I love pudl’s and cwawas” (“I love poodles and chihuahuas”, but I know this from the picture.) 03/02/10 “I love frederick’s first concert it was in February24 1818 the Most important peoel in warsaw cam at that time a Grand Duke ruled over poland He was Bad-tempered.” 03/03/10 “I like papawa niugine war my grandparens live and i love thum.” 03/04/10 “I love the thort taild cincilu of South America (animall)” 03/09/10 “I love tow Bukus It is even.” (“I love two, because it is even”) 03/15/10 “I love pie day and weeding”03/16/10 “My favorite planet is ploto.” (Uh-oh.) 03/24/10 “My favrit book is aceko 8 spuklr Booke” (“My favorite book is Akiko & Spuckler book” ) 04/??/10 “wen i came to scoole on my frist day i wontid to stay with My MoM becase i wa’s shy toBe in scoole” 04/15/10 “I like ale the letter, bukus theare26 letter” (Take that, asking for favorites!) 04/29/10 “My favoite thinge todo on a tripe Is ate Is creme wale My MoM swims” 05/??/10 “I like tims. Bkus: it is fun and it maks you smart and i am good at it.” 05/06/10 “I like it wen henry matisse isint Bord enimore” 05/07/10 “I am loking forword to onigiri.” (“I am looking forward to onigiri.” She likes rice balls.) 05/??/10 “I like sharks and sting rays Bkuse sharks have sharp teth and sting rays sting.” 05/13/10 “My favorite flowers are jasman, rosis, tulips and sunflowres. I like thum Bkuse thay smele good and lookgood. I love thum.” [thum here and elsewhere is wonderful, an accurate representation of her pronunciation] 2010-06-03 “If a Alien spacecraft landed in myback yrde I wode tel My MoM that we have a Alien space craft in are backyrd because I wode Be scard.” 2010-06-08 “Wen i grow up i wont to be a teacheralibrarian a inventor and a Veterinarian.” 2010-06-14 “If I found gold in my backyard I would show my mom and say theres gold in our backyard mom!” 2010-06-15 “My favorite bug is a butterfly because it is beautiful and I like how theay fly .” 2010-06-21 “On the week end I went to a picasso play. [That would be The Mikado.] It’s about two people want to marry a girl. The second man has to marry another girl who wasthe princess of Japan. I stayed awake for the whole play.” (I think she asked for spelling help and the teacher was stumped.) 06-24-10 “My favorite reptile is a chameleon. because you can’tsee them.” 06-28-10 “On the wekend I painted my room. my dad helped bydoing the corners and I did the walls I used the roller and he usedthe brush and a corner thing wich I forgot the name of.” 07-01-10 “My favorite words are supercalafragulisticxpealadoshis and unucorn.” 07-06-10 “On my weekend I made cucumber saled for my ante and my uncle. me and my mom made it out of cucumbers, cumin, yogert and salt.” 07-19-10 “I told my mom a recipe on the weekend. he reis how you make it. You cut tomatoes in half, youcut a big or three small picklesin slices get cheese and olives bread, and butter.” 07-27-10 “Once in Japan wich is in Asia there was a farmof oysters which made pearls andthey live in clean water.” 8/4/10 “I am afraid of scary movies rolar costers monsters and haunted houses.” 08/5/10 “The biggest animal is the African Elephant. If the African Elephant comes after you to cath you, run and climb upa wall and jump down to the other side.” 08-10-10 “My favorite spider is the bird eting spder. because thay can suk blood from birds.”

Note “supercalafragulisticxpealadoshis” on 7/1/10. It’s entirely possible she’d very rarely seen the word printed (rather than heard it pronounced or sung), so she had pretty much nothing but her ear to go on.

Sometimes adults seeing such productions are simply horrified. How, they demand, can you let a child get away with so many mistakes? It all should be corrected, or the child should be prevented from attempting to write things she doesn’t yet know to spell; otherwise, she’ll just learn bad habits. Hard to think of an attitude more likely to keep a child from writing (or reading, or speaking, or riding a bicycle, or playing a sport, or becoming a musician, or anything else).

It doesn’t help to tell these people that the point is not to avoid making mistakes, but to make them as fast as possible (I paraphrase here), so as to learn from them (and in the case of skilled performances, to continue approximating a goal).

[A tiny story from my own learning-to-spell days. Early on, I spelled fourth FORTH, spelling by ear (and my knowledge of the sound-to-symbol mappings of the orthographic system). I was, by the way, an extraordinarily good speller.

It was then patiently explained to me that the spelling was FOURTH, because it had the word FOUR in it. That seemed rational to me, and I quickly shifted to the correct spelling.

Of course, I also moved to spelling forty as FOURTY, which persisted for quite some time. No, I was told, it’s FORTY. But, I protested, it has FOUR in it. And I was told that the spelling was FORTY, that’s just the way it is.

I was hotly offended; it seemed to me like some kind of con game, rigged to make me always wrong. Sometimes I was wrong because of reason or logic; other times I was wrong because things were just the way they were, the hell with logic. Why did anyone bother with logic at all?

So was a critic of critics nurtured, at age 6.]

4 Responses to “Child spelling”

  1. Erik Zyman Carrasco Says:

    This was an absolutely phenomenal post. Thank you.

    (National Spelling Bee alum here.)

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Just to make things clear about FORTY etc.: if I’d been told that there were rules of thumb, rough approximations, etc., but that there were exceptions, I could have dealt with that. What so irked me was that each position was presented as a kind of absolute principle.

  3. Martyn Cornell Says:

    Opal, in BrE, also has the unaccented syllabic lateral, but I’m guessing in AmE it’s pronounced to sound more like “oh, pal”? Otherwise Opal might have spelt your name “Arnald”.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Opal has an unaccented syllabic lateral in AmE as well. But the AL spelling seems not to have been carried over into other words, undoubtedly because the spelling OPAL was learned as a unit, indeed overlearned, since it was, I think, the first word she could write (as well as spell out loud) — certainly one of the very earliest, and the one most practiced, many times a day. (When she could read some words but not yet write them, she was fascinated that the PALO of PALO ALTO had the same letters in it as her name.)

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