How Unschoolers Learn to Spell

Posted on Posted in Language Arts, Spelling, The Basics, Unschooling, Unschooling Blog

People are often intrigued by unschooling, but worry about “the basics”. After all, they have memories of being drilled and forced to memorize words for spelling tests and then having to write the words they spelled wrong. They didn’t particularly love those spelling tests or the hand cramps from all the writing, but it was for their own good. Otherwise, they’d have grown up and not known how to spell, right?

Wrong.

Just like unschoolers learn to read, they also learn to spell. In their own time, in their own way. Without spelling lists and tests and homework.

When my kids were younger, people used to say, “You’re making a mistake! You’ll be sorry one day, when your kids can’t spell well enough to fill out a job application.” The implication, of course, is that without forced schooling, there isn’t enough learning to produce a literate, knowledgeable, competent adult.

Now that my kids are grown and all able to spell, I can assure anyone who’s concerned: Unschoolers do learn to spell.

My oldest was reading when she was only four years old. She was reading very well, able to pick up a book she had never seen before and read through it on her own. Through her childhood, she read a lot. She had a wonderful vocabulary, but she didn’t write a lot, and her spelling still showed room for improvement. Not a big deal. I knew that, as with everything, she’d learn and improve in her own time, in her own way. When she was around ten, she was playing an online role playing game called Everquest. She was playing during the school day, when a lot of kids her age are in school. She played well and took on leadership roles in the game. She spelled well enough that people understood her and assumed she was an adult, but some called her “Bimbo”, because they assumed she was an adult who couldn’t spell well.

She wanted to be well-respected and taken seriously in the game, so she decided to improve her spelling. She looked a lot of things up herself and asked me a lot of questions like, “What’s the difference between two, to, and too?” How about “there, their or they’re?” She worked hard. She worked with determination. Because of a video game. And it didn’t take long at all before she spelled as well as the average adult. Better than the average adult, even.

Language is a strong point for her, so when she was determined to learn, it didn’t take her long to excel. When I wrote my book, Dear Grandma: Your Grandkids are Unschoolers, I said that the men in my family don’t have the strong natural language arts talent that my daughter and I have. They learned to read much later than my daughter did, and they learned to spell much later. I wrote about how one thing that helped my sons become better spellers was selling on eBay. They wrote descriptions for things we were selling and I checked them before the things were listed, and before long, I rarely had any correcting to do. Twitter and texting are a natural part of their lives, and with years of use, they improved their spelling.

In the year since I wrote that, I changed my mind about something. My youngest son, who was 17 at the time the book was published, very much has a strong natural language talent, especially foreign languages. He just hadn’t developed the talent enough for me to notice at the time I wrote that. He has been been drawn to the Japanese language and has immersed himself in learning it. We were on a car trip a few months ago, and he had brought a book with him. I asked what he was reading, and he casually held it up to show me. I have no idea what it said, because it was in Japanese. He has been practicing spelling words–with Japanese characters.

He will also have long conversations about the etymology of words and how language and culture develops. But this didn’t develop until he was almost 18 years old. This was a strong reminder to me to never assume that someone isn’t good at something. It could just be that they simply haven’t developed a skill yet.

My husband has a hard time spelling. Years of public schooling and spelling tests never changed that for him. I have an easy time spelling. I think it’s safe to say that I would have an easy time spelling even if I had never had years of school and spelling tests. He is a poor speller, and I am a good speller, in spite of school. My husband, however, did develop the idea that spelling and language are distasteful and that he’s not good at it and will never enjoy it. He learned from school that he merely has the ability to “get by”. Maybe that’s true, or maybe, if school hadn’t wasted his time and caused him to develop an aversion to language arts, he would have developed a curiosity and fascination for something about language that would have caused his language abilities to bloom.

If you are forcing your kids to do their spelling homework and drilling them on their spelling words, you are wasting your time and theirs. You are taking time away from what they could be exploring passionately on their own. They will learn without it, and they will learn well. You are probably doing damage in regards to their love of learning.

If you are unschooling and worried that your kids won’t spell well, you can breathe easy. Your kids will learn to spell. They will learn to do everything they need. Not necessarily on the same schedule that kids would learn in public school (maybe earlier, maybe later!), but it is natural for people to learn to communicate in the way that others around them are communicating. Yes, even your kids. Yes, even the kid who spends most of his time playing video games,skateboarding, or watching TV. We live in a language-rich world. They will spell. Unschoolers live awesome lives, and when we trust their learning to unfold as it should, the results are amazing.

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