Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Spelling Problem: finding a voice for people

Spelling. That annoying thing that bugs a lot of us. It drives us mad, crazy and slightly mental every time that a word is spelt incorrectly. A fantastic piece of writing is always spoilt by the constant misuse of the word ‘there’ or ‘their’. It is the metaphorical equivalent of bird poo on a bride’s dress. Yes, it is beautiful, but you just can’t get over the yellow smear that drips down the dress.  For me, spelling is the thing that most people pick up on in a person’s writing. That and handwriting. Often during a parents’ evening, parents hone in on their child’s inability to spell or their handwriting. I am left agreeing with them. In attempt to appease Ofsted, I bet most schools have upped the amount of spelling tests students sit. The problem, however, is the English system of spelling itself.

One article I found stated that ‘English is a relatively simple language, absurdly spelled’ ( I can only agree with them. Certainly, as an English teacher you commonly traipse from one pitfall to another. No sooner have I established one spelling rule, then I have to address another rule. The rules are not joined up. One rule applies for one set of spellings and then a different rule applies to another set of words. Spelling in schools is like a hydra. You chop one head off and another two appear. It is never completed or finished.
My daughters are learning to write at the moment and it has been a very interesting experience. Recently, they started writing their own books (I assure you: I had nothing to do with it), but their spellings highlighted to me the stupidity of what we expect students to learn, know and retain for the rest of their lifetime. One of their books was about a sea creature finding a shell. In fact, it was written as: a see cretur finds a shel. Now I think the spelling was very logical. The sounds were correct. The meaning was clear. Also, the grammar was correct. Everything about it was good and made me happy, but the spellings were a different matter. I’d be a harsh dad if I was expecting them to spell these words correctly at their age. However, if they were in Year 11 I’d be very disappointed. Yet, over the years they will be taught various methods and approaches to improve their spelling based on a set of irregular rules based on several European languages and many different influences. The beauty of the English language is that there are new words and combinations of words being formed and created every day. That beauty is almost spoilt because of these spelling rules that seem to dictate our approach to writing. I loved my daughter’s idiosyncratic spelling because it was based on creating meaning by rearranging sounds. They made logical choices based on the sound of the words. Their rules made sense. They weren’t underwritten by a form of Latin root. They used a functional approach to language. This is what I want to say and this is me saying it. Everything was correct about from the spelling.
For several years, I have battled to get less able writers to write. Sometimes I am successful. Sometimes I am not. Sadly, I have seen a trend over the years of students writing less and less. The educations system should have helped these students to communicate effectively; yet they write less and less because they fear making  a mistake. The less I write, the less a teacher can highlight as being incorrect. The joy of reading my daughter’s novel was not in the writing but the act of communicating thoughts and ideas. Why is it that by Year 11, students are not expressing their thoughts as freely as a Year 1? Does the current system of spelling shackle students and stop them sharing their voice? Do we empower or oppress people through these difficult rules?

If we want an educated society, then we must have a society that is populated by people who read and write freely.

Now, I know what you are thinking: I am a crazy teacher who thinks that spelling errors should be ignored. No, I am not suggesting that. I am suggesting that maybe the rules governing our spellings should be simplified. Students could have a wide vocabulary. Students could have sophisticated grammar structures in their writing, but the spelling error in every line holds them back. It looks like a bird has pooed over the work. Things are getting even worse as our technology supports American spellings.  We now have another set of rules influencing our English rules. Microsoft Word and other packages have made some American forms of spellings normal.

Recently, PISA tests have highlighted that there ‘might’ be a difference between the educational experiences of students in different cultures. Apparently, the UK is not doing as well as it should be. Now, the finger of blame is pointing in every direction. But, people aren’t talking about the culture that each education system works in. Our reactive culture is being compared with proactive cultures that value education and its importance for bettering the individual. The student understands the value of education from an early age. Their family understand this. Their culture understands this: you work hard and you get the best in life. You improve by working for it. We have a reactive culture and this hinders progress. Only when it is staring us in the face do we really do something about it. How many times have I seen Year 11 students changing their behaviour in the last few months? Why? They react rather than act.

