Teechurs dis speling

At an English teachers’ convention, cheat notes are in; spelling is out.

During a seminar on the changing role of spelling, teacher Rebecca Sipe said there are no bad spellers, only “challenged” spellers. And challenged spellers are often first-rate English students who love to read and write but get discouraged by fussy English teachers wielding red pens.

Readers see words spelled correctly many times; they build vocabulary, including a knowledge of word roots. I’ve seen many bad spellers; none were first-rate English students with a love of reading and writing.

About Joanne


  1. jeff wright says:

    Whenever I start thinking there might be hope for for the public schools, I see something like this. It occurs to me that, across the board, public teachers have decided to join the crowd rather than fight. Sure, there are individual exceptions—and some will post here—but as a whole, this profession is just not very impressive any more.

    Teachers used to be a bulwark against the forces of darkness. If you’re of a certain age, you recall teachers making you do it until you got it right. Which just might have had something to do with the high standards you brought to your later professional life. Now it’s, “Whatever.”

  2. It is not a point of pride but, I am a horrible speller and I love to read and write. I made good grades in English but I wish I would have gone to a school with more competent teachers because my grammar knowledge is woefully inadequate.

    Have disclosed my ignorance let me offer an interpretation of the statement
    “And challenged spellers are often first-rate English students who love to read and write but get discouraged by fussy English teachers wielding red pens.”. One of my pet peeves is teachers who comment on grammar and ignore content. By all means, count off for spelling mistakes and such but if the meaning of the paper is clear, address the content as well. It is very disheartening to put a lot of thought and effort into a paper and only receive feedback on the grammar.

    Having said the above, I review academic articles for journals from time to time and there are times when the grammar is so bad that the article is impossible to read. When that is the case, the grammar comments are all you can make.

  3. Richard Brandshaft says:

    I can’t spell, but I love reading.

    I never was one of the “first-rate English students”, but I grew up under the old rules: if a lot of people read something voluntarily, it wasn’t literature, but mere popular entertainment. I learned to like reading in spite of the English teachers.

    My grades in English fluctuated wildly, depending on how much emphasis the teacher put on spelling.

    If all that old fashioned discipline had taught me to spell, one might say it was worth while. But it didn’t. Fortunately, we now have spelling checkers.

  4. PJ/Maryland says:

    Does anyone else think it’s odd that a teachers convention is scheduled during the school year? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have such a convention in the summer, or at least schedule it near Christmas or Spring break?

    It looks like the reporter (Steve Rubenstein) wanted to play up the spelling angle; generally, I don’t think spelling (or pronouncing) people’s names is a skill one can learn at school.

    I agree with Joanne that “first-rate” English students who love to read and write would not be “challenged” spellers. I can buy that there are students just becoming excited by English in high school who can’t spell, and that teachers don’t want to scare away these students. But at some point, anyone who loves to write is going to discover that they can’t write in their own private code if they expect anyone to read/enjoy/understand what they’ve written.

    Maybe someone should tell these teachers that it doesn’t matter what order the letters are in as long as the first and last letters are correct! I’m sure Governor Snargwheezcger would agree.

  5. Sorry PJ and Joanne,

    I have to agree with Ross and Richard (maybe spelling is a gender {no pun intended} ‘thing’.) English grammer, as tought, is actually latin grammar when it should, more properly, be akin to German grammar (English is a germanic language not a romance language)….. That aside, I do not believe the love of reading and the ability to spell are 100% corrilated.

  6. yes, I know: Paragraph 1; line 3; word 2.
    Paragraph 1; line 8; word 1.
    Did you catch them? Were you reading to find fault or were you reading to understand?

  7. 1. spelling may be difficult to learn (my best friend is a brilliant left-handed miserable speller. I’m sure they’re connected) but CARE is teachable. Good teachers can FORCE students to proofread.

    2. people who use the spell-check angle are like people who think calculators have replaced the ablity to add and subtract.

