Monday, April 8, 2013

Spelling--A Link to Meaning and Logic

by Julia  Buckley

I teach English, and I understand that not every student (nor every adult) is good at spelling. I acknowledge that English is an arbitrary language with all sorts of weird spelling rules, and if you don't love learning about it, spelling can be viewed as an annoyance.

And yet, as I found many times this year, spelling isn't just mandatory for the sake of a clean manuscript.  Proper spelling is often the difference between what we mean and what the reader thinks we mean.  This disconnect can be funny or potentially tragic.

The students like the sentence that's been floating around the Internet to show the importance of punctuation:

Let's eat Grandpa.


Let's eat, Grandpa.

Clearly that comma is important, at least for Grandpa's peace of mind.

In the same way, a properly spelled word can convey something clearly--or otherwise.  Here are a few recent examples.

1.  One student, in examining the psyche of Shakespeare's Ophelia, suggested that "Ophelia was considered mad due to her increasingly erotic behavior."  I suggested that, while Ophelia's level of eroticism is a subject for some debate, the word she probably wanted there was erratic, since that implied that her behavior was unpredictable rather than ever-more-sexual.

When I have this sort of discussion with a student, I often get a bleary-eyed response, almost as if they're saying "I came close enough."

But consider this one:

2. A girl who had written a beautiful essay about her summer at camp and her first dance with a boy, wrote "He put his hands around my waste and we started to glide around the floor."  I wrote "unfortunate misspelling" in the margin.  I waited, when she read the comments, for her to turn red and look mortified, but she merely shrugged.

3. I know that many students do take pride in their work, and when I asked on a class survey what they had learned in a recent writing class, one student wrote: "I've learned to express myself in a more sophisticated manor."

Sometimes I yearn to express myself in a sophisticated manor, too, but at this point in life I can't afford it.  :)

4. Another Hamlet fan complained of the injustice of Hamlet having to "give the thrown to Fortinbras."

5. A recent spate of class essays had one student reflecting on a dialogue with a friend not providing "the answer I saute."  I went on a little Englishy rant, suggesting that "sauté" was a word one might use about frying something in butter or oil, while "sought" was the past tense of the work "seek."

But guess what?  One of the biggest reasons (that I've determined, as a test-prep teacher) that standardized test scores are going down is that schools don't seem to make a big deal of grammar anymore, including the list of verbs, regular and irregular; students feel far less confident writing things in past as opposed to past perfect tense, and they are more likely to make errors or not recognize errors that should be corrected.

The other big reason?  Students don't recognize the spelling of words like "sought" because they don't see them in books.  Because many of them are not reading books.

I'm not sure what percentage of my vocabulary I got from my well-spoken parents and what percentage I can attribute to a childhood of reading, but I know that by the time I reached high school, I had a very large vocabulary.  Now when I see students write "I would of given you a ride if you'd asked me" on a paper, I know that the error is rooted in the fact that they've never READ the contraction "would've."  They've only heard it in conversation.  Translation: Would of.  Should of.  Could of.

I'm not suggesting that reading is dead in young people.  I just invited a YA author to speak at our school, and 52 students crammed into our small library to hear her speak.  Many of them had read the book in advance.

But when I see errors in student writing, I can always see the ones that are rooted in a lack of reading.

For example, the boy who wrote that his mother kept her possessions in her Omwa. I stared at that one for a good five minutes before I figured out what he meant: Armoire.

One student wrote, in her final paper, that she didn't really like hanging around with big groups of students, and that "I'm really a loan shark kind of a person."

Here again, I had to use context clues to determine that she meant "lone wolf."  Since the two idioms are significantly different, the spelling of "lone" was significant here.

I realize that decoding student spelling has always been a part of a teacher's job, and in fact spelling mistakes have never been linked to a lack of intelligence.

But they can be linked to misunderstandings and a loss of meaning, which is why I encourage my students to care about spelling.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

You'll be glad to know that the bestselling EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES (of great importance to mystery writers and pandas) is available for Kindle, so maybe grammar isn't dead yet. In a memorable incident I heard of years ago, an indignant student burst into the English Department office in his high school, shouting, "I shoulda went into Honor English!" I have a charming letter my 5-year-old granddaughter penned to the tooth fairy asking for "munnie." In general, I'm impressed by her willingness to take a risk on words she doesn't know how to spell in order to get her meaning across. But I think she'll outgrow the spelling errors.

Janet C said...

I was quite startled this morning to discover that there would be delays on a road I drive on everyday due to "road and utitly work."

Julia Buckley said...

Liz, I think she'll outgrow them, too. I'm sure you and I have old grade school writings in which we misspelled things, but grade school is supposed to eradicate those misspellings (as is lots of reading)?

Julia Buckley said...

Janet, that's hilarious! Do you know that I'm so attuned to spelling errors that I find them all the time on television captions, and the other day I was watching a movie (A Die Hard) and I found a spelling ON A COMPUTER SCREEN in THE MOVIE!!