“I don’t see any use in having a uniform and arbitrary way of spelling words. We might as well make all clothes alike and cook all dishes alike. Sameness is tiresome; variety is pleasing.” ― Mark Twain

While Mark Twain made his opinion of uniformity very clear, anyone who is familiar with the English language knows that spellings don’t come easy, thanks to the smorgasbord of cultures and languages that have shaped it right from the start. Sound-letter correspondence in English is unstable compared to many languages because, ironically, it has tried to accept words that are not fully supported by Latin alphabets.

In a fervent bid to get ahead of the anxieties with spelling, a significant portion of our kindergarten notebooks and our teachers’ corrections on our essays are devoted to spellings, not to mention the cult-like nature of Spelling Bee championships. To pose an existential question: Is all this necessary?

Poor spelling causes confusion

Have you ever been confused when someone asks you to ‘do this than do that’? You’re not alone. Similarly, the difference between ‘I want two’ and ‘I want to’ can be a cause of great woe to customer service executives. Enter homophones, a particularly devilish category of words that sound alike but are spelt very differently and have different meanings. But these are examples of errors that can still be decoded by a reader with enough context. What happens in the absence of context or sound-based similarity? You may have heard of US President Donald Trump’s covfefe incident, which left the whole world baffled and amused.

Spelling is associated with quality

Charles Duncombe, who runs online businesses, has suggested that spelling errors on a website can lead directly to a loss of customers, potentially causing online businesses huge losses in revenue.[1] When a group of researchers asked people to identify deceptive elements of phishing emails, the most important aspects they noted were spelling, grammar and design. [2]

Learning to spell affects learning as a whole

Learning to spell requires instruction and gradual integration of information about print, speech sounds, and meaning— these, in turn, support automatic recognition of letter strings and words, which is used in both spelling and fluent reading. Research also bears out a strong relationship between spelling and writing: Writers who must think too hard about how to spell use up valuable cognitive resources needed for higher level aspects of composition. [4]

Better spellers tend to make better readers

A researcher studied the spelling errors and strategies of three groups of middle school aged children – good readers/spellers, good readers/poor spellers, and poor readers/spellers. She found that there was a difference in the linguistic knowledge as reflected in the strategies and error patterns of the three groups when they were spelling real words and nonsense words. The good readers/poor spellers had nearly the same number of errors as the good readers/spellers, but their error pattern suggested that they relied primarily on the correspondence of sounds to meaningful spelling units.

But aren’t spellings constantly evolving?

Yes. The one thing that languages do extremely well is change. We need to change with them. One of the core functions of language is communication, and effective communication boils down to acceptability within a given context. Many of us tend to be pedantic about ‘American vs British’ spelling, which, frankly, deserves less attention than it gets. A huge chunk of the difference in American spelling is a reduction or simplification of letters that were deemed unnecessary from a phonetic perspective. It would not be remiss to argue that removing an ‘l’ from ‘traveller’ is not the end of the world. Acronyms like ‘imho, ‘brb’ and ‘lol’ are now thoroughly entrenched in messaging services. However, the same parlance does not fly well in official communication. As educators, we need to be cognizant of both these scenarios and help learners to navigate them.

At EI, while building content for our digital English learning platform, Mindspark English, we have had heated debates on whether we should give room for variations in spelling. The general agreement was that no, we should not penalize students for writing ‘practise’ with a ‘c’, but where would we draw the line? For now, the line has been drawn at penalizing students for widely unacceptable errors like ‘recieve’ or ‘scaning’ but not for spellings that are now considered stylistic choices, such as ‘defense’. Being a bit forgiving about spelling allows us to focus on enriching vocabulary and the development of contextual understanding. Meanwhile, we are also preparing our learning program to automatically account for spelling variants (based on the local context in which it is being used) in the near future.

What about spellcheck?

Many educators nowadays say that in the digital age of word processors and spellcheckers, focusing on spelling is a waste of precious teaching time. This is not entirely true. To a large extent, spellcheckers work in direct proportion to the spelling ability of writers. If a writer mangles up the spelling of a word entirely, most spellcheckers are unable to correct the error or suggest a suitable alternative.

Secondly, spellcheckers do not catch all errors, especially not erroneous spellings that are also legitimate words. In fact, one study reported that spellcheckers usually catch just 30 to 80 percent of misspellings overall (partly because they miss errors like here vs. hear), and that spellcheckers identified the target word from the misspellings of students with learning disabilities only 53 percent of the time.[7] While spellchecking programs continue to become ever more intelligent, they are not meant to be used as crutches.

Wrapping it up

At the end of the day, spellings ARE important, both to build stronger readers and to prevent social faux pas. We should teach students spellings in context, to strengthen the association of the print form to the intended meaning. It also allows us to avoid relying overmuch on spellcheckers, which are still crude despite their growing niftiness.

However, since spellings are also constantly evolving, we should read the lay of the land before being strict about errors, because some of them might no longer be considered errors. Knowing how to spell difficult words also gives a writer the confidence to use them, which is immensely satisfying.

“A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.”
― Baltasar Gracián

References and further readings

  1. “Spelling mistakes ‘cost millions’ in lost online sales”, BBC News (11 July 2011)
  2. Parsons, Kathryn et al., “Do Users Focus on the Correct Cues to Differentiate Between Phishing and Genuine Emails?”, org (2016)
  3. Snow, C. E., Griffin, P., and Burns M. S , “Knowledge to Support the Teaching of Reading: Preparing Teachers for a Changing World”, American Educator (2005)
  4. Moats, Louisa C. “How spelling supports reading.” American Educator(2005)
  5. Frith, Uta. “Unexpected Spelling Problems.”, Cognitive Processes in Learning to Spell (1980)
  6. Kristine F. Anderson , The Development of Spelling Ability and Linguistic Strategies, The Reading Teacher, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Nov., 1985)
  7. Montgomery, D.J., Karlan, G.R., and Coutinho, M. ,“The effectiveness of word processor spell checker programs to produce target words for misspellings generated by students with learning disabilities”, Journal of Special Education Technology (2001)
  8. Simon Horobin, “Does Spelling Matter?”, Oxford University Press (2013)

 

Dev Dutta

Dev Dutta

Dev works on product research, design and development across EI's language offerings.
Dev Dutta

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