Education Letter to the Editor

Dialects, Spelling Bees, and a Phonetic Alphabet

March 04, 2008 1 min read

To the Editor:

American orthography is, to put it charitably, dysfunctional. Whatever the dialect, neither alphabet nor spelling conforms to our speech. Yet, educators insist on perpetuating these incongruities.

Take as an example spelling bees. Students are rewarded for memorizing arcane patterns of letters only obliquely related to the words they purport to represent. Incredible.

Consider the countless hours already wasted by students in learning an antiquated alphabet in the service of a lunatic orthography. How much useful knowledge could have been acquired instead? And what scholastic advances have been delayed?

My complaint is hardly novel. No less an American than Benjamin Franklin despaired over our “system” of spelling and devised a phonetic alphabet. As I see it, the challenge lies not in creating a phonetic alphabet—there are such aplenty—but in selecting and promoting one.

I urge educators to assess the present plight of American orthography, devise a practical means of transitioning to a phonetic alphabet of choice, and then broadcast their conclusions and implement their recommendations.

Committee, anyone?

Paul Starbuck

Perry, Okla.

A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2008 edition of Education Week as Dialects, Spelling Bees, and a Phonetic Alphabet