Thursday, April 15, 2010

Spelling Implications

There is a good chance you've seen this graphic. If you have, stay with me, I may have a different take on this than you might expect. If you haven't seen this yet, enjoy!

If you are like most people, you could still read almost every single word without much hesitation.

The message was not lost.

Communication did in fact prevail!

So what can we learn from this?

Firstly, spelling may not be as important as my grade 8 Grammar-Nazi teacher might have thought it was. Because the first and last letters must be in proper place, I can't say spelling is entirely unimportant - but I think we can agree that if communication is our purpose, then a closer examination of the history of writing rubrics may indicate that spelling has received an inflated stature of importance.


Spelling is a very tangible skill. We can see it. We can measure it. We can count it.

If you are teaching writing, and you feel the need to quantify something, would you rather measure spelling or creativity?

However, before we throw spelling on the discard pile, let's try and figure out why spelling may still be something worth teaching.

If my blog maintained its quality content but was asblutely rdidled whit msitekas, would anything change?

As nice as you may be, I have a feeling you might make some serious judgments on my intelligence (or lack of) and it is entirely plausible that my inability to spell might annoy you to the point that you wouldn't return. However, I am a full time teacher, and I only blog when I have time to and so I know every post has mistakes - and yet, I know I have returning readers. Interesting!

Resumes written with this kind of spelling might still get the content across, but may be responsible for having it fall off the table and into a waste basket.

However, people do not become good spellers by being bullied or scared into being so.

Students must be provided with an opportunity to play with language. They must feel comfortable with spelling words wrong, and we, the teacher, are responsible for providing them with a learning environment that allows kids to see school as an opportunity to figure things out - to make mistakes and bump up against their limits. Perseverance in the face of failure may be one of the most important attributes a successful learner can adopt.

If we pursue our student's spelling skills with such dictatorial fervor as my grade 8, Grammar-Nazi teacher, we risk sabatoging the enitre learning operation.

Here's what I mean.

Which would you prefer a student to write:


At what cost are we willing to gain ultimate precision in spelling?

If the point of school is to show how good you are, why would you waste your time taking risks that might show how good you're not?

Alfie Kohn illustrates an even grander concern in his book The Schools Our Children Deserve:

Invented spelling is based on the finding that young children who write more tend to read better. Not surprisingly, as we saw with Patty, kids are inclined to write more, to take risks, when they don't have to worry quite yet about spelling words perfectly - which, at that age, is unrealistic in any case. The question is what we're willing to have them sacrifice for technical accuracy... (Of course, for very young children, the choice may be even more stark; either we let them use invented spelling or we don't let them write at all.)

Albert Einstein provides us with a bit of a wake up call:

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.
Inflating the importance of something easily counted like spelling can almost entirely nullify something that is not tailored towards being counted, like creativity.

Teachers must be mindful of this counting trap.

Next time you want to focus on spelling, keep in mind that if you make spelling count for too much, you might get what you ask for. Kids will spell words correctly at the cost of using words that sacrifice the intangibles such as creativity.


  1. Joe, You know I like to just push a bit, so bear with me. Your fish example. I would take the second one in a heartbeat. I had to read the first one 4 times to figure out what it said. In the original "image", all the correct letters are there, they are just in a different order. This is different than the "alternative spellings" I get with students. I do not take off points for spelling as I work to focus my assessment on how well students understand the science content....I even let students orally demonstrate understanding when they struggle to do so in writing. However, spelling ought be an important value as clarity of communication is important, not just communication. I know there are those who say "why do we need to have kids read and write when they can use skype and other technologies to communicate". I'm sorry, but I would not skype you this comment, you did not post a video about this topic. We are communicating via written text. There is value in this type communication. I would hate to have students miss out on a type of communication because I thought they could "get by" with other forms of communication.

    Got a little off topic there, but there are some thoughts to ponder. :)

  2. I think spelling is only as important as it is to the people a student will want to impress. And I do think we need to let students know that their mistakes may be interpreted as a lack of intelligence or as laziness. In extreme cases, it can even obscure understanding, like with your first fish example.

    With that said, I don't think we should be dictators when it comes to spelling. If we are, we make the assumption that students don't already want to improve and aren't doing so as fast as they can. People don't like being bad at something with results they care about - and everyone cares about communication. The only ones I've met who seem to have stopped improving their spelling have gotten it hammered into their minds that they're just innately bad spellers and can NEVER improve. Like Ford once said, "If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right."

  3. For me, the most important message here was the part about how we tend to inflate the importance of things that are conveniently measured. This applies to exams and testing in general and has its roots in the Taylorist principles which still prevail in 21st century pedagogy.

  4. Did you hide from your 8th grade teacher in an apartment in Amsterdam? Yikes. No wonder you don't like proper spelling. Those Grammar Nazis are vicious!

  5. I can c what your saying. When my students wrote a page about their art work I can´t tell u the mistakes they made on spelling. On one hand I though I wasn´t doing them any favors not teaching them grammar, but on the other hand; how would that affect on the things they dare to write?

    jajaja you´ll have to forgive my spelling, english is not my first language...thinking from Chile :)

  6. Removing that obstacle of making sure that everything is spelled correctly is so important to students who struggle with spelling. "What" they have to say will never come out because they will constantly revise to stay within a "safe to spell" range of words.
    Spelling can be corrected in a variety of ways during editing. Messages can be lost if the "editing" becomes more important than the message.


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