  8. conservatives arte so respresed its funy. you rewpresed abot maraige, you represed abot sex and now you represed abot speling. Cum on, relax, live a little. life is to short to spent it worying abot bad spelers and pore grammer.
    besides, speling is a rule and rules are ment to be brokin. wer wood our fonding fathers be if they were afraid to brake a few rules? wel, they wood probably be dead, becuze its been 200 years, for crying out lowd.

  9. 2. people who use the spell-check angle are like people who think calculators have replaced the ablity to add and subtract.

    Ummm, no. At least not for me. I don’t know anyone who thinks that being a bad speller is a charming trait. But those of us who can’t even spell cat korrectly and are not too feeling too lazy at the time use the spell-checker to help us be a little less pathetic in our spelling. If you are horrible in math, using a calculator to check your work is a great idea. If you are horrible at spelling, using a spell checker to catch the simple stuff if a polite way of trying to keep your (my) bad spelling from being a distraction for the reader. If I have time, I paste my posts in Word to run and spell-check before posting. If I don’t have time, I don’t worry about it because I am usually close enough that people can understand what I meant, like where “ability” is misspelled (typo’ed) in the quote above.

    Occasionally, I will use a word incorrectly and I will get a person or two who will send me nice emails to let me know the error of my ways. I appreciate the corrections because without exception they have been sent via email and have been an attempt to help me learn. If the same people would have posted corrections to the thread for all to see and would have tried to impress everyone with their superior knowledge of the English language at my expense, I would not have appreciated it and if it happened enough I would no longer post because it would cease being fun.

    To me, that is the where I can understand the “opposed to red ink” crowd. Spelling is important and should be improved, but at the same time the ability to express your ideas clearly and logically is important as well.

    The funny thing is, typing comments for this thread is painful because I am over-worried about the spelling!

  10. Peter Geddes says:

    My son’s English teacher once apologised to me for having corrected my son’s spelling. She said it was silly of her to have done so as spell checkers do that work now.

    I tend to think that the war against educational madness has ben lost. The barbarians have long since stormed the gates.

  11. Walter E. Wallis says:

    …and I’m great at math, it’s just that the numbers don’t always come out right.

  12. People who can’t spell can’t recognize the etymologies of words (one of the under-used arguments against the phonetic-spelling movement), and therefore aren’t aware of nuance.

    Bad spellers, with very few exceptions, were probably not attentive readers as children. Ms. Jacobs’ last paragraph expresses why:

    Readers see words spelled correctly many times; they build vocabulary, including a knowledge of word roots. I’ve seen many bad spellers; none were first-rate English students with a love of reading and writing.

    Now they may have come to a love of reading too late to develop good spelling (just as most members of the history book club hated history in high school).

  13. Joanne is wrong. Spelling does not correlate to reading and writing ability. I am a horrible speller and will always be a horrible speller. I am, by most accounts, reasonably talented when it comes to reading and writing. I read hard stuff, and I read constantly. I write for publication.

    That said, as an English teacher at the secondary level, my job is not to teach spelling. That is elementary school language arts. I teach writing. If the kid can’t spell, then that’s what revision is for. I don’t “fix” spelling. I kick it back and tell the kid to fix his/her essay before I’ll grade it.

    I have had many students who are talented writers in terms of content and structure who are poor spellers. The idea is to strike a balance — get them to recognize and correct their errors without discouraging them to the point where they won’t take risks with their work. It is very easy to write an absolutely correct essay full of s-v-do sentences; it is much harder to do so when you have compound and complex sentences full of sophisticated clauses. I want the sophisticated sentences more than I want correct s-v-do — by the end of the year, I’ve usually got the grammar caught up to the sophistication, but it’s hard work for both student and teacher.

  14. I think Michael’s right. I remember how to spell “desperate” because it means “lacking in esper”, hope. In fact, I have a book about learning to spell difficult words, and that’s the tack it takes: remembering the spelling by studying the etymology. The title of the book, if anyone’s interested, is “I Always Look Up the Word ‘Egregious’!”.

  15. Bruce Lagasse says:

    Some years ago, I spent a few weeks in England working with one of our subcontractors on an engineering project. I found, to my amusement, when I ran some of my MicroSoft-Word documents through spell-checker, it flagged such words as “aluminum”, and “armor” (correct spelling: “aluminium” and “armour”). Evidently (and unsurprisingly, upon reflection), the British version of Word used British spell-checking.

