Creative Spelling by EFL ELLs

One of the unique parts of my job, one which can be both an upside and a downside, is that I get to teach with many different teachers at all levels. This lets me experience a wide range of teaching styles and classroom methodology. Sometimes I’m blown me away and I learn immensely. Sometimes I want to fling myself out the third story window to escape what is obviously a teaching practice from the Dark Ages.

I experienced the latter earlier this week. In the two JHS 7th grade classes that I assist with, the main teacher is requiring them to memorize a dialogue from the textbook. They are not simply memorizing it in order to act out a play or a readers’ theater. They are not simply trying to memorize it well enough to complete a written or aural cloze test. They are required to memorize and then write the entire passage down, from the teacher’s prompts in which she reads aloud the translated dialogue in Japanese. This seems especially time consuming, soul-crushing, and unproductive to me. It pains me to watch these students, who were my 6th graders only 5 short months ago, now forced to endure the grinding boredom of an antiquated, yet tolerated, grammar-translation approach.

However, watching the students struggle with this task itself is an interesting window into their cognitive processes, specifically related to spelling. They are very creative in how they attempt to spell words correctly that they have not fully memorized. It’s cute, actually. I have many questions about what these mistakes say about their interlanguage and about the processes in which they choose those spellings. My own intuition leads me to think that some of the spellings are based on the poor pronunciation of the words by the teacher in the class. Other spellings are actually quite logical; unfortunately not meshing with the illogical rules of English spelling.

I first noticed this when I saw the ways that two students had attempted to spell “tree”:

  • trre
  • tryy

On the same test, at least four students had spelled “girls” incorrectly:

  • gals
  • galus
  • guls
  • galures

The next class that I joined, students were writing from memory a different dialogue, and the word “father” really gave them some trouble:

  • fasy
  • fatan
  • fother
  • fazre
  • facha

I think that the spelling “fother” can be separated from the other four. The student seemed to have known the spelling well, but perhaps made a simple orthographical or phonetical error. The others seem to stem from a poor understanding of the proper orthography for the “th” (IPA [θ]) sound, it being represented in a myriad of ways: /z/, /ch/, /t/, /s/. Additionally, none of these spellings included an “r” at the end, with one actually ending with an “n” which seems very strange indeed.

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