Information Sheet #69

November 20, 1992


[As some readers of this document may recall, a previous Word Shop issue in October presented a case study exploring faculty options for handling spelling errors in student papers. The Word Shop presented two position statements, one arguing for a flexible approach to the issue and another arguing for a rigorous insistence on correct spelling. I asked readers of the case study to respond and printed below are excerpts from the 23 responses I received from four faculty, 17 students, one Mississippi Riverboat pilot, and a Dean.--Bob Marrs]

Coe Students on Spelling

I have to confess that when I write and think of a word that I can't spell, I simply use another word. Strange thing is that this usually forces me to rewrite the sentence, and it generally finishes up as a better sentence. I endure this because it forces me to improve on the paper, whether I want to or not.

Of course, your manner of writing and spelling does depend on who the audience is. I have to wonder, however, when you would want to spell bad. Granted, I have been dying to turn in a paper that uses the word "ewe" instead of "you," but that's a bit different. How many people intentionally decide to spell "Marshmellow" with one "l"?

Besides, if you try to be a good speller all of the time, you won't have to work at it when it's necessary. Well, I should get off my soapbox. The decision is up to ewe.

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The case study entitled "The Case of Miss Spelling" brought up an issue that I have heard a lot about since I began college. What is more important in writing--the development of ideas or spelling and grammar? In my opinion, both are equally important, but they need to be taught in succession. First students must learn to develop and explain their ideas before they focus on the spelling and grammar skills to polish off their papers. It is harder to develop ideas when the writer is already concerned about her usage of grammar.

 The article brought out another important issue for students. Some professors grade on ideas while others look for grammar and spelling. This can be confusing because students may not know on which area to concentrate. It's difficult for freshmen who may not have one or either of these writing skills perfected. I agree with the article, "In giving tests or assignments, faculty should provide students a specific context and audience."

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As spelling is a question of detail, it is important to remember that the details significantly compose the whole and create the overall impression of the whole; credibility is diminished by the writer who refuses to make the required effort in producing a polished, well-thought-out piece of writing. Spelling is important because how you say it is just as important, if not more important, than what you say.

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Spelling is important; no matter what something says, regardless of the quality in what is being said, spelling errors detract from the piece. These misspellings create the image of the writer as less intelligent and less careful, even when such is not the case.

While subtracting points for spelling errors on a test is not perfectly fair, it is sensible because it combats spelling problems. For students today, such problems should not exist--especially in papers. Many resources are available to overcome spelling errors. Almost every word processor is equipped with a spell checker; dictionaries are readily available anywhere. Because of these resources, and the awkwardness of spelling errors, they simply should be eliminated.

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It is important to be grammatically correct, but grammar should not be the main focus of attention. The ideas expressed are of more value, and from personal experience, if I am worried about getting marked down for grammar errors, I tend to focus on my grammar rather than think and create freely. I might choose to use a simpler word instead of a difficult-to-spell word that would fit better, just because I was afraid to lose points on grammar. Worrying about grammar inhibits creativity.

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Professors should not deduct points for spelling errors and not for others; if there is a deduction for one there should be a deduction for all. Each instructor should decide for himself. Some may think that form, organization, and style are more important than tedious spelling while others may decide that the potential for disaster is too great to overlook spelling errors. This brings the conversation back to the possibility of discounting points for errors that change the meaning and not for the ones that do not. Unfortunately, this is simply not an option because of the arguments that students would make. A professor should decide to take off points for all errors or none.

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The answer is to stress spelling early in life, while trying not to create hang-ups that block the creative process. The professor who docks students a grade for each spelling error is being fanatical. Seeing a negative grade on a paper, caused by spelling mistakes, cannot be conducive to learning. It would be better to have some assignments (such as an imaginary proposal to a supervisor) where spelling is everything, and others where spelling is important, but points are not subtracted for errors. Through such assignments, students will learn to spell, realize the importance of spelling, and this will carry over into other assignments and areas of life.

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The ability to spell words correctly and use them in the proper context is an essential part of writing. However, the primary concern in a student's written work should not be the spelling. I am a competent speller, yet as I re-read my writing, I often find spelling errors. The content of a draft is what is important. The clarity of knowledge and organization should be emphasized. Re-writing and revising is where spelling becomes an issue. Any written work, for either school or the professional world, will need to be revised before a final copy is submitted. It is in this revising process that spelling should be examined. In the initial draft of any work, however, the emphasis should be placed on content, not mechanics (e.g., spelling).

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All aspects of a paper should be graded. This includes spelling and mechanics. If the student makes errors, point them out and deduct points. It's only fair.

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An important distinction is revealed in the writer's sentence: "I feel caught in the middle between expectations of students and the expectations of professionals." If every teacher were to tailor her teaching to the professionals' expectations, students would be writing memos and business letters. Can an instructor justify wasting classtime on spelling just to prepare them for some job? The instructor's job is not to play the role of a spell-check. The communication of ideas is more important than absolute precision in mechanics. Unless it is a technical or pre-professional school, educational institutions should not have to bear the burden of fulfilling professionals' expectations.

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I think it is more important to consider spelling in edited papers and polished drafts, not exams. Even then minor point deductions are appropriate, or the student should be encouraged to revise until the paper is free of mistakes. I understand the importance of paying attention to detail, however communicating an idea is more important. Problems concerning spelling should be brought to the student's attention as an area needing improvement, not penalization.

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I understand how the student feels when he talks about the class not being an English class and how he has extra worries while taking his test because spelling and/or grammar has become an issue. But he is wrong in saying that this does not represent a real-life situation. If he can't deal with having to focus his mind and think about more than one thing while taking a test, then how on god's green, ever-lovin' earth is he going to deal with high-stress situations on the job?

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Spelling incorrectly is just as bad as having a run-on sentence, punctuating incorrectly, or forgetting to capitalize. When attention is not paid to these things, they tend to get lost. This is just another symptom of a decline in the writing ability of society.

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The professors should be up front from the beginning. If spelling is important, they need to tell you that from day one. Because I am a very poor speller, I appreciated the suggestion by Kim Landon that dictionaries be available for students during tests. Only then, or on words that have been specifically requested by the instructor to be spelled correctly, should a student be docked gradewise for spelling.


Some Thoughts on Spelling from Coe Faculty

I sympathize with the student in the case study. It seems to me a lot to ask a student writing first draft under pressure of time and general test anxiety to get spelling right too. But of course the student is dead wrong that spelling doesn't really matter at work, as the two respondents indicate. So, I would agree with Timothy Riordan that it is crucial to supply student writers with a variety of rhetorical situations, some of which require perfection in the mastery of conventions. In my courses, the appropriate rhetorical situation for perfection has recently come to be the final portfolio, the set of final revisions of a selection of writings from different situations, chosen by the students as their best work and presented as polished and complete, to me--and in some cases to outside readers. I don't worry about spelling until I read the portfolio, except to warn students whose work contains lots of errors that they will have to be especially careful with their final polishing.

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How do we define excellence in mechanics? Is it adherence, come what may, to a set of predefined principles? Or is it rather the skillful adaptation of such criteria to achieve an original, perhaps striking, result? Georgia O'Keefe and Henry Ford did not simply work within a set of posted rules; they creatively expanded such concepts. Kim Landon [a contributor to the case study] is right in saying that we devalue writing marred by spelling errors, but does not say what we do: anything one does in mechanics that calls attention to itself (whether "right" or "wrong") detracts from the essential task of communication. (This principle is illustrated in the last paragraph of the Landon article, where we find an intrusive and unnecessary "his or her.") One wonders what purpose is served by giving grades in negative numbers, even with the supposed palliative of "ample opportunity for rewriting." If insistence on perfection (whatever that means) is the current practice in journalism instruction, it has produced scant useful result in terms of "good writing" (and spelling) in today's press.

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The "concerned student" has a valid complaint. Any teacher who subtracts points from a test paper for spelling/grammatical errors is sending the wrong signals to pupils. Tests should not be punitive. Their purpose should not be to punish. They should be exercises which allow one to reveal what one has learned and ideally function as part of the learning process itself by providing an opportunity for students to synthesize and/or analyze the information in new ways.

This is not to say spelling isn't important. It is. And as the letter writer noted, in other situations dictionaries are available. But if dictionaries and reference materials are disallowed during exams, what choice do students have if they want to communicate an idea but is unsure of how to spell certain terms? Should a student not answer, or respond in a simpler vocabulary that may be inexact? As a teacher I say no! Otherwise the test becomes an inexact indicator of student knowledge and no longer serves its requisite function.


"A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling"

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter c would be dropped to be replased either by k or s, and likewise x would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which c would be retained would be the ch formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform w spelling, so that which and one would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish y, replasing it with i, and Iear 4 might fiks the g/j anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl to meik ius ov thi ridandant letez c, y and x--bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez--tu riplais ch, sh, and th respektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

--Mark Twain

"Make them learn the rules of grammar and to hell with it." A College Dean

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