  16. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Shame, anon. JJ is never wrong. Not always exactly right, but never wrong. I have even seen her, in another picture, smile.

  17. jeff wright says:

    I truly hope all of those people who don’t think spelling and grammar are important pass this attitude down to their kids. It will make my kid’s life infinitely easier. In fact, it already has. Ask any manager or human resources specialist what they do with those resumes replete with misspellings and grammatical errors. Round file, every time. Any English teacher (English teacher, for crying out loud) who doesn’t emphasize spelling and grammar is betraying his/her youthful charges. Doing your own thing with the language may work if you’re James Joyce, but the rest of us are usually gauged by our literacy or lack thereof. And it’s usually by the written word.

    Do the same people who seemingly take perverse pride in their inability to spell or use proper grammar think it’s also O.K. to be unable to do basic math calculations in their heads? These things are supposed to be imprinted in the brain, from an early age. That’s what we’ve always expected from the schools and if the best they can do is give a kid a calculator or a computer with a spell checking program, then we don’t need the schools.

    And I don’t believe for a minute that those who can’t spell or use proper grammar do a lot of reading. No matter how trashy, books are professionally edited by people who can spell and also know English grammar. That old human brain imprinting mechanism then comes into play. True literacy and education only come from reading, not from visual or aural stimuli. The latter are unfortunately what children increasingly rely upon in our modern world. Unless they’re incredibly dense or poorly educated themselves, English teachers have to understand this and do whatever they can to maintain standards. English is how we communicate in this country. We should do it as well as we possibly can.

  18. There are no criminals just first rate solid citizens who love to obey the law but get discouraged by fussy police with handcuffs

  19. Andy Freeman says:

    > If I have time, I paste my posts in Word to run and spell-check before posting. If I don’t have time

    If what you have to say isn’t worth your time, is it worth your readers’ time?

    Yes, each reader is likely to spend less time reading than you did writing, but there are often multiple readers.

  20. Jeff, you calling me a liar?

  21. Andy,
    It is the exchange of ideas that is important to me. If I have an idea I think is interesting, I post it. I hope that Laura, jab, Rita, Richard, Walter, Mark, and all the other people who regularly post do the same (no slight meant to regular contributors not mentioned). If they make a spelling error I don’t really care because even though I often disagree with some of them the vast majority or their posts make me think.

    Hope this clarification helps.

  22. Anon,
    Of course Jeff is calling you a liar. What’s the matter can’t you read? MEANT AS HUMOR

    Actually, he called several of us liars. Jeff’s post is not written enough for me to understand whether I agree with most of what he says or not but his spelling is great. If he is referring to “all of those people who don’t think spelling and grammar are important” in the general case then I agree with him. If he is implying that the acknowledged bad spellers on this thread don’t value spelling and grammar then I have to disagree. I have the dual handicaps of having attended a really pathetic school and not being able to hear tonal differences well. So not only do I not spell well I sound a little funny too! (Years of speech therapy helped the speech quite a bit but occasionally a new word will throw me.) However, I value spelling and I try to proofread everything so as to not let my bad spelling be a distraction to readers. I have not seen anyone post anything on here saying grammar is not important or that they take pride in being bad at spelling so I have to assume that he was speaking in general terms. I pretty much agree with what he has to say, in general terms. Except for that part about those of us who like to read but can’t spell are liars. I doubt there are many people who visit Joanne’s website who don’t like to read since she is not real big on posting pictures for the illiterate.

  23. I’ve got some comments on at my site, primarily about the comments here.

  24. Of the 5 teachers my daughter has had so far one has been of the school that spelling wasn’t that important. She was a whole language method teacher and her and I didn’t get along at all. A couple of years later the daughter refers to the teacher as the one who was most confused by spelling.

    The attitude that spelling can be dealt with in a further draft or whatever is a big problem. Certainly adherence to any rule set should be a process and red ink which is too strident can be a big problem but “It doesn’t matter whether I spell my best friend’s name correctly because they already know how to spell it” will bring the child nothing but problems as an adult as their work hits the round file and their peers get sick of the disrespect.

