Spelling counts

Spelling counts in Jessica Lahey’s English classes because it ‘s going to count when her students apply to college or apply for jobs, she writes in The Atlantic.

She also insists middle-school girls wear skirts long enough to cover their underwear.

I absolutely agree that we should not be judging girls on the length of their skirts any more than we judge them on their ability to discern “affect” from “effect,” but we do. In order to get through the door at an interview or past the threshold of an application process, my students are going to have to meet a standard, and it’s part of my job to teach them about that standard.

. . . This is true even for students who struggle with spelling and grammar because of some glitch in their processing, a learning disability, or a simple lack of exposure to written language. Many of these weak spellers are lovely, intelligent people, and I would love to promise them that society will see past their flawed spelling, grammar, and diction to the ideas beneath. But I can’t.

“If I taught my students that they could go to a job interview wearing a bikini and wielding a wadded resume riddled with errors and still be respected for their brains and skills, I would not be doing them any favors,” Lahey concludes.

In my first job at a chain of suburban newspapers, I helped sort through a stack of applications to hire a new reporter.  In my second job, I helped find an assistant magazine editor. In both cases, we rejected every application that contained a spelling, punctuation or grammatical error. Only a few resumes and cover letters were error free. Those we read carefully.

About Joanne


  1. Crimson Wife says:

    Which colleges or jobs require handwritten essays? The Spell-Check feature in word processing software isn’t 100% foolproof but it will catch most spelling errors. This is one example of how schoolwork is not reflective of day-to-day adult life.

    • Spell check isn’t good enough to really fix a badly-written piece. I work at a CC, and I often see students’ writing–personal essays, responses to literature, nutrition assignments and all kinds of material. I would say that most of the students I see have a difficult time writing a paragraph that makes sense and contains no errors, even with spell and grammar check turned on. Honestly, it has to be seen to be believed; I would never have expected it before I started this job. The incoherence and mistakes are endemic, not occasional. What it comes down to is that an amazing number of people are close to illiterate. We’re not doing kids any favors by letting them grow up this way, and teaching them that there is a correct way to do things and that it does matter is important. They honestly do not know it otherwise.

      • Crimson Wife says:

        That is a very different problem than simply being a lousy speller. It is perfectly reasonable to grade on the ability to write a coherent paragraph. That isn’t what Ms. Lahey was complaining about in the linked post, however.

  2. Like others here, I don’t hire anyone whose cover letter or resume contains egregious errors. Small errors, such as a misplaced comma, count against you but aren’t an automatic rejection. My logic is that the way you communicate with me is a prediction of the way you communicate with customers.

    Years ago, we kept a “wall of shame”, where we would redact the candidate’s name and tape their errors to the wall for all to mock. It got too sad, though, and we quit.

    I agree with dangermom: many people who don’t look at resumes or other writings from new college or HS graduates have no idea how bad this has become. There are still good schools out there, but they are no longer the majority.

  3. Stacy in NJ says:

    I still struggle with affect vs. effect. Noun/verb what? I’m a pretty poor speller as well.

    The assumption here is that most people get jobs via cold resume submissions. That’s just not how it happens for many in the real world. I created, operated, hired and fired at my small business for 10 years before I sold it. I rarely hired based on a resume sent to me cold. I usually hired based on recommendations from employees (friends of friends) or my own friends or business associates. Now, if a potential hire handed me a incoherent resume, unless they had other skills that compensated for this deficit, I’d pass. But there are other skills. I’ve had high school drop outs work for me who had excellent telephone and people skills. I’ve had college graduates who could definately compose a superior resume but who couldn’t understand the why’s and when’s of our core business.

    My husband runs a division within a large financial institution and hires and fires. While his human resource department will send him resumes of likely candidates, he typical hires as I did – from known entities. He has traders working for him who earn in excess of $300,000 per year who couldn’t spell the word “compose” much less compose a paper.

    Perhaps when talking about very large corporations and entry level positions the focus on spelling and grammar in the cover letter is important.

    All in all, it’s one aspect (an important one) of why someone may or may not get hired.

    As I post this, I assume I’ve made a spelling or grammatical error.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      I just want to add, It’s entirely a good thing that a middle school/high school English teacher would focus on correct spelling and grammar (and dress). Otherwise, why is she employed? Oh, yeah, “love” of literature.

  4. Having been on both sides of the table (interviewee and interviewer), I can tell you that excellent oral and written communication skills (including spelling and grammar) are very important in a resume, and I usually stopped looking at a resume after I’ve reached the third misspelled word or third instance of lousy grammar.

    If you cannot take the time to proof read your resume to see if it has any glaring issues, or a better idea is to get someone else to read it, then you’re probably looking at the reject pile when the reviewer comes to it (sad but true).

  5. Once more, Jessica Lahey confuses education with morality, and uses hundreds of words to justify petty demands. I mean, seriously. Her job is to teach writing skills. There’s a perfectly decent reason to demand good spelling on that basis without going into all the “I’m doing it for your own good!” nonsense.