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I Can’t Spell
August 29, 2012 - 8:24pm

For those who don’t follow me on Twitter, I received word yesterday that I did not get the job I had interviewed for in July. And for those of you who offered such kind words of support, I really appreciated them. Thank you.

We’re into the second week of the semester here, and this year I have decided, for the first time, to allow my Freshman Writers define how their writing is going to be evaluated this semester; more specifically what qualities we all will be looking for in their writing. I asked them to write down what they thought were the five most important elements of “good” writing (and, yes, I did use scare quotes). I then asked them to get together in groups and narrow down their list to the three that they thought were the most essential. They shared their answers and I recorded them on the board.

Their answers were revealing in that they already know what good writing consists of, such as (but certainly not limited to) clarity, organization, passion, and purpose. Unfortunately, for most of them, they feel that the second two are impossible to achieve when “writing for school” (which is the subject of another post). But each of my four classes also identified that spelling, grammar, and vocabulary were important elements of good writing as well. Now, each time they identified an element, I made sure to ask them to explain why it was so important for “good” writing. And the one that stumped them the most was grammar and spelling.

The first answer I would get (after many moments of stunned silence when I said, “Because your teacher said so,” wasn’t a good enough reason) was that poor grammar could make the writing confusing or harder to follow. Yes, but what else? Finally, I would have to ask the question in this way, “What is your reaction, as a reader, when you read something that uses poor grammar and has misspelled words?” They all answered that they wouldn’t take the writing seriously.

It’s been in the news lately that good grammar is important for eventually getting a job, and I have written about knowing when and where to use various levels of language (it remains one of my favorite analogies), but I think I’m going to share with my students the level of vitriol I received from the comments on my last post because I had a typo (surely instead of surly). Because of one mistake, my larger argument about higher education (as well as my general status as an educator) was called into question. My credibility, as one of my students put it in class, was lost.

As an educator, I have always been honest and up-front with my students about my failings, and the largest failing that I have is that I am an absolutely horrible speller. I always have been. I can clearly remember sitting at my kitchen table past my bedtime copying and re-copying the list of words I needed to know how to spell for that week’s spelling test. My mom would then read the ten words to test my knowledge. I would invariably get three or four wrong. I would then have to copy out those three words multiple times in order to learn them. When I was quizzed by my mother again, I would get three or four different words wrong, words that I had gotten right the first time around. Repeat three or four times. The scene always ended in tears, when I, over-tired and frustrated, was finally allowed to go to bed.

That same trauma was repeated as I moved forward in elementary school and had to produce “good copies” of any work that I was turning in. The final “good copy” had to be written in pen and could contain no more than three liquid paper marks correcting mistakes (or eraser marks when we had erasable pens). I would slowly and painstakingly write out my “good copy” (as it had to be written neatly in cursive writing and handwriting is not one of my strengths either) and sit and wait for my mother to proofread it for me. I would count the times her pencil would lightly mark the paper where I had spelled something wrong. After three I would hold my breath and hope that just this one time, I would only have three and be done with it. Alas, that almost never happened, and I would spend hours sitting at the table, producing “good copy” after “good copy,” reduced to tears, until we gave in yet again to exhaustion and just accepted that I was going to have more than three corrections when I handed it in.

I participated in a study much later while I was doing my PhD. One of my friends who was in education was interested in knowing how receiving a French Immersion education (and in Canada that meant learning French exclusively from Kindergarten, so for most, we learned how to write in French before writing in English) impacted our ability to spell and the strategies we use to “know” how to spell words. I was all over the place, of course, when I did the test. I still confuse words in French and English that have similar spellings (Does apartment had one or two p’s? Literature have one or two t’s?) and my strategies vary from, I remember how to spell it from a movie poster, to, I remember that I get it wrong every time. At this point, I have been using a word processor that underlines my spelling mistakes for a few years. Apparently, my result are typical for those who learned how to write a second language before learning (or perfecting) how to write in their mother tongue; spelling remains a challenge.

This isn’t to say that their aren’t people who receive an immersion education and don’t go on to be perfectly fine, if not excellent spellers, nor do I think that if I had only done my schooling in English I would have been any better a speller (seriously, I am terrible at memorizing things, and this is how spelling was typically taught). But I have always been a poor speller. This poor spelling habit (and difficulty recognizing when I have misspelled or misused a word) is compounded by the fact that I like to write quickly (how do you think these posts, along with all of my other work and writing, gets done?). Usually, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want to write and then when I’m ready, I write like a woman possessed. When I am writing, say, an essay for submission, my poor husband is put upon to proofread my essays because I know I won’t catch most of the mistakes. But for my blogs, well, let’s say I treat these a little more informally.

And maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I should pay more attention to my spelling mistakes and typos and missed words and weird sentences that sound good in my head, even when I re-read them. Perhaps I have impugned my ethos as a writer and an educator.  But at the same time, I think the that the example serves as reminder to me (as an educator) and to my students that sometimes a typo is just a typo and that we need to weigh the typo against the other qualities of the writing. Certainly, it distracts, but does it necessarily detract? While we should be striving for perfection, should we necessarily dismiss and disparage anything that doesn’t meet that standard, both in what we read and what we write? What would my students learn if each spelling mistake was treated for as a crime and a personal affront?

So I thank those who insist on being the grammar police in the comments. You have reminded me of the kind of educator I don’t want to be. 



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