The Best Bag of Garbage in the Dump

Recently, at the end of a professional development seminar, I called for any questions that participants might have.

“What do you think of Words Their Way?” asked one.

“How about [Some Other Spelling Curriculum]?” asked another.

I nipped that in the bud. I’m a linguist, not a curriculum clearinghouse. It is not the case that I sit in my home office reading and analyzing spelling workbooks; it is the case that I sit in my home office researching and analyzing the English writing systemSee the difference?

I do teach, but I’m not a teacher. I did not build a career trying out (or being forced to try out) different spelling books, so I am not now in a position to pick one that I can like and approve for all the teachers who apparently crave approval and convenience more than actual knowledge. More than a decade ago, I spent a couple of newsletter cycles writing up reviews of books and materials for the Illinois Branch of the International Dyslexia Association (now Everyone Reading Illinois), but really, it’s not what I do. I’m not a curriculum reviewer. I’m not a pedagogical researcher. I am not your proofreader. I am not your therapist. I am a linguist. I study language, especially written language, especially especially written English. I do that study alone and in company. Like most researchers, I write up and publish my research; I just don’t do it uncompensated for someone else (like a university, a journal, an outside publisher). I do it myself.

That said, I thought it would be good for me to have a place where I can point people when they ask me about spelling curricula. So here it is.

My well-informed professional opinion on spelling curricula is that they are all garbage. They are all based on lists and quizzes, and they all operate from a Phonology Phirst phalse belieph system.

None of them involves investigating or understanding how written words make meaning, or how the system as a whole works. They involve busywork and “activities” like writing stories or sentences, sorting words into various piles, and playing “games” like word searching or scrambles that are generally not terribly helpful for anyone, and absolutely hell on wheels if you’re even slightly dyslexic. They involve pretests and test-tests, every damn week, that have no actual bearing on whether kids are actually thinking critically, problem-solving, or interrogating anything worthwhile.

I get asked about Words Their Way almost every time this question comes up. Because WTW mentions morphology, it creates a false impression among its consumers of “Oh, yeah, I do that.” No, actually, you don’t. While I don’t claim to have extensive knowledge of any packaged classroom spelling curriculum (have I mentioned that’s not what I do?), I can absolutely pinpoint why I think they’re all garbage: because they misrepresent the writing system. Because they include words they can’t explain and then blame the system. They all do that. Every last one.

Words Their Way, for example, pats itself on the back for “doing” morphology, but Every. Single. Week. kids have to work with words that WTW calls “oddball words” [sic]. Now I don’t want to shock anyone, but “oddball words” is not a linguistic term. I frequently hear teachers fretting over terminology like grapheme or participle or allophone because it’s new to them, yet there’s no hesitation to use — and require kids to use — totally fabricated nonsense like “oddball word” as though that’s a thing.

It’s not a thing.

All spoken words are phonetic; no written words are phonetic. It’s really simple. Writing systems, including English, do not write words phonetically, but phonologically. It’s galling that people considered experts in the field don’t understand this. The words onetwodoes, and of, for example, are regularly pegged as “non-phonetic,” but that’s a misnomer. What people mean when they say that is “I can’t explain the spellingbecause I expect it to be driven primarily by pronunciation, and it’s not.” All of those words have an empirical orthographic phonology whose features belong in the system and are shared with other words.

The <o> in <does>, for example, is the only letter that could spell not only the [ʌ] in does and done, but also the [uː] in do and doing. An <o> also spells [ʌ] in son, mother, love, some, come, one, won, wonder, and a lot of other words. There’s nothing “non-phonetic” about that. And an <o> also spells [uː] in to, who, lose, move, through, and a lot of other words. Also, not “non-phonetic.” The <-es> suffix spells [∅z] just like it always does after a vowel: cries, tomatoes, pennies… No other grapheme would work across the <do> family.

Phonics Pholks always phail to consider this phundamental question: What would a ‘phonetic’ or ‘regular’ spelling look like for that word, since you don’t like this one?

Really — think about it. How do you think those words should be spelled, Phonics Phellow? What better way can you propose to spell does, what, one, two, or of?

Let’s take of. You can’t spell it *<uv>, because English proscribes those two letters consecutively, and because English proscribes a word-final <v>. You cannot spell it *<ove>, as in love, shove, glove, because that is a lexical spelling, and of is a function word. In fact, a <v> is a lexical spelling, always. And of is a function word, always. And nary the twain shall meet. Oh, look, twain. That <w> probably explains the <w> in two.

The facts about of, what, does, one, two are all available in the understanding I offer, for people who’d like to stop lying to kids.

