Spelling and Grammar

I am entering this debate about the emphasis on teaching of spelling and grammar because I think I have had what may possibly be  a unique exposure to the problem.

My credentials are as follows:

1. I am a very poor speller, despite being, from early childhood, an extensive reader and writer and having made many long term efforts by myself to improve. (I have also had help and threats from many others including teachers.)  I regard my grammar, on the other hand, as impeccable.  The ability to spell and the ability to use useful grammar must be regarded as separate issues.
2. I was teaching in primary schools when the emphasis became more focussed on teaching children the art of stringing words together coherently, rather than primarily on details such as grammar and spelling.
3. I am 76 now so have heard these same arguments for and against over and over, time and time again.
4. I have had now the privilege of experiencing how IT can help in these areas.

I would characterise myself as having been a good student as a child. I had a real thirst for knowledge. I loved putting my thoughts onto paper. I know from experience as a student and as a teacher that being too strict on grammar and spelling inhibits children from being adventurous. For example substituting the word “light” for “chandelier” because use of the second word would probably have entailed the loss of half a point, and certainly a red underline on pristine prose if it were wrongly spelt, is a common type of reaction to any emphasis on mistakes.

And that red underline is such a stab through the heart!

When I was teaching I was thrilled at the introduction of ways around this problem. The focus became on what was being said and how easily understood it was and whether it passed on a clear message to the reader. I still think communication skills are at the heart of all teaching and should so remain.

Instead of having a big ( or a number of big) red marks on pristine prose we could, after those changes, redirect a child to his or her personal dictionary and enter the correct spelling there.  As teachers we could talk about the purpose of punctuation and how it could help the flow of information or emphasise what was being said. Grammar used to be one of the special extension activities some children could choose to do in my classroom when they had completed their set work. Some of them just loved it, as I did.

Yet I am so against the grammar nazis. If the meaning is clear who cares about a misused or absent apostrophe!

I remember some of the arguments with parents about the non-correction of errors regarding use of the subjunctive tense. I admit to still using it myself – an ingrained habit. But does it help in understanding? Not one bit. If we are going to emphasise grammar we must pick our marks carefully knowing the beauty of the English language is that it keeps evolving. We must not stand in the way of this healthy evolution.

The use of IT has made some wonderful differences. For a poor speller the auto correct or predictive spelling is a wonderful help. I also like the option of “replace” if one is uncertain of a word. This ability to have an instant correction has made quite a considerable improvement to my spelling late in life. It gives reenforcement very quickly, which is at the heart of learning.

As our little grandchildren type a misspelled word into their search engine  and respond with excitement to the correctly spelled word and its results, they are learning. (And no, Spellcheck, there was NO apostrophe in “its” even though it was possessive.)

On the other hand both IT and our relaxation on rules has given a method of communication to those who did not have the opportunity or perhaps even the capacities, when they were children, to learn in the way many of us did. I have lovely Facebook friendships with some people I have known over the years here or in other countries. The fact that their knowledge of spelling or grammar is not ideal makes no difference at all to the meanings, to the lovely captions on their pictures of grandchildren, great grandchildren or other family members. Despite misspelling or a grammatical misuse I understand and appreciate their messages, as I hope they do mine.

This is the type of learning that was meant when the very formal attitude to grammar and spelling was removed. Yet grammar and spelling have been still taught but only as an emphasis to  enhancing the understanding and production of written work, not as an end in themselves.

The outcome has been, in my opinion, that more people are game, than ever before when grammar and spelling were strictly policed, to have a go at putting their written words into circulation. And some of these people will never be perfectly correct. But in the old days they would have stopped communicating by the written word at all. If we are all now writing then there will be some written work that is less perfect than it would have been in “the olden days”. We do not want the authors of these less precisely written words to be as  discouraged as they used to be by the emphasis on grammar and spelling. Their ideas can often be just as good, if not often better, than some that are perfectly correctly put (and perhaps are dull). We do not want them to think that their ideas are necessarily lesser than the ideas of people who have skill in the arts of spelling and grammar. And we certainly do not want those that happen to be good at grammar and or spelling to lose the concept that ideas are the essential ingredient of written expression, not merely the way they are expressed.


About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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