In a New Yorker cartoon by Barbara Smaller, two children play in a sandbox. One says to the other, "It's all learning-is-fun and invented spelling then -- bam! -- second grade."
After a morning spent in my son's kindergarten class, I get the joke.
Let me admit up front that I'm not the ideal parent helper. I have very little patience with children other than my own. I forget to wear the volunteer badge. I wear beads that dangle when I lean over to help the children and which have, on occasion, been temporarily woven into their projects with yarn. My sons hold the following dialogue with me each night before my scheduled turns:
ME: What's the last thing I want to do tomorrow?
OFFSPRING: Help in my class.
ME: Why am I doing it?
OFFSPRING: Because you love us.
I'm not all bad. I always suck it up and smile and offer no clues to my true feelings. Until one day last October.
I'm poised and ready to help, beads reined in by the badge, which I've remembered to fetch. The teacher is giving instructions.
--Okay, kids. When you come to this learning center, you'll draw something related to Halloween, then spell the word on the line underneath. If I draw this, for example, what would we write?
--Very good. (Murmurs something about book spelling with an "h.") Now go ahead and choose a center.
I looked around. GOST? Was anyone else seeing this? No; the only adults in the room were me, who spells ghost with an h, and the teacher, who doesn't. What happened next is easy to guess: 18 children drew ghosts and wrote GOST in shaky letters underneath.
At the teacher conference a week later, I arrived stricken. Yes, yes, my child has a backwards pencil grip; we'll correct that by junior high. But GOST, lady. Please. Talk to me.
This kindly, patient teacher explained "invented spelling" to me. I remained unconvinced for a time, arguing that it's surely contributing to the downfall of society, right up there with LOL and texting. And that much of learning happens visually; we don't want the cameras in these little brains forever framing GOST instead of GHOST.
But then she posed this idea: Invented spelling frees a child to learn to write. Rather than express themselves only with words they're sure they can spell, children will instead write whatever comes to mind, however they can get it down.
"Huh," I said, shifting in the little tiny chair. "Is that so."
I started to see her side. I threw out the occasional but, yet I felt better knowing I wouldn't need to become a spelling activist anytime soon. She offered to write the correct spellings under Theo's attempts, and this satisfied me. I was officially cool with invented spelling, though its outcomes were still yet unproven.
Until yesterday. A very proud Theo comes to me and says, "I wrote a story." Sure enough, he did--a little ditty scrawled in black marker, with words like qigiea and apol and urz. The plot concerned his tooth being wiggly after he bit into an apple. It had a clear beginning, middle, and end. I made all over him for this fine first attempt.
Cnseder me uh FAN of nvnted spllng.