Saturday, August 16, 2014

Spelling Matters

The word "matters" has a double meaning here. (However, matter actually has more than two meanings or uses.) One meaning in this post is that spelling is important (i.e., matters is used as a verb to mean it has significance or importance).  The other refers to the topic of this essay, Spelling Matters (i.e., issues, problems or difficulties).

Convincing students that spelling is important in English is a daily song and dance, especially in writing classes. Why do I care that students learn to spell words correctly? With word checkers built into Word software, why should anyone care?

Amazingly, many tests of English (the Cambridge Exams, IELTS (International English Language Testing System), SAT writing, AP writing, and so on) require test-takers to write by hand. Even if you take the internet-based TOEFL exam, there is no spell-checker on the test computers. In other words, the test candidate must demonstrate his/her skill in writing in English without a dictionary or spell-checking device on the computer. They are not allowed to bring any electronic equipment (e.g., cell phones, iPods, etc.) into the testing area. One letter can create a huge or embarrassing difference in meaning or perception: "mad vs. made," "sit" vs. "set," "to" vs. "too," "read" vs. "red," and on and on. Whether you are a native or a non-native speaker of English, mastery of spelling is a mountain we must all climb to become literate communicators.

I, like many others, fall into the group of educators that believes that spelling counts. Last year Loewenstein wrote a thought-provoking blog post for Edutopia which posed the question "What would happen if you were to eliminate subjects in your classroom?" That is, instead of labeling what students learn in school as "spelling," "reading," "writing," "math," and "science," why don't we focus on projects-based learning, which integrates all the skills that students need to communicate in the real world? 

While I'm not sure that eliminating the label "spelling" as a topic or subject of concern in school would make it any less of a pain for poor spellers, developing the habit of correct spelling does make a lot of sense. Similarly, it makes sense to learn how to add and subtract correctly. That means not being sloppy or lazy whenever you make any kind of financial transaction. When you enter an amount to withdraw from or depost to your checking account at the ATM, don't you pay attention to how many zeros you type in? The ATM doesn't have a checker for you? In the same way, sending an e-mail message to a work colleague can have a very strong negative or confusing effect if you misspell a word or leave words out. If you spell a word that exists in English, a spell checker isn't going to catch a mistake, so you can easily confuse a reader.

In a previous post, I published a photograph of a headline of the wrong word choice printed in the San Diego Union Tribune. However, when I searched for a link to the newspaper's online version, the headline had already been changed. My only proof of this public gaffe is the photograph. While this error was not a simple spelling error, it highlights the significance of word choice and word form as well as spelling. Living in a society with a written language system necessitates being careful about spelling and the words we choose to express ourselves. Words matter, and so do their spellings.