    All of that being said these things should be dealt with on an individual basis. Don’t let the minority of teachers who operate in this manner run down your kids. It really is that simple. Stand up to them and make them indulge your silly propensity for proper spelling.

  25. Well, I like the idea of a teacher handing a paper back to a kid and telling him, “There are lots of spelling errors. Find them and correct them.” The kid learns more that way than having the teacher do all the work.

    And if my child had a teacher who thought spelling didn’t matter, I would have no trouble at all telling my kid, “Even if your teacher doesn’t care, I do. So make sure your words are spelled right.” And then checking her work myself.

  26. I would have to disagree with the notion that spelling ability and the love of reading and writing are related. I have been reading since I was five and before that my parents constantly read to me. I know English grammar and scored a 34 out of 36 on the English section of my ACT. But I cannot spell for the live of me. It just is not something I’m good at. I have an excellent vocabulary and can comprhend what I read. But my school had a seperate spelling class (do schools do that anymore? I’m a senior in high shcool now, but I’ve always attended Catholic schools and from what I’ve heard, they tend to be a bit more old fashioned) which I did terribly in. But it taught me that I haven’t got a knack for spelling and I should check myself before turning in a paper. Most of the people I know who are bad spellers are very well read and get good grades in English. Spelling just doesn’t come as easily to us, but I think that’s the best argument to use it as a seperate subject from kindergarten on. It teaches bad spellers the necessity (that’s a word I have trouble with) of checking their work. I may be a bad speller, but this doesn’t make me a dumb person. It is a subject that comes easily to some and not others.

  27. PJ/Maryland says:

    Andee, as someone that spelling comes (relatively) easy to, I sympathize. (Hmm, “to whom spelling comes easy”?) But, you (and others posting above) have suggested (or implied) that bad spellers need to check over their work. This is true of good spellers, too; we all make typos, and anything written for others to read deserves at least one read through to catch spelling and grammar errors and to tighten or otherwise improve your article’s flow.

    I can see that there may be some people who have some memory flaw such that they can’t retain proper spelling as most people can. (Rand Simberg mentions dyslexics, for example.) But I still agree with Joanne; if you’ve actually read a lot, you’ve seen almost all common words spelled correctly many times. Maybe people who read a lot but don’t write much have never had occasion to develop any skill at finding the right spelling in their memory and putting it on paper (screen).

    It’s not true that everyone used to be able to spell well. Up until recently, poor spellers had secretaries and editors to correct their memos and articles. Now that few can afford a secretary, and email makes it so easy for even executives to communicate in writing, poor spellers are out in the open. That said, I think there are more poor spellers today, and it probably can be traced back to teachers who don’t think spelling is important; reading between the lines of the Chronicle article, these teachers may never have had to learn to spell well themselves.

    So, I’m sorry you have to work a little harder than I do to get the same result. If it’s any consolation, I expect your spelling will improve with continued application. (I know that since I took over as editor of my computer user group’s newsletter, I notice lots more spelling and grammar errors than I did before.)

  28. Michelle Dulak says:

    To Richard Brandshaft & anyone else in this long thread who mentioned spell-checkers: they are handy, but relying on them to check your spelling is a very bad idea. If your misspelling of one word happens to be the correct spelling of another word, it won’t be flagged.

    The most recent word processors have some grammar heuristics in them, and can catch “it’s” vs. “its,” “there” vs. “their” vs. “they’re,” &c. But there is really no substitute for close proofreading.

  29. Hmm. Up until a couple hundred or so years ago, there was no such thing as proper spelling in English. Codified grammar is also a fairly recent development for English.

    PJ: To whom. “Whom” is the object; “who” is the nominative/subject. You must not read much to not know that. After all, anybody who reads has seen “who/whom” used correctly thousands of times!

    (Actually, “who/whom” is a natural part of the dialect for a subset of native English speakers, and many linguists posit that the distinction is fading from the language, as have most markers of case.)

