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Why Spelling is So Important to Teach and Learn in Modern Times

Ask any high school student if spelling education is important to him. I would be willing to bet he’ll say no. Then he’d pull his phone out and write you a dissertation on the subject using voice dictation, just to drive home the point.

This is a growing sentiment, and I believe it’s misguided. However, the arguments against spelling education are fairly strong and emotionally validating. It’s true, we carry in our pockets at all times advanced technology that would make Captain Kirk blush. Our phones are a dictionary and thesaurus all in one, among other things, built on top of instant wireless access to the sum total of human knowledge, experience, and communication. Technology has seemingly outpaced our need for formal language training, and the culture has largely moved on.

In 2016, advice columnist and businesswoman Penelope Trunk doubled down on her 2008 