Reading & Literacy Opinion

Signs of the Times

By Charlotte K. Frank — September 04, 2002 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
Signs are a time-honored teaching tool.

Why can’t kids spell today? While there are no doubt lots of reasons, one may have to do with signs I’ve been seeing lately on the shops and in the streets of New York.

One large sign on a fence around an empty lot in the Bronx, for example, reads: “Will Built to Suit.”

Not far from the United Nations, above an art and framing shop, massive block letters advertise: “Jackie Kennedy: An Exhibition of Photograghs.”

The sign above a convenience store in Westchester County notes that the establishment sells “Stationary.” And the awning of a store near Times Square that sells musical instruments announces the availability of “Harmonica’s, Metronome’s, Flute’s, Trumpet’s, Violin’s.

New York is not, of course, alone. I saw this warning posted on a boat docked in Puerto Rico: “Keep water tight door close at all times.”

If I rote this peace the weigh many sighns are written, u wood understand why many kids can’t spell or send grammatically correct letters.

Such mistakes may be worth a laugh—but it’s a laugh at the expense of our children. The reason: The signs around us are among the tools that model for children how to use words and spell them—skills they’ll need later to get good jobs, support themselves, and become intelligent citizens.

Signs are a time-honored teaching tool. In a kindergarten classroom, simple signs introduce children to the alphabet, the sounds of letters, and the words that identify the objects around them. Can you imagine the reaction of the student whose teacher marks “photogragh” wrong on a spelling test and who then sees the same misspelling on a large sign on the corner store?

Businesses with such linguistically challenged signs also do themselves a disservice. When I need notepaper and pass a store that sells “stationary,” I unconsciously ask myself, as a former teacher, what quality of notepaper will I find there? I pass it by. Jacqueline Kennedy was a woman dedicated to the quality of furnishings in the White House and protecting the landmark status of buildings in New York City. When I see a display of her “photograghs,” I find myself questioning the care and authenticity that went into that exhibit and wonder how Jackie would have reacted. I pass it by. I have no plans to “built” a building on that empty lot—but if I did, I wonder how well I could communicate my ideas with its owner. I would pass it by.

To help ensure properly spelled signs, wouldn’t it be nice, the First Amendment notwithstanding, if we could impose a fine on the sign painter or the storeowner who litters the verbal landscape just as others litter the sidewalks? Isn’t the damaging of our country’s most precious property, the developing minds of our children, a crime? We have a rating system for software and movies to protect our children from inappropriate content. How about demanding a standard of quality for the signs they see in their world?

Legislation and rulemaking aside, there may be a simpler way to get the job done. Each of us can become a one-person “Literacy Squad.” When we see a misspelled sign, we can simply walk into that store and, factually and politely, point out the mistake as well as the possibility of the store’s losing customers. Some shopkeepers will welcome the information; others may respond with some version of “mind your own business.” But I suggest that helping our children learn how to spell properly, to use words correctly, to communicate effectively, and to grow up to be intelligent citizens and neighbors is part of our business.

Providing an environment that encourages children to spell, punctuate, and use words and sentences correctly is critical for an educated and literate society. This will help reinforce and extend what they learn in school and could, in its own way, make a reality of the promise explicit in the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. Let’s leave no sign unscrutinized.

Charlotte K. Frank, a former New York City teacher and administrator, recently served as a New York state regent for Judicial District 1. She is the vice president for research and development for McGraw-Hill Education, a unit of the McGraw-Hill Cos.


Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
The Key to Better Learning: Indoor Air Quality
Learn about the importance of improved indoor air quality in schools, and how to pick the right solutions for educators, students, and staff.
Content provided by Delos
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Leading Systemic Redesign: Strategies from the Field
Learn how your school community can work together to redesign the school system, reengineer instruction, & co-author personalized learning.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Reading & Literacy Nation's Second-Largest School System Plans to 'Embrace' the Science of Reading
Los Angeles Superintendent Alberto Carvalho's remarks also echo New York leaders' promises to support an early-reading overhaul.
3 min read
Alberto Carvalho, Superintendent, Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest school district, comments on an external cyberattack on the LAUSD information systems during the Labor Day weekend, at a news conference in Los Angeles Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. Despite the ransomware attack, schools in the nation's second-largest district opened as usual Tuesday morning.
Alberto Carvalho, who leads the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest school district, speaks at a news conference in Los Angeles on Sept. 6, 2022.
Damian Dovarganes/AP
Reading & Literacy As Revised Lucy Calkins Curriculum Launches, Educators Debate If Changes Are Sufficient
Researchers and educators who have reviewed excerpts offer mixed reviews on their potential to shift classroom instruction.
8 min read
Letters and a magnifying glass.