    Andee: you’re probably an aural learner as opposed to a visual learner. Your ability to recognize the shapes and patterns of words is probably weaker than your ability to learn them by hearing. When you spell, do you mentally say the word to yourself to “hear” it or do you “see” it in your mind? You probably also have trouble spelling words with the shwa sound at the end, like “ance” vs. “ence”.

  30. Michael Stach says:

    Correct spelling and grammar increase the chance that others will understand what we say. Incorrect spelling and modifiers misplaced increase confusion.
    The classic example of the power of a comma:
    Woman without her man is useless.
    Woman, without her, man is useless.
    Two small marks on the page can mean a world of difference.
    The problem isn’t with students spelling egregious; students can’t spell basic words. I agree with the idea that the basic cause is a lack of literacy.

  31. I agree, spelling and grammar are important, and math, etc. The comment about preparing a resume’ is also correct (if it’s full of mis-spelled words, poor grammar, and other problems, it says to the person who sees it, this person didn’t care enough to check the old resume’, how good of a worker could they be)?

    If you aren’t a good spelling, or english wasn’t your strong subject in school (it wasn’t mine), use the spell and grammar checker in your word processor, then read the document to see how it flows, and finally, have someone else read your work (amazing what gets caught when someone else looks at it).

  32. Michelle Dulak says:

    Rita C.,

    To whom. “Whom” is the object; “who” is the nominative/subject. You must not read much to not know that. After all, anybody who reads has seen “who/whom” used correctly thousands of times!

    I think you’re missing PJ’s point here. S/he wrote:

    Andee, as someone that spelling comes (relatively) easy to, I sympathize. (Hmm, “to whom spelling comes easy”?)

    There’s no dithering about “who/whom” in there; PJ’s wondering whether, in the context of this thread, s/he ought to tidy up the grammar of the first sentence. Frankly, [putting on editor’s hat], I’d change it to “Speaking as someone for whom good spelling comes naturally,” or — for a less stilted sentence — “Speaking as someone who spells well without even trying,” but whatever.

  33. Andy Freeman says:

    > It is the exchange of ideas that is important to me.

    Really? It isn’t important enough to help your readers. It isn’t important enough to present your ideas in their best light.

  34. Even though I am a part-time proofreader, I am fairly forgiving about typos and minor misspellings online. Really, is anyone truly thrown off by, say, “recieve”? It may be irritating, but it’s not incomprehensible. I save my true hostility for those who love to “kr8t” (create) their own spellings.

    Readers have varying degrees of tolerance for orthographic deviance. Writers violate standards at their own risk. When I see someone expending a great deal of “NRG” (energy) on invented spellings, I envision someone more interested in self-indulgence than actually trying to communicate.

  35. I don’t like spelling.

    My students ask, “Does spell count?” and I say, not as long as I’m your teacher.

    Why? they ask.

    Because I was never good at spelling and I hated when I was marked down for it in school. So now that I’m in charge, I say spell any way you like. In fact, spell correctly too much of the time and you’ll annoy me.

  36. I started reading at age 3 1/2. I have a spoken and word recognition vocabulary that was well above my peer group in every school I was ever in, (miltary service father). And it still is today.
    And I thank God, and Bill Gates for spell checker.
    You will almost never find me without a book to read.
    Popular fiction, whodunit’s, SF, history, arts, etc…
    I’m currently reading the latest Stephen Hunter, a Dale Brown, John Locke, Thomas Fleming. All at the same time.
    Yeah, I’d say I love to read. But spelling, lets not talk about it. It brings back LOTS of PAINFUL memories.
    Hours of drilling on that weeks spelling words. To no avail.
    I spend an hour one day looking up the word guard, in the dictionary. Yes that did impress it in my memory but I don’t see that a practial means to learn.
    What finally helped improve my spelling, besides spell checker was to start writing. And to start studing how the people I liked to read wrote and puntuated things.
    But never think that we poor spellers are not good readers or speakers.
    I close with Ben Franklin,paraphrased only because I can’t lay hand on the exact quote. “It is a poor intellect that can only think of one way to spell a word.”

