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Does spelling matter in the 21st century?

The University of Hull recently announced students will not be marked down for poor spelling, punctuation and grammar calling it ‘elitist,’ in a bid to provide a more inclusive assessment system for all students, regardless of their background.

In a heated debate a few weeks ago, entrepreneur and author, Steven Bartlett called author, Christine Hamilton’s approach to spelling ‘pedantic’ and ‘archaic’ when she told GMB that she sent back a letter to a 5-year-old with a ‘gentle’ spelling correction. Neither was wrong, they were just speaking from very different lived experiences. I don’t think sending back a sincere letter to a 5 year old is the way to teach spelling, (although I’m sure it is a lesson said child won’t forget into adulthood). Equally, no matter how far the world has moved on digitally, we must look at spelling in the wider context of communication skills.

What’s problematic in the University of Hull’s decision, is the implication that students from disadvantaged backgrounds or those for whom English is an additional language (EAL) need this policy to achieve well. However, it is not correct spelling that creates this prejudice, rather their decision associates spelling with academic achievement. As someone who was an EAL student, has headed up a pretty successful English Department and taught several students labelled with ‘EAL,’ Correct spelling isn’t ‘elitist’ – it’s an education every student should be entitled to and every student can learn.

Every student deserves an education in literacy, which enables all kinds of opportunities for them. Katy Parkinson, founder of Lexonik, a literacy education business, says:

“spelling correctly and competently has long created impressions of knowledge, but also of a desire to learn and commitment to diligent productivity – neither of which I think educators, parents, employers or world leaders would want us to lose.”

Spelling shouldn’t hold people back, but confidence in the skill can further enable and support success in the future. Whether it be an email, job application, reading a book, an article such as this, accurate spelling and written communication skills do make a difference.

I remember a lesson where I was teaching year 8 students speech writing. One student picked up on a spelling error in my piece and like many teachers, I blamed Spellcheck. We discussed whether it mattered with a bit of banter around my credibility as their English teacher and they agreed, it did. It’s not about being a self-proclaimed Shakespearean prodigy, or about policing pieces of work, accurate spelling is a part of overall written communication, which shows attention to detail, creativity and flair.

But, this doesn’t mean spelling is the be-all and end-all either.

In their guidance for GCSE English Language, assessment objective six (AO6), Ofqual states that students must use ‘accurate spelling and grammar’. Some of my students and their parents would be disheartened and angry that this element of the exam seemed non-negotiable. As an examiner, I’d reassure them: the word ‘perfect’ is not used in the mark scheme and examiners always look to award – not take away. My students are and were excellent at so many things; they can excel in other assessment objectives, and spelling does not need to hold them back in the future.

What we need to address are our attitudes to literacy: it should absolutely be taught in every classroom but is not the focal point of any success journey.

Unfortunately, the teaching around spelling can sometimes be prejudiced - I’ve seen it from colleagues and even parents. Research suggests that students with dyslexia and those on the autism spectrum who struggle with reading, spelling and literacy skills, do feel anxious, stressed and sad. Red pen marking, calling out students for poor spelling and undermining their intelligence based on one element of literacy is unfair. Teaching spelling should in no way belittle students. It should be done to simply improve written communication.

Context matters

As a writer and English teacher, of course spelling matters – it’s a major part of my work. I loved teaching and I love writing; good spelling, literacy and written communication keeps me employed! In fact, whether it be Tweets, Instagram captions or YouTube subtitles, proficient spelling is a necessary skill. This isn’t to say you can’t or won’t get a job without good spelling – but it does help.

Is it a skill for the 21st century?

With the digital world opening up an array of possibilities for future generations (CVs may soon be a thing of the past), I can see why it may seem like a secondary skill - but only if we look at it in isolation. we need to ‘level up’ the teaching of literacy skills in the wider context and relevance of the digital world.

We also need to remove stigmas associated with spelling too. Perhaps this is an area for exam boards, schools and even workplaces need to revise, if they are to be wholly inclusive.

Literacy is an important set of skills and it’s not as simple as saying it does or doesn’t matter anymore…otherwise the future for younger generations will be based on trends and just as good as teaching to the test, which I’m sure all of us might have a slight problem with.

Typos and a few errors here and there shouldn’t be a game-changer, but they do matter and I can’t imagine a world where we just ignore correcting them (with context). Instead, we need to address why so many students struggle with spelling, the teaching and learning of literacy and how we tackle a variety of problematic attitudes and perceptions around literacy – not just at school, but in the wider working world too.



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