Just like a “non-phonetic” word, an “oddball word” — like a red word, a learned word, a sight word, an irregular word, an outlaw word, heart word, demon word, whatever word [sic, sic, sic, sic, sic, sic, sic, sic, sic] — is not a thing. Real science doesn’t offer a dozen different names for the same entity, depending on which curriculum you’re using. Words aren’t irregular, because all language is rule-based. Words that people call “irregular” are often being crammed into false rules, or at least rules they don’t actually belong in. This is garbage that publishers pass off as “science-based.” I’ve written and spoken about this before, herehere, here, here, here, and here. What these are are words that the author(s) don’t know how to explain.

In WTW, “oddball words” are words that have the same so-called ‘sound’ as the main list, but a different spelling pattern. But that’s only “odd” if you grossly misrepresent the English writing system as a messy, pronunciation-based transcription system. It’s not. It’s not a code. And just because the authors or Words Their Way don’t actually know how to explain, you know, actual freaking WORDS doesn’t mean that we all just have to line up and do things Their Way, which is false.

Here are some of the words that WTW can’t explain, but I can, and have: could, would, should; laugh, though, rough, tough, through,; have, give; some, come, done, love, one; what, said, want. Sigh. Seriously, though, what good is a spelling curriculum if it can’t even explain these enormously common, totally normal words, let alone the actual writing system in which they have a permanent context? Several of these words are in my LEX InSight Words decks; others are routinely investigated and explained in LEXinars. Hey, Shane Templeton, if you’re listening, please take a LEXinar. You too, Donald Baer. Louisa Moats, Rebecca Treiman, Marcia Invernizzi, Francine Johnston. Take a LEXinar — they’re really affordable — but if you’re a spelling expert and can’t afford $150, email me and you can come as my guest. But please, stop putting this nonsense in front of children’s faces. It’s hurting them, and their teachers.

Last night, I met with a high schooler and her tutor to study the words syllable and syllabic, which have a bit of a convoluted history: the former has an excrescent (or unetymological) <l> that was giving them trouble in their study. Throughout our session, this brilliant kiddo understood the evidence that I was showing her, but she didn’t like it, and that showed in her face.

I showed her some other words with excrescent letters, like island and ancient and midst. I entered “unetymological” in the search bar of the Online Etymology Dictionary and showed her how many English words had an unetymological feature in their makeup — and how that fact is part of the word’s etymology. “You don’t have to like the fact that that <l> is unetymological,” I explained. “But it is.” There are, after all, a lot of facts that any one of us doesn’t like. “At the risk of sounding callous,” I told her, “I don’t really care how you feel about a spelling; what I care about is that you understand the facts.”

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The tutor messaged me later: “When we ended session I could really tell that [my student] was still bothered. I asked her what was up and she said, ‘it just feels like how all of my old teachers taught me how to read.’ We talked about how there is a distinction between using history and evidence to explain a mutation [in how a spelling evolves, my emphasis] and just blatantly fabricating a cute story founded on no evidence to explain ‘odd’ spellings that you ‘just have to memorize.’ She understood but still felt triggered. It was such strong evidence of what damage a ‘phonics first’ approach can do to a person. Those scars run deep. I can relate girl, oh how I can relate. 💔

You see that? How all of her old teachers taught her — including with phonics — felt terrible to that kid. And that adult? The tutor? Also dyslexic, so she knows, “Those scars run deep.”  Adult dyslexics — including those who are teachers and tutors — tell me all the time that when they study with me, they feel like they are seeing and hearing their own language for the first time. They tell me that they are taking off coats of years of shame. They tell me that their kids’ anxiety is diminished or gone since they’ve started bringing orthographic fact and critical inquiry to the table.

The answer to the question, “What materials should I use?” is “Any of them, as long as you bring an accurate understanding to the task.”

I’ve picked on WTW in this post because it’s the one I know best. And it is widely heralded among the “reading science” types as the best spelling curriculum out there. And maybe it is. But they’re all misrepresenting the language, so in my opinion, they’re all garbage. And no one aspires to being the best bag of garbage at the dump.


  1. Wow this is a better metaphor than “lesser of two evils”… especially when there are so many evils.

  2. Peg says:

    I am always stymied why in no other part of the school curriculum would we accept nearly over 1/3 of the words as exceptions that are relegated to a list labeled as a color, felon, or just not regular. In most cases, the first 25 (if not more) are function words which carry little meaning on their own and even less as disembodied words relegated to the card stack or the word wall. How often does a student perform well barking out these words in isolation, yet cannot distinguish them when they surface within text? How much more robust and interesting is it to offer explanations in lieu of exceptions? How cool is it to receive an email from a mom whose son had no idea of the meaning of the word ennui, but assured her it was borrowed because of the final <i>? This kid is engaged, not bored, with the true structure of the language.

