The death of traditional spelling? Woohoo!

Professor Crystal, a pioneer of language theory, has reasoned that the internet may cause the death of traditional spelling rules (http://bit.ly/5AyCC3 from an ariticle in the English ‘Telegraph’, reproduced in Melbourne’s ‘The Age’). His logic is that instant publishing on the web has led to the majority of ‘published’ material being content that is no longer proof read by an editor, and therefore usually containing many spelling mistakes or deliberate shortening of words (eg. 2morrow and thx).

”The vast majority of spelling rules in English are irrelevant,” he said. ”They don’t stop you understanding the word in question. If I spell the word rhubarb without an ‘h’, you have no trouble understanding it. Why do we spell it with an ‘h’? Because some guy in the 16th century said it was good to put an ‘h’ in to remind us of the history of the word.”

Professor Crystal said that before the internet, nobody could write something in print without an editor or a proofreader checking it. But now simplified and phonetically spelt words were likely to enter the vocabulary. ”There’s been a huge movement over hundreds of years to simplify English spelling, because it is complex for historical reasons. What you consider to be atrocious now may be standard in 50 years,” he said.

”There are people around who would treat what I said to be the voice of the devil, but one has to remember that spelling was only standardised in the 18th century. In Shakespeare’s time you could spell more or less as you liked.”

Professor Crystal told the 20th anniversary conference of the International English Language Testing System that the internet would not lead to a complete breakdown in spelling rules. ”All that will happen is that one set of conventions will replace another set of conventions,” he said.

As a teacher I have long been frustrated with the pointless complexity of the English language.  It is ridiculously difficult for students to learn, and equally difficult to teach. I have always believed that language should serve humans, not the other way around. In the last 200 years we have become slaves to a completely illogical and irrational system of spelling that doesn’t serve us well at all.

Many teachers are openly horrified at what they see as the erosion of the English language in the way young people communicate with each other, particularly on the internet. As Professor Crystals mentions, what they are forgetting is that standardised spelling is a relatively recent idea, and many of our greatest and most celebrated writers never used it. In fact I read somewhere that Shakespeare had about 7 different ways to spell his own name. Another great writer was quoted as saying that not being able to think of at least a few different ways to spell each word was a sign of a mind lacking in creativity.

While I don’t support an open slather approach to spelling, which might see internet ‘slang’ being used in formal situations, I think we could all benefit from a more rational approach to our confusing language. It would not be the end of the world if we allowed the phonetic spelling of many common words, for example.

Remember, not only is standardised spelling a recent initiative, but ever since it was instituted our language has been subtly changing in line with our use of it. Words like ‘colour’ have had letters removed to move them in line with a more phonetic spelling. Apostrophes have been dropped form words like ‘to-morrow’, and more recently ‘co-operate’. And different words are spelled differently in different countries. The most obvious is the American spelling of ‘mom’ and their love of throwing in the letter ‘z’ in place of ‘s’ in words that traditionally ended in ‘ise’.

So what could go next? My first request is to drop the different spellings of the word ‘practice’. Why does a word need different spelling depending on whether you are using it as a noun or a verb? A perfect example of a completely unnecessary and frustrating rule.

I know that people are afraid that if we open it up to change then where does it stop? The thing is, it’s not a matter of whether we officially open it to change or not, it IS changing.

The question is, what do about all this as teachers?

I’m sick of the nonsense that goes on in the media about how teachers are failing our children when it comes to teaching them to spell. Are kids today really worse than those in the past? I’m yet to see any evidence to prove it. And if so, is it really that much of a catastrophe that they are? What are the things we are actually valuing here? Why is spelling so important, especially when you compare it to all the fantastic things these kids ARE developing that were never addressed in the past!

Where are the standardised tests for creative thinking? Where the tests for public speaking, problem solving, confidence, working as part of a team, adaptability to change, use of technology to assist thinking? Don’t we all value these things more than a meaninglessly complex, unreasonable and irrational system of spelling?

Lets honestly look at the stupidity of what we are asking kids to do in these spelling tests that the media so love to jump on as proof that teachers are not doing their job properly.  Kids are asked to sit at a desk, with only a pencil and an eraser, and spell a selection of words pretty much out of the blue and with minimum context. How on earth does this relate in any way to any skill that will be required of them in real life?

