Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Good Spelling Still Matters, Doesn't It?

From USA Today last week around the time of the National Spelling Bee:

"Louisa Moats, author of several textbooks about language, said good spelling, in a word, means credibility."If a paper or an application or a report or even an e-mail contains spelling errors, people who read it judge it harshly," she said. Research even shows that people with misspellings on job applications and résumés are less likely to get interviews. 

Moats and others say many public schools now give the subject short shrift in instruction. "That's the shocking thing," she said. "You can walk into many classrooms these days and there is no spelling program, there is no spelling book." Even if there is a spelling program, she said, it's "an afterthought, and it's usually just a list of words that kids are told to go and learn — there's very little instruction in how it all works, how it makes sense."

J. Richard Gentry, an educational consultant and author of the 2004 book The Science of Spelling, said the USA's reading problem is partly a spelling problem.

"Across the country we have all these fourth-graders who are failing reading tests, and we've seen this pattern for about 15 years," he said. "Guess what we stopped doing about 15 years ago? We pulled all the spelling books off the shelves and stopped teaching spelling — or at least we put it on the back burner."

Gentry said many schools still teach spelling, but that it "varies to a ridiculous degree." In many communities, he said, spelling has all but disappeared simply because it isn't tested annually on state reading exams."



At 6/05/2012 2:34 PM, Blogger Jon Murphy said...

I never understood why spelling doesn't matter.

I remember going though high school (and into college!) and having classmates ask "does spelling matter?"

At my company, we have a person whose sole job is to proofread our emails, documents, etc (anything going out to clients and/or the public) to make sure everything is spelled correctly, proper grammar, etc.

I mean, let's be honest. If you are reading something, doesn't bad spelling throw you off? Distract you from the main point? I find I spend more time nitpicking spelling them reading what he actually wrote.

I don't know about you, but if someone didn't take the time to proofread his work, then how much time and thought could he really have invested in it?

Of course, I am the world's worst speller.

At 6/05/2012 2:38 PM, Blogger morganovich said...

i suspect that spell check has done more damage than anything else.

you get used to it and just stop focusing on spelling and as even elementary students likely write all their papers etc on computers with spell-check, they are just not getting the kind of practice that they once did.

that said, this seems a bit more complex as, if you have a computer to check your spelling, the usefulness of that skill drops. you need it less, just as the ability to control a car in the rain drops due to traction control and abs.

you can still learn to drive the old way, but if you will never be in a car that lacks traction control and abs, how marginally helpful is that for most people?

one could make the argument that spending time learning a skill that is no longer as important is a waste and that such time could be better spent elsewhere.

At 6/05/2012 2:38 PM, Blogger Dan Sullivan said...

Spelling is too difficult to teach. Plus it would be too easy to determine the teacher's effectiveness by simply giving a spelling test to the students. It's probably culturally biased anyway. With Spell-Check we don't need to learn to spell. With calculators we don't need to learn math. With GPS we don't need to learn to read a map.

At 6/05/2012 2:40 PM, Blogger Mark J. Perry said...

It's also true that most of us can't accurately proofread our own writing - we are frequently blind to our own mistakes, I know that's the case for me. We often just don't see our simple mistakes and typos, when they are often completely obvious to another reader.

At 6/05/2012 2:48 PM, Blogger morganovich said...


that is absolutely true, especially if you speed read.

it's really easy to jump over phrases because you already know what you intended them to mean.

i write a monthly letter to my investors, and i am utterly incapable of proofing it myself.

fwiw, you seem to do a good job proofing your posts.

At 6/05/2012 2:52 PM, Blogger morganovich said...

here's a question to stir up the mix:

would the vocabulary and reading ability of students be better served by more spelling class or by a classical education that taught greek and latin?

learning declensions teaches a great deal about grammatical structure.

english was not my first language (though largely concurrent) and grammar is much clearer and more structured in russian.

At 6/05/2012 2:56 PM, Blogger Jon Murphy said...

would the vocabulary and reading ability of students be better served by more spelling class or by a classical education that taught greek and latin?

That's a good question. I never learned Latin as a child. I barely knew it until the monastery. Although I still spell horribly, I have a better understanding of spelling now that I know roots, prefixes and all that.

At 6/05/2012 3:08 PM, Blogger Moe said...

Being able to communicate well has never gone out of style.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, we tend not to see peoples reactions at the other end of our emails/tweets.

RE: Twitter and texting: it's hard to concentrate on spelling and grammer when your flying down the road at 70 mph.

At 6/05/2012 3:12 PM, Blogger morganovich said...


as evidenced by your spelling of "grammer" (sic)?

just how fast are you going right now?

At 6/05/2012 3:15 PM, Blogger Doug said...

We also have started teaching Everyday Math. This is a travesty of math education. The methods used for thousands of years are no longer good enough.

My 5th grade son did not take one spelling test all year. Very unfortunate.

At 6/05/2012 3:31 PM, Blogger Moe said...

Officer Morganovich -

i'm pulling over now...

At 6/05/2012 4:12 PM, Blogger Steve said...

My mom teaches in a 5th grade class room and was telling me how they are spelling these days:

we = wii (no, not as a joke)
have to = hafta
fridge = frije
owes = os

...and I could go on. It's like they're trying to use phonics but completely failing.

At 6/05/2012 4:19 PM, Blogger Moe said...

Steve Schow:
I blame texting

At 6/05/2012 4:25 PM, Blogger juandos said...

"I blame texting"...

I blame parenting...

At 6/05/2012 5:01 PM, Blogger Larry G said...

spelling is mostly rote.... and spell checking... if one uses it and makes corrections - can actually learn about how they misspell .....

but the whole thing is basically remembering.... but I agree it goes to credibility because it goes to how well you are able to communicate your thoughts to others.

HOW to use words correctly to articulate your thoughts to others requires a lot more that just spelling but spelling is part of it.

It's actually in that area of being able to effectively read, understand and articulate scientific/math concepts that we fall behind in international academic comparisons.

Parents who themselves don't know are not "bad" ... any more than they'd be "bad" for other things they never learned as a child.

At 6/05/2012 5:26 PM, Blogger juandos said...

"Parents who themselves don't know are not "bad" ... any more than they'd be "bad" for other things they never learned as a child"...

I hope the people around you had their BS waders on when you tossed that line of BS out there...

At 6/05/2012 5:28 PM, Blogger Mike said...

"if one uses it and makes corrections..."

I agree, Larry. Spell check has actually made my awful spelling much better.

Not sure if any of you have seen the Dragon 'speech-to-text' software commercials, but I'd imagine teachers cringe when they see the section about students no longer being forced to write/spell anything at all.

At 6/05/2012 6:32 PM, Blogger Kevin said...

"...because it isn't tested annually on state reading exams."

There's the incentive right there. I have a feeling schools would be much different if teachers picked the curriculum. But of course that's not something they can do in a system where state-level bureaucrats write the specifications for the curriculum to maximize the money they get from federal bureaucrats and minimize the outlays.

I had spelling classes into middle school, and was taught roots, prefixes, and suffixes. I'd be all for dropping some of the French influences - like pointless silent letters - that are still clinging on, but there's always a chance that at least in common usage, we could lose much of the structure inherited from Latin.

At 6/05/2012 9:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a consequence of the "whole word" fad in teaching. Rather than teaching phonics and the building blocks of English they teach memorizing words straight up with no foundation on why words are spelled (and pronounced!) the way they are. Only the brightest students can learn this way effectively, hence the spelling absurdities mentioned by other posters.

More importantly, do not forget the real purpose of this fad: to reduce the amount of work teachers do. Most of the work has been transferred from the teacher to the student.

At 6/05/2012 10:28 PM, Blogger Joe said...

I can't disagree that good spelling shows credibility, but spending time teaching it seems a waste. First, because so many spelling errors are actually typos, not spelling errors. Second, because, as someone else, learning spelling is just rote. The rules of English spelling are complex and riddled with exceptions; unlike other languages like Spanish and Turkish with completely regular spelling, English is a cacophony of inconsistency (how many languages do you know where the pronunciation changes if you capitalize some words, e.g.polish/Polish rainier/Rainier). The only way to learn spelling is with lots of practice, writing and reading, which is what students should be doing anyway in English classes.

At 6/05/2012 10:52 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

a) English is in some sense, a horrible counter-intuitive language. For one thing there's the color/colour, realize/realise, ton/tonne, etc. thing that English speaking countries can't even agree on.
For another it's riddled with heterograps and heteronyms (I think those are the words I'm looking for). The language can be very loose in its relationship between pronunciation and spelling.
Even in terms of "its/it's" the rule for a possessive is that you always use "'s" for words that do not end in "s." This of course does not apply to "it" but if you forget that exception then consistent application of the rule would dictate that the possessive form of "it" is "it's."

b) All proper English was once improper English. Language evolves, it's not a static institution and every now-accepted change once deviated from the then-accepted version of the language.
It's a Hyekian spontaneous order device that helps us communicate. The specifics of the language aren't important it's the facilitation of communication that's important.
I'm not defending misspellings per say, just saying that it's hard to say what's fad and what's the start of the future of "proper."
That said, I certainly hope that in the future "r u srs?" is not considered proper English.

At 6/06/2012 7:21 AM, Blogger VangelV said...

It matters but it is also time to simplify the process by getting rid of a lot of the archaic spelling of words.

At 6/06/2012 9:29 AM, Blogger Methinks said...

It's also true that most of us can't accurately proofread our own writing - we are frequently blind to our own mistakes.

I couldn't agree more. It's shocking to me how much I miss even when I proof carefully. When I published my work, my team would proofread everything before we released it. I realized the importance of doing so when I worked for an analyst in the beginning of my career who always had me proof his notes and calls and I always found a lot of errors. He was a good writer, but the work needs to pass by "fresh eyes" to catch the little errors.

It's far too easy to leave out whole words because your mind will complete the sentence as you imagined it whether the word is actually in the sentence or not.

I also think Morganovich has a good point. I can't spell anymore without spell check. That wasn't always the case. In school, spelling was part of the curriculum. When you have to correct your spelling yourself, you also have to think about it, which makes it easier to remember for next time. With auto-spell check, there's no need to think at all.

At 6/06/2012 9:29 AM, Blogger Methinks said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 6/08/2012 1:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Considering I've previously argued on this blog that you soon won't need to be able to read in order to be a fully functioning citizen, spelling certainly isn't necessary either: you could have ditched it a decade ago. Spell-check does all the work for you and if you're not sure which of two valid words is more accurate, a dictionary lookup is always 5 seconds away. I suspect Dan Sullivan's comment was meant to be sarcastic, how suprising for him that 90% of what he wrote is actually true. :) Spell checkers, calculators, and GPS are there to do the work for you. Just as nobody in the OECD washes their clothes with their own hands anymore, you'd be a fool not to take advantage of the machines that will do it for you easier. As Joe, David, and Vangel point out, we should probably clean up the language first, before we ask kids to learn this mess.


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