Back to spellings, why don’t we regulate spellings? Why don’t we simply consolidate the different spellings of homophones? The context of a word would certainly help us understanding the word and sentence. We have lots of homographs, so why not add some more? But, we will never have anything so drastic. Why? Well, it might make a few things equal. We do not have a class based society, but spelling is just another way to form a barrier between people in our society - those that can spell and those that can’t.  
The dictionary was a fantastic invention many moons ago. Maybe, we need an organisation that regulates how we spell. Maybe we need to look at our language in more detail. Maybe, like the ‘lovely’ Universal Credit system, we need to consolidate all these different spellings together. Maybe have one combination of letters for one sound. Maybe not: it sounds like a lot of hard work.  I know: keep things as they are and we can divide society into those that can spell and those that can't.



I wrote the above on Saturday and John posted this great response on Tuesday.

Further websites about spelling:


  1. Chris - did you see the letter from Masha Bell in the TES last Friday (13 Dec?) Spelling reform is a controversial subject, though!

  2. Will dig it out at school. Thanks for that

  3. It's only one aspect of language and, as you say, it's one that parents often focus on, and one that discourages the kids if they know they're not good spellers. But plenty of famous writers can't spell either - they just have good editors. I'm not saying we shouldn't teach it, and maybe we've got scared over the years of doing spelling tests or setting spellings for homework, in case those with dyslexia feel disadvantaged. But it's not the be-all and end-all. Or should I say, the spelling bee-all and end all!

    1. I agree with you. Maybe our increased awareness of dyslexia has meant that in some cases we have been lenient. I give spelling tests and use them in my teaching, but I don't do it enough. I am pleased to say that last year all the Year 7s took part in a spelling bee and it was great fun. Will do it again this year. ; )

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  5. I find myself in a very tricky position when it comes to spelling issues... On the one hand, I'm a proofreader, editor and copywriter by profession, which probably makes me the ultimate pedant. On the other hand, I share my life with a dyslexic husband and two dyslexic daughters (both now at university). To say that it has been stressful to watch my two hard-working – and otherwise very bright – girls misspell their way through school and now university is an understatement.
    Although their universities have been extremely supportive in both cases, the bottom line is that they make mistakes that students of their ability shouldn't, and some staff are less tolerant of their errors than others. I find myself split between craving perfect prose (which, as a professional proofreader, is what I pursue on a daily basis) and feeling desperately sorry for them, as years of experience have taught me that they genuinely can't help it.
    As my elder daughter once explained: "Mum, even if you were to remind me once every day of my life that there should be an 'e' in that word, I would never remember when I write it. It simply doesn’t happen." Yet those lecturers who are kind enough to cut her a little orthographical slack, regularly praise her novel and insightful approaches to essay questions. So having a brain that is, for want of a better expression, “wired differently” does have its advantages!

    1. I totally empathise with you and your daughters. It is reassuring that it hasn't prevented them from succeeding. If only this was the case for every student. I worry that a lot of students stop going on further in education because of the spelling barrier. If you have struggled all the time in education, why go on to do some more of the same. Rather than writing empowering people and giving them a voice, it has become a chain to shackle them. I don't know if I would have the determination or support to make it through GCSE, if it was me.

      We throw endless money at pupil premium students to push them further, but could the solution be something as simple as spelling. Class and money may not be the barrier it used to be, but without good spelling skills how far can you go?

      Thanks for comment and making me think some more about the issue,


  6. Hi Chris,
    I tried to post on your blog but the post was too long! Sorry.
    I've posted a response on mine, which, if you wish, you can read at:

  7. I've blogged about this here:

  8. Hi,

    Interesting post and great blog. I have a blog that shows this issue from learner's point of view.

    In my latest entry I wrote about some methods that show the pronunciation of English words in written form. At the same time, I talk about the wall that was built in my brain as a consequence of my first English teacher. Later, other teachers were able to demolish this hindering wall. I try to connect different methods with my personal experiences.



  9. Hi Chris! Great post! :)

    I’m from a small Spanish editorial called Boira and we have developed a new system which allows children improve their spelling mistakes up to an 80% in only a few weeks. It is based on techniques from neuro-linguistic programming. The inventor of this method is a very experienced teacher, who has been able to demonstrate the effectiveness of the system using it with his own students. So he’s very excited to be able to help students and teachers around the world.

    He explains the method in this video, I extremely recommend it:

    If you're interested in knowing more about this method you can contact me at

    Bye!! :)

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