When would a person in the 21st century need to know the standard spelling of  a word without the aid of technology? This doesn’t mean we don’t teach spelling, it just means there is absolutely no point testing spelling without providing students with the tools that they most certainly would have in a normal, everyday, situation. It might sound stupid now, but I think it’s entirely appropriate that students undertake spelling tests with an iPhone type device. Basically a piece of technology at the ready that contains  a variety of tools that could be used to find out the standard spelling of words in situations where it is necessary to spell ‘properly’.

You might say, ‘but then they’d get all the spelling right’! First I’d say, so what? If the tests reflect a real life situation then that’s great! But next I’d say, would they really? How well do we actually teach kids to use technology to assist their spelling? In how many schools are kids explicitly taught how to use a spell checker? How many kids are taught how to Google a definition of a word that appears as a replace option in a spell checker to ensure it’s the actual word they want?

This style of testing would also led to a more relevant approach to what is tested. For example, I’m imagining a bigger focus on homonyms, so that students would need to select the word that is correct in a situation where a spell checker is not immediately helpful.

The teaching and testing of spelling is stuck in the pre-digital age and we are all suffering for it.  It’s time to get with the times and make some changes, because at the moment our language is changing faster than our methods of teaching and testing it!

5 thoughts on “The death of traditional spelling? Woohoo!

  1. Thanks for this juicy posting on spelling. Forgive my rather long reply.

    Of course you’re right about the standardisation of spelling. In fact, as Vivian Cook has pointed out, we use medieval spelling for 21st century pronunciation. English orthography is much more complex than just being a sound-based system. Much more about this on my blog.

    Spelling reform, as you say, has been muttered about for many years, but actually it is usually a nightmare in practice. Noah Webster wanted to completely reform English spelling for the US Americans, but actually only managed a few changes. I was speaking to some German teachers a few weeks ago. They were complaining bitterly about recent spelling reforms there and saying they weren’t sure about spellings themselves, let alone what to teach.

    It’s interesting that David crystal was speaking to an IELTS conference about spelling – I hope they listened. It really irks me that candidates who make spelling mistakes in the LISTENING paper are penalised for misspelling answers whereas mistakes in the writing paper are tolerated – mad and unfair!

    I really think teachers do a disservice to their learners if they just ignore spelling, because, like it or not, the rest of society judges you by it. But, of course, you’re right – random spelling tests are pretty useless and demoralising. There are much more useful and engaging ways to teach spelling. This includes, as you say, teaching learners to use a spell-checker wisely: http://thespellingblog.blogspot.com/2009/09/spell-checkers-how-useful-are-they.html

    And one last thing – homophones. Teaching homophones together for spelling is dangerous – it can cause confusion where there was none previously. For a better way to approach them: http://thespellingblog.blogspot.com/2009/09/homophones-how-not-to-teach-them.html

    Sorrry to have gone on and mentioned my blog 3 times 😉 but there’s just so much to say on this.

    Johanna

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  3. Thanks for your post, Johanna!

    I’m certainly not suggesting that as teachers we ignore spelling, just that the way we go about it could be modernised and improved. My point was that we should be teaching to the tools that students will use in their life, not teaching as if we are in a technology void pretending that our students will get out of school and sit down and write formal letters with a pen and paper.

    Your blog post on homophones is an interesting one and raises an interesting problem. I agree that these lessons could generate extra confusion, however, once again I’m musing on what a spelling curriculum geared towards including technology (instead of treating it like the devil – why do teachers that love spelling hate spell checkers so much?!) might focus on as most important. My first observation, as I mentioned, is that one of the most frequent mistakes that results with spell checker use is that the wrong use of a word that is a homophone is not picked up (although ‘grammar’ checkers are becoming better and better at this). This problem follows students right through school and out the other end!

    We need to change something to address these ‘real’ problems that will actually impact on student’s lives, rather than continually presenting our spelling lessons as if technology doesn’t exist.

    So much about current spelling programs just don’t make sense. I cringe every time a child tries to ‘sound out’ a fairly complex word with their thick Australian accent. Even if the word was phonetic in the first place, it certainly wouldn’t be once our accent got a hold of it!

    I don’t have the answers, I’m just frustrated with the current system. Thanks for reading anyway, I’m excited to go back to your blog and read in some more detail!

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