One article I found stated that ‘English is a relatively simple language, absurdly spelled’ (http://www.economist.com/node/15108609). 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: