As my last post went up and was seen by the world of LEX readers, I was excited to see 120 hits in a day. That seemed like a lot of people. But compared to the American Educator‘s maelstrom of 900,000 readers, my little blog isn’t even a bathtub eddy. The journal of the American Federation of Teachers, which published the article I critiqued last time, regularly has nearly two million eyes fixed upon it. And the article in question is loaded, linked, and recommended on hundreds more Web pages.
The article has likely been read by millions of people.
Now, I’m thrilled that there’s a growing interest in spelling and spelling instruction that’s more than just memorize-and-test. I’m pleased that the article gets a lot right: English orthography concerns word structure and word histories, not just sounds. But the article is saturated with so much linguistic error that, as it’s gone fractal out there, it’s formed its own whole galaxy of teachers, tutors, speech pathologists, language therapists, curriculum developers, administrators, and others, who have a muddled understanding of how both English spelling and etymology actually work. In a world of instant access and free PDFs online, these experts’ errors have become viral juggernauts in both academia and the blogosphere. They’re scattered like feathers on the wind.
Let’s trace just one of the article’s errors — a mere typo, the one that’s easiest to trace — and see where it goes. As you know if you read Simply Put: Part I, the article in question begins with the following sentence:
In 1773, Noah Webster stated that “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing.”
But, as my students and I learned, Webster was born in 1758, and would only have been 14 or 15 in 1773. In fact, in 1773, the young Noah was studying Greek and Latin with a Hartford pastor, in preparation for his entry into Yale the following year. So where did the article’s authors get their bad information? They give the citation in the following endnote:
Cited in Richard L. Venezky, “From Webster to Rice to Roosevelt,” in Cognitive Processes in Spelling, ed. Uta Firth (London: Academic Press, 1980), 9-30.
Okay, so the Great Big Spelling Expert authors cite Venezky, who cited Webster. When I check the Venezky source cited, however, I find this:
So Venezky got it right. Since the late linguist counted a copy of the 1783 text in his personal collection (donated to Stanford), it looks like he actually consulted the original. Venezky also cites, in the same article, another pearl of wisdom from the pen of Mr. Webster, but references it as “Webster, 1783/1968, p. 11.” This refers, of course, to a 1968 reprint of the original 1783 work. But it’s clear from his bibliography that the two sources are one and the same.
So, an eighteenth-century lexicographer / grammarian writes something down, an opinion, really, a characterization. Not a stone-cold fact or a first-time discovery, but an argument. He gets cited by some linguist just under 200 years later, in the late twentieth century. Then the twentieth-century linguist gets cited 20-some years later, in the twenty-first century, but incorrectly. (It’s all so exciting! Literally!)
Then what happens?
Then the error is reproduced and gets a foothold in print and digital media, in scholarly works and casual websites alike. Now, clearly the twenty-first century Spelling Experts simply executed a typo, and no one — not them, not their preliminary readers, not the journal’s editors — no one thought to double-check the date, or the original source, a citation re-cited, before sending it to press. No big deal, right? Typos happen all the time. They’re not actually real errors, just a simple mistake.
Mmm, maybe not.
The spelling article was originally published in American Educator in late 2008. Since then, in just three years, it’s been made freely available not only on American Educator‘s website, but also on literally hundreds of others, including several outside the U.S. In addition to the 900,000-strong readership of the journal, the freestanding article itself has easily seen hundreds of thousands — possibly millions — more readers. And those readers have shared the article’s content uncritically with others: colleagues, college students, parents, and children.
This one single 1773 error alone is far more easily locatable than all the linguistic misapprehensions, and I found it in several diverse places:
*in this professional association newsletter (Spring 2009)
*in this dissertation (A)
*in this dissertation (B) too
*in this book on cognitive abilities in older adults, and even
*in Estonian, on this website, whence Google will re-translate the quotation back into a garbled “spelling is based on reading and writing, the largest piece of jewelry.” Ha!
So the error’s got traction.
Interestingly enough, the “ornament of writing” quotation doesn’t appear in every edition of Webster’s speller — over more than a century, this enormously popular book has come out in multiple editions — over a hundred in Webster’s lifetime alone. But not all of them have that line. Take, for example, the 1793 edition, which is digitized here. Within just 10 years, that line had disappeared from the speller. Known over time by different names, Webster’s text was hugely popular, at one point the best-selling book in all of North America. It was originally published in 1783 (not 1773) as the first volume of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language (the other two volumes were a grammar and a reader, respectively), and changed names over time, including The American Spelling Book and The Elementary Spelling Book, but best known as the Blue-Backed Speller (I’ve also seen Blue Back Speller in several searches). In its multiple editions and reprints over more than a century, the speller included a variety of prefaces, introductions, commentaries, advertisements, and testimonials.
The “foundation of reading” quotation does not appear in the 1807 edition of the book, then called The American Spelling Book. But that doesn’t stop one of the Spelling Expert authors from citing it indirectly in a 2005 article, where he attributes the quotation to Webster “as early as 1807.” While it’s not a lie — I mean, clearly Webster did say it as early as that — why not just get the citation right and check an original source? Didn’t we all learn in college to check original sources whenever possible? The Interwebs were around by 2005 — it wouldn’t have taken long to figure out when and where Webster wrote this oh-so-beloved quotation. Since the author offers no citation reference for this “as early as” information, however, it’s impossible to tell why he picked that particular year. It betrays a scholarship that thinks Webster is important enough to quote, but not to actually study.
Webster was, in fact, one interesting guy, as we might expect. As a child, he received his education largely from his mother; he found his one-room schoolhouse teachers to be pious and illiterate dullards, and his adult desire was to see well-trained teachers in every American classroom. In fact, he himself wrote of his speller that its rules and guidelines “are rather designed for the master [teacher] than for the scholar [student]; for if all instructors pronounced words with correctness and uniformity, there would be little danger that their pupils would acquire vicious habits of pronunciation” (found in an early nineteenth-century edition, digitized here). While I don’t get too moved by Webster’s orthoepy or syllable division or his fairly narrow focus on a single American English, I can get down with the idea of well-trained teachers, hence my complaints about shoddy scholarship in education journals and elsewhere. Indeed, if all instructors — or all Spelling Experts — approached word structures and histories with correctness and discipline, there would be little danger that their pupils would acquire vicious habits of scholarship.
Now wait just a minute. Aren’t those awfully strong words, for just a typo? Shoddy? Vicious habits? Shouldn’t I just gear down?
Well, let’s take a closer look at the sources that pass along the 1773 error. Doing so myself convinced me even further of the need for improved rigor in spelling scholarship. When scholars simply cite, cite, cite, rather than to seek evidence themselves (I already wrote about that here), they’re also likely to blindly trust that what they cite must be correct, without questioning, interrogating, or verifying their sources’ claims. Folks just really trust these Spelling Experts, and they’ll take what they say without checking it further. This blog didn’t give any source for the faulty citation until I asked for one; while it claims to be a “linguistic” site, and refers to linguistics as the “scientific study” of language, the blog itself is decidedly casual. That’s to be expected in the world of weblogs, I suppose.
So let’s go to the other end of things. In a book chock-full of facts, figures, and statistics, a book claiming to “focus on research foundations,” a book published by Springer Science and Business Media, the authors of Chapter 10 trot out the erroneous 1773 claim, and don’t offer any citation for it. When we read their text, we’re just supposed to take their word that Webster said what he said, but in 1773. Written, then cited, then cited again, then cited again, and with each citation, it moves further away from its source, further away from real scholarship. These authors do cite the Spelling Experts’ article a couple of sentences later, so I can be certain that’s where they got the error.
Let’s also consider how the two doctoral dissertations cite Webster, just for kicks. As a doctoral student myself, I know how hard doctoral students work. I know how much detail goes into preparing a dissertation, including gathering appropriate copyright information, cross-referencing works cited, and dotting <i>s and crossing <t>s, so I was (am) troubled to see these two dissertations show evidence of some scholarly sloppiness.
In the first dissertation, the author (A) attributes the Webster quotation thusly:
In 1773, Noah Webster suggested that “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing” (cited in Venezky, 1989, p. 12).
She also mentions Venezky 1989 in the very first sentence of her abstract. When I check her bibliography, however, the only Venezky publication listed is Venezky, R.L. (1999), The American way of spelling: The structure and origins of American English orthography. New York: Guilford. Sigh. I check my copy of Venezky 1999 for the Webster quotation, and it’s not in there, on page 12 or anywhere else. What is in there, however, is a four-page biography of Noah Webster, including his 1758 birthdate and his 1783 publication of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, Part I. In fact, reading Venezky was the reason my students had an inkling that 1773 was off.