  37. greeneyeshade says:

    i had at least 1 high school english teacher who had the sense to give 2 grades on papers: 1 for content (or ideas) and 1 for execution.
    on the other hand, paulette kilmer of northern michigan u. told this to editor and publisher, the newspaper trade journal, at a journalism teachers’ conference (sorry, i forgot to copy the date, but it was years ago): “I stress English more than the English teachers. The English teachers tell me they’re more concerned about students’ self-esteem than their mechanical skills. It’s scary.”

  38. “Really? It isn’t important enough to help your readers. It isn’t important enough to present your ideas in their best light.”

    Nope, expressing myself perfectly is not important enough to me to spend a lot of extra time on each post worrying about if there are people out their who are more concerned with my grammar than my ideas. I try to write in a way that a person of average intelligence or better can comprehend my meaning.

    As I stated previously, I regard these threads as an informal way for people to communicate about a shared area of interest. In addition to posting on these threads I also exchange emails with other people who post here. We discuss some of the topics in more detail and I enjoy the experience of exchanging ideas with many of the wonderful people who visit this site. Hard as this may be to believe, many or most of the people who visit this site know more about the topics we discuss than I do. I don’t think I have ever disagreed with PJ and held my own yet. I still hold out hope that one of these days I will catch him/her in a mistake.

    I hope you are not an English teacher because it is exactly your attitude that turns so many people off of writing in the first place. As Voltaire said “The perfect is the enemy of the good”. By all means expect students to write well and express themselves well, but never lose sight of the fact that the primary purpose of writing is to communicate well, not to show how well you know the rules of grammar.

    PS – I have repeatedly and often said that grammar is important. I would appreciate it if we don’t go off on that tangent again. This is not an attack on grammar so please don’t represent it as such.

  39. Warning, going a little of topic from spelling here.

    Is it just me or does anyone else absolutely hate articles (usually academic) written in an overly technical way? I read a lot of articles in academic journals and there have been times when I have spent 1/2 hour or so just figuring out that a paragraph means something along the lines of “The easier something is to use the more people will use it”. At times it appears the author has just gone through a thesarus and substituted obscure words to make something harder to read. Or even worse, in many cases they have used words that almost mean the same as the word they are looking for.

  40. Andy Freeman says:

    > As Voltaire said “The perfect is the enemy of the good”.

    Yes, but that’s no excuse to not go for as good as possible.

    Like most people, I’m innundated with ideas. While good spelling and grammar isn’t a guarantee of thoughts worth considering, and their absence doesn’t imply that the thoughts are not worth considering, there is enough of a correlation that spelling and grammar are one component of a good filter.

    Moreover, bad grammar (and occasionally bad spelling) often/usually comes makes it difficult to figure out exactly what the thought is. Good grammar means that we can more quickly discover exactly what the thought is, so we can evaluate it on its merits instead of spending time trying to figure out what exactly is intended.

    I’m actually a bad speller and I used to believe as Ross does.

  41. Well, here are my two cents on the spelling topic: I happen to be blessed with very good spelling and grammar skills, and as I read a great deal, seeing a lot of spelling and grammar mistakes in a piece of writing irks me to no end. I credit my excellent writing skills partially to the fact that I had a very good (and strict) English teacher in middle school, but also because I read a lot and am a visual learner. Right now my tastes in leisure reading tend towards fantasy and science fiction, and I read a great deal of fanfiction.
    Fanfiction, for those of you who don’t know, are fictional stories set in an already existing universe such as Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings, and written by fans of said universe. While the fandom I inhabit attracts writers ranging from preteens to elderly grandmothers, the majority of writers on the largest sites are teenage girls, most of whom are in late middle school/early high school. And as the largest sites do not have very strict guidelines about the quality of the stories posted, I see a lot of very bad writing. The most spelling and grammar mistakes that I see are in fics written by younger authors who don’t want to use spellcheck and don’t know enough to go back and proofread their work. I certainly realize that not everyone is good at spelling or trusts spellcheck completely, but that is why there are beta-readers. These are essentially editors who go through stories, point out spelling and grammar mistakes, and offer suggestions on how to fix problems relating to characterization, tone, conflicts with existing canon, etc.
    The quality of writing in most fanfiction is mediocre at best. While there are certainly exceptions to the rule, the quality of writing I usually see makes me cringe at the state of English language education in this country. Most of the writers I see don’t seem to care how bad their writing is and many of them are very defensive of the poor quality of their work, no matter what other people tell them. I’ve seen stories that would probably give their English teachers nightmares.
    Sorry about the long and rambling screed; this is a subject rather near to my heart. My point is that people who can’t spell should go back and proofread their work, or better yet have someone proofread it for them, or both.

  42. Hmmm… standardized spelling has been part of education for how long?

    That said, the work on teaching spelling indicates that seeing only the correct spelling is the worst way to go. Weird but true. It’s an alarmingly reproducable result. Not clear if students respond well because they feel the pressure is off, or if learning the “wrong” spelling reinforces the “right” spelling, or a combination of both, although you can find dozens of papers asserting any one of those theories.

    Incidentally – Meg, you are not using the term “visual learner” in the context I’m used to.

  43. I am astonished that the teachers to whom Paulette Kilmer referred appear to think that self-esteem and technical skill are alternatives. I think that self-esteem comes from two things only: being able to do a job well, and being able to tell truth from nonsense.

    Spellcheckers are not a substitute for proofreading, which finds and fixes grammar errors, content and reasoning errors, and spelling errors, including the big one that spellcheckers never catch: the correctly spelled but incorrectly chosen word. It is important to convey one’s meaning, certainly. But it is also important to follow the standards of good English in doing so.

    I sympathize with people who were hassled about poor spelling as students. Everybody gets hassled about something as a student. Often, that is how one learns. But to disdain the acquisition of an important skill merely because someone was unkind to you about your difficulty in mastering it readily is to be willfully ignorant. Different people acquire skills with varying degrees of facility. “Hard” is not a synonym for “unimportant.”

    Ultimately, it is a major challenge for me, as it is for many readers, to appreciate the ideas of a person whose prose contains many spelling errors. If the author can’t take his writing seriously, the reader can be forgiven for not taking his meaning seriously.

  44. I am a practically perfect speller (except for words I have never heard of), an ex-proofreader, and a professional engineering secretary. Teacher Wright, you can be annoyed with me if you want to.

  45. um, that’s Robert. Sorry, Jeff. 🙂

  46. So, do we at least agree on the following?
    1.) Spelling is very important.
    2.) Grammar is very important.
    3.) Content is very important.
    4.) The best way to write is to maximize the quality of the spelling, grammar, and content while at the same time keeping effort to a level that is appropriate to the task.
    5.) There is a minimum threshold for spelling, grammar, and content below which that which is written is no longer worth reading. The importance put on each of the three attributes is decided at the individual level so individual readers will have different opinions regarding what constitutes good writing.
    6.) At times, the aspiration level of the writer for quality will be less than the aspiration level of the reader. At these times the reader will judge the work product of the writer as not being worth the effort required to read.
    7.)When teaching writing as a whole, or when teaching subject matter other than writing, it is acceptable to put different weights on the three aspects of writing but, where possible, the importance weight should always be positive.
    8.) The “where possible” in point 7 refers to there can be times when one aspect of the work product is so bad that the other parts cannot be judged.
    9.) This thread is about done.

  47. Ok Ross,

    Can we talk about spelling now…..

  48. The debate is a false dichotomy. It’s not either teach spelling/grammar or don’t… the idea is to not make it the most important part of judging a student’s writing (remember, these are children learning to write, not professionals posting to blogs). I place it third in my hierarchy of what I judge a piece of writing on (1st is meeting the assignment’s criteria — ie., does it answer the question I asked, is it a research paper, etc.; 2nd is content and structure; and 3rd is mechanics; below that is formatting issues). It isn’t that grammar and spelling are not important — they certainly are — it is just that they’re not primary concerns.

    I’ve seen the two grades thing done a lot. I’d rather have the kid fix the errors (I have a mechanism for this).

