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Spelling makes a comeback

To be properly learned, teachers say, spelling must be properly taught.

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Once a year, ESPN elevates spelling to the status of a national sport. In a live broadcast of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, young masters of the alphabet contort their faces or gaze into space as they inch their way - letter by letter - to victory or defeat.

But champion spellers are to the average English student what Olympic athletes are to the average kickball player in gym class. And many teachers are at their wits' end as they attempt to get students to play by the rules of standard spelling.

While the elite are memorizing rare words in anticipation of the 78th annual competition in Washington June 1-2, seventh-graders in Rebekah Guerra's English class are still trying to master the basics. Some mistakes in a recent assignment: diddent; edjucation; coledge; pronounceation; absolutly.

Mrs. Guerra offers daily spelling instruction, a sign of the subject's comeback after several decades of neglect. While schools still vary greatly in their approaches to spelling, a growing emphasis on basic skills in US classrooms has prompted more teachers to return to explicit spelling instruction - instead of simply assuming that it's a skill that kids will pick up as they go along.

At Boston Trinity Academy, a small Christian school in Brookline, Mass., for grades 6 to 12, Guerra gets 90 minutes a day to guide her class through good literature as well as the mechanics of grammar and spelling.

Most of the students - a diverse group, both racially and economically - arrive with a weak background in phonics, she says, and some simply haven't been pushed to read enough.

But with small classes, she can tailor instruction to individual needs: Some struggle with spelling because they are bilingual; others have been diagnosed with learning disabilities.

After a while, she can tell which kids are just being lazy in applying spelling rules they've been taught. She takes a point off their grade for each misspelling of a word pattern they've learned.

The traditional approach to teaching spelling - memorize this list and take a test at the end of the week - isn't effective for many students, Guerra and others say.

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