What Can I say? Sometimes Spelling IS Important

Nothing says “ignorant” like poor spelling. For sum reason, when U write like this, people just assume your a ignorant moran. But interestingly, “correct” spelling is a relatively recent invention. Just 150 years ago, even the most educated and talented writers followed rather arbitrary spelling rules. There were regional differences in spelling, and many authors just adopted spelling rules that they deemed appropriate. Some authors had such loose control over spelling conventions they would actually spell the same word several different ways within the same body of text.

Noah Webster is usually credited for imposing standards and conventions for spelling with the publication of his dictionary in 1828, but really his wasn’t the first dictionary published. Webster’s dictionary was just more exhaustive and complete than predecessors. And with his dictionary, Webster also deliberately introduced the concept of spelling “reform,” stating that there were “faults” and “inconveniences” in the English language that needed to be fixed. In Webster’s dictionary, colour became color, centre became center, and waggon became wagon.

Spelling was increasingly becoming more standardized at that time, and Webster did make a valuable contribution. But about the same time major publications such as London Times were beginning to adopt and follow style manuals for publication which specified spelling standards for certain words. Around the middle of the 19th century, as printing became cheaper and text became much more ubiquitous, standardized conventions in spelling just caught on. Gradually, proper spelling instruction became a centerpiece of American and European primary education.

Really, in the grand scheme of things, proper spelling is not all that important — at least not “advanced” spelling skills. The ability to read and write proficiently is really not that strongly associated with advanced spelling skills. Children who perform well in spelling bees are no more likely to succeed in college and in life than their comparably-educated peers.

True, people who read voluminously tend to be better spellers, but teaching spelling skills does not necessarily help people to read more proficiently or voluminously. Past a point, over-emphasizing spelling in instruction probably takes valuable instructional time away from other, more important reading and writing skills. I say “past a point” because children do need to learn basic spelling skills in the sense that they need to learn that there are conventional relationships between letters and phonemes. They also need to learn to apply their knowledge of these spelling-sound conventions to “attack” or “sound out” unfamiliar words. But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter if they misspell words like loose and lose. That is a reflection of word-specific spelling problems, not general spelling probems, and word-specific spelling problems really don’t matter much in the world of reading and literacy.

Still, there is a stigma attached to poor spelling — poor spelling is seen as a sign of ignorance or stupidity. A well-organized argument can be completely unravelled by poor grammar and spelling — the credibility of an author is tainted when that author writes something like, “I think your mistaken.” For some reason, people just assume that if the author can’t spell, he or she probably isn’t all that bright.

I must confess, I had problems with word-specific spelling in high school and college. Looking back at papers I wrote (heaven knows why I kept them), my writing was peppered with grammatical errors, and it was rife with misspelled words. My poor spelling did not have anything to do with the content of the paper or the logic of my arguments, but I must confess, reading them now, even I find myself questioning the credibility of my own work. I frequently confused it’s and its, and I apparently did not know at the time the difference between to and too (although to my credit, I did not confuse either spelling with two).

I also kept a lot of mail correspondence over the years — my informal writing was considerably worse then my formal writing. I still have an e-mail from my brother, obviously exasperated with my poor spelling, that said, “Okay, I’m just going to say this once, and hopefully it will stick — Old MacDonnald sure was WEIRD, E-I-E-I-o.”

Sure enough, I never misspelled the word weird again.

Other than mnemonics like the one my brother shared with me, what helped my spelling the most was a simple adjustment I made to my computer when I was in graduate school. Most computers are set up to automatically correct misspelled words, so if you write teh, the computer automatically corrects the spelling to the. I think that just reinforces bad habits.

Several years ago, I turned that feature off, and it has made all the difference for me. Instead, I set up the computer to simply underline misspelled words. As I write, the computer highlights the misspelled words, bringing them to my attention, and I have to examine them and figure out why they are misspelled. This still doesn’t help me if I accidentally type the word their when I meant to type they’re (a stupid mistake I sometimes make when I’m in a hurry) but it has helped immensely with most commonly misspelled words. And the more I have to correct myself, the better my spelling gets. Of course, this little trick only works because I write voluminously — if you are a teacher, this trick would probably work with your students, but only if you also expect them to use a computer to write every day.

Basic spelling — what I would describe as “phonetic spelling” — is important for young children learning to read and write. They need to learn very well the relationships between letters and sounds. They need to sound-out unfamiliar words, and they need to attempt to spell words phonetically as they write. If a young child writes the sentence, “I lik pitsa,” that child is learning the regular relationships between letters and phonemes. That’s a good thing — it is a stepping stone along the road to proficient reading and writing skills. If a high-school student writes that same sentence, then that’s not such a good thing. But if a high-school student writes “This technology afords many benifits to the user,” I’m really not all that concerned. Those are fairly harmless spelling errors. That is the difference between basic and advanced spelling.

Kathy Ganske created an assessment of spelling that every reading and language arts teacher should be familiar with. It is called the Developmental Spelling Analysis, and it is a very quick and easy way to determine the stage of spelling development any particular student is in. In her book Word Journeys, the assessment is provided, and Ganske also offers guidance about appropriate instruction for different stages of spelling development. If you are interested in the relationship between spelling and learning to read, I heartily recommend Kathy’s book.