  49. Why do people draw an equal sign between spelling skills and grammar skills? They are horses of a colour.

  50. I’ve edited medical journal articles and medical books for the past 25 years. All the manuscripts I edit are subsequently reviewed for medical content by physicians. I always alert them to any manuscript that was poorly written because we’ve learned that, nine times out of ten, a manuscript that is poorly written is also faulty in its medical content. Poor language skills seem to go hand in hand with an inability to describe or explain basic anatomy, physiological processes, medical procedures, etc., in ways that other physicians can understand and apply to their own practices. Substandard skills in spelling, punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, paragraphing, organization of ideas, etc., are all too often an unmistakable clue to a writer’s inability to understand the subject, even when the subject matter is his life’s work. A physician editor once complained to me that he had spent hours in the medical library looking up recent publications on the liver because the manuscript he was reviewing said such unprecedented things that he thought someone had discovered all kinds of new things about the liver. Turned out that the writer was simply wrong, wrong, wrong, with misconceptions about even the most basic functions of the liver. Her knowledge of the subject was perfectly matched by her writing skills–unacceptable for publication.

    Correct spelling and punctuation are mandatory. Consider the differences between insulin and inulin, hypokalemia and hyperkalemia, systemic and systematic, 1.25 cc and 12.5 cc. “Little” errors can have grave consequences for patient care.

    Good writing skills–including correct spelling–are essential for explaining ideas that matter.

  51. jeff wright says:

    Ross and anon called me on my previous post and, after thinking about it a bit, I take their point. I do believe one can be a voracious reader and still be weak in spelling. There was no intent on my part to label anyone a “liar,” so I apologize.

    Upon reflection, I think reading probably has to be accompanied by a great deal of writing, specifically the kind that will be tossed back in your face if done poorly. Thanks to a good primary education (in California schools, of all things) I can’t recall not being pretty good at spelling and grammar. As my life turned out, I gravitated into a profession where such skills were essential and where those who lacked them had to improve or find something else to do.

    More than once, as a supervisor, I moved good people into less rewarding work because of their inability to meet high organizational writing standards, even after much remedial work. Bummer, every time. In my opinion, these people were failed by those charged with their primary education. By the time they got to be adults, it was too late to undo the bad habits.

    I take no particular pride in being able to spell well. To me, spelling and proper grammar usage are learned skills; they have little to do with native intelligence. Unfortunately, as in the resume example I cited, we are often judged by our ability to communicate in writing. This is why I believe teachers are unnecessarily handicapping students if they don’t emphasize the fundamentals of English usage. It seems to me that most peoples’ writing is not necessarily creative, but is done in response to work requirements. Why not be able to put your best foot forward?

    I sure agree with Mitchell: self-esteem comes from doing the job properly. And if the job’s really difficult, all the better. I forget the name of the movie, but it had to do with a womens’ baseball league during WW2. Tom Hanks, in response to a woman who complained about the game being “hard,” responded, “It’s baseball. It’s supposed to be hard.”

  52. Perhaps I used the term “visual learner” incorrectly. What I meant when I said that was that I tend to visualize how things work, including how words are spelled. Going back over what I wrote, I’d like to apologize again for the rambling. I’d been up very, very late finishing a project when I wrote that and was extremely tired.

  53. My issue with poor spelling and grammar is how they obstruct understanding, as some have mentioned. I’ve never known anyone who couldn’t benefit from an excellent editor, so it’s no shame to need one, but most of the time you have to be your own editor. If you’re aware of basic grammar rules and spelling, and are quick to consult a dictionary or your home copy of Strunk & White, you’ll find your communications are clearer. Utility is sufficient reason for their importance. I’m not an ogre with my students about grammar and spelling – I tend not to take off points for them, because I don’t teach English – but while assessing essays for content I’m also marking up spelling and grammar mistakes with a red pen. I consider it part of their training in communicating about that topic. And I do take off points if I can’t understand what’s going on. How could I do otherwise?

    I’d say a lack of attention to spelling in submitted work (as opposed to exams without the ability to spellcheck) is evidence of inattention to detail in general, and that would show up in other work products. Saying “I’m not good at it” is not sufficient – the tools to correct the mistakes are widespread. And the necessity for clarity doesn’t diminish with an increase in the difficulties of being clear.


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