  3. wow, a stunning article, thank you Gina………

  4. I deleted a comment on this post from someone who tried to advertise her book. I checked out her website, and she made a claim that <word> used to be spelled with an <i>, and that it’s related to werewolf and virile.

    Both false.

    I tried to comment the following on her page, but my comment wouldn’t post. So here it is:

    There is no relationship between PDE ‘word’ and Old English ‘wir’ or Latin ‘virile.’ ‘Word’ was never spelled with an i historically. ‘Word’ is cousin to ‘verb’ and belongs to a lexical family that denotes ‘speech.’ ‘Virile’ and ‘werewolf’ derive from a family denoting ‘man, human.’

    This is from the OED — not a single example with an i:

    “Forms: OE uord (chiefly Northumbrian), OE uuord (rare), OE (rare) werd, OE (rare)–eME weord, OE (Northumbrian)–eME woerd, OE–eME worð (rare), OE–16 wurd, OE– word, lOE wor (perhaps transmission error), eME worth (rare), eME wurð (rare), ME owrdes (plural, transmission error), ME worder (transmission error), ME wored, ME wort, ME worþes (plural, perhaps transmission error), ME wourd, ME wourde, ME wrd, ME wrode (probably transmission error), ME wuord, ME wyrd, ME (17 nonstandard) vord, ME–15 wurde, ME–16 woord, ME–16 woorde, ME–16 wordd, ME–16 worde, 15 wordde; U.S. regional 18– wud, 19– woid (New York), 19– wu’d; Eng. regional 18– wod (Yorkshire and Lincolnshire), 18– woo’d (Leicestershire), 18– wud, 18– wurd (north-west.), 19– wodd (Lincolnshire), 19– worrd (Westmorland); Sc. pre-17 uoord, pre-17 uorde, pre-17 vard (probably transmission error), pre-17 vord, pre-17 vorde, pre-17 vourd, pre-17 woird, pre-17 woord, pre-17 woorde, pre-17 worde, pre-17 wourd, pre-17 wourde, pre-17 wowrd, pre-17 17– word, pre-17 18– wird (now chiefly northern and north-eastern), 17 werd, 18– ward, 18– wurd; also Irish English 18 wurrd, 19– wurd.”

    Why invent a connection where there isn’t one?

  5. Gina: Brilliant writing as usual. I keep one of your quotes on my desktop, “Someone may be required to use a given curriculum, but they’re not required to check their understanding at the door.” To have an understanding, take a Lexinar.

  6. Looking at the last entries in your OED quote, I see “word” listed as wird and also wurd, both of which would have been hard to read in cursive unless the vowel letters were changed to O and became ‘word’. My book explains that and gives Rule 3- 63: “Cluster + consonant spells [wer]” – hence not in swore and wore and whore. I explain the reason behind the rule and give reasons for the three rebels to the rule: worn, worry and wort. On radio – see my blog – I said “The word WIR meant man and wirs speak words, just as French speak French, and English speak English.” I think this observation deserves further work, especially since verb words describe ‘a state of being’, see Etymoline. I enjoy your work so much Gina and only added the name of my book to others you mentioned in the Best Bag of Garbage in the Dump. They also got a ‘free ad’.

    • Paquita, the numbers in the entry are dates. The only ‘wird’ you see is an 18th century variant, long after the invention of the printing press, and long after Medieval scribal adaptations were being made to the writing system. The ‘wird’ spelling was never any kind of standard historical form that had to be rewritten — and more importantly, IT IS NOT RELATED TO VIRILE OR WEREWOLF. You cannot just make false etymological claims as though they are real. I understand that you really, really like the connection you made, and that you “think this observation deserves further work” — well, I actually did that work, Paquita, and your hunch is falsifiable. They’re is no evidence that they are related, and, in fact, there is evidence that they derive fro entirely different roots. You told me to “see Etymonline” — well, I did. I saw it, and it doesn’t have any evidence to support your strong feelings.

      It is true that the respelling often has a scribal history, but I don’t see any reason to fabricate any additional ‘history.’

      No one got a ‘free ad’ by being called bags of pedagogical garbage in a literacy dump. You did not post about your book and offer a critique; you advertised it in my space. No matter how much anyone enjoys my work (thank you), that does not obligate me to provide, maintain, and pay for an online space where other people can decide to promote their work without a critical eye.

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