I also checked to see what Venezky had published in 1989. He doesn’t refer to any 1989 work in his own bibliography, and the only thing I could find that Venezky authored solo and published in 1989 was a book review that was published on pages 89-92 of the American Journal of Education. While I don’t have a copy of that source to see if the quotation is in it or not, I can tell that it has no page 12. Ultimately, I’ll never know where the dissertation’s author got that citation. Fortunately, dissertations are not known for being widely read. Perhaps the erroneous buck will stop here.
But there are a few other bucks out there. The second dissertation (B) has its own citation problems. In a totally undergrad-level move, the author closely paraphrases the Spelling Experts’ article. Here’s what the article’s first paragraph says:
In 1773, Noah Webster stated that “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing.” He was right. Good spelling is critical for literacy, and it makes writing much easier. . . [S]pelling instruction underpins reading success . . . As children learn to spell, their knowledge of words improves and reading becomes easier.
And the dissertation’s first paragraph says this (with most of the sources removed to make the reading easier):
In 1773, Noah Webster correctly suggested that “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing” (cited in Venezky, 2000). Good spelling ability is critical to the reading process, as is reading to spelling. . . As children’s knowledge of spelling increases, their knowledge of words improves; thus, reading and writing become not only easier but interconnected (Joshi, Treiman, Carreker, & Moats, 2009).
Now, while this dissertation does cite the Spelling Experts, she doesn’t credit them with the Webster quotation; rather, she credits that to Venezky 2000. So I check her bibliography, and I find Venezky 1993, which she also cites in the text, and Venezky, R. L. (2000). The American way of spelling: The structure and origins of American English orthography. New York: Guilford Press. But the book has just one publication date, and it’s 1999, not 2000. Double sigh. Venezky did publish an article in 2000 (“The Origins of the Present-Day Chasm Between Adult Literacy Needs and School Literacy Instruction” in Scientific Studies of Reading, Vol. 4, Issue 1), but the Webster quotation doesn’t make an appearance. Webster is mentioned in it, however: “Noah Webster published his first speller in 1783” (24); once again, Venezky gets it right.
One of my students noted that the Spelling Experts claimed a collective “eight decades of experience helping preservice and inservice teachers improve their instruction in spelling, reading, and writing” (page 6). “You’d think,” said my student, “that in 80 years they would’ve had plenty of time to check their facts.” We all had a good chuckle, and I had to admit that my student had come by his spelling snark honestly.
As I detailed in my last post, I tried to guide my students toward epistemological rigor and accuracy. This experience made the reasons behind my nagging crystal clear. The point is never the snark: it’s the call to a higher standard for scholarship in the field. These authors are prolific, and have their hand in published spelling curricula, as well as the “research” base it relies on. I’ve written about other linguistic errors in some of their other writings, too. One of them says in that same 2005 article that <hear> is the base element of <rehearsal>; it isn’t — it’s <hearse>, like the funeral car, and here’s the proof. Another says in this book that <tube> is Anglo-Saxon. Nope and nope. I could go on. And I probably will.
As I’ve done a little research for my dissertation into Noah Webster’s work, I realize how much it has permeated literacy instruction in the U.S., for better and for worse. The fixation on syllable division, the focus on word lists, the assumption that pronunciation is the goal of orthography, the notion that there is a single American Standard English, and even that persistent and careless assertion that <tion> is a suffix, which it’s not (if you’re not convinced, here’s a proof, in the comments) — all these are traceable to the perseverance of Webster’s works in American classrooms. Popular publications — publications that get widely circulated and used over and over again — become part of the common knowledge out there.
This is why I care about the errors in the Spelling Experts’ article. It’s so widely read. It’s been posted and reposted, passed along, and it is still frequently and proudly cited, including by the authors themselves. Now, arguably, no one’s going to suffer too much from seeing the wrong date on a Noah Webster quotation; it’s unlikely to destroy someone’s conceptual foundations about language, history, spelling, and writing. It’s not evidence of anything except one famous man’s opinion. But if an innocuous error like getting a date wrong can have such far-reaching consequences in both scholarship and popular culture, what about the conceptual errors, like assuming that all short, common words are from Old English (gym class, anyone?), or assuming that all words from Latin are “sophisticated” (cup or pen, anyone?), or modeling etymology as something that can be guessed at? What are the effects of the wide dissemination of historical and linguistic error? I can’t help but wonder how far that article — and its errors — will reach a hundred years hence.
Time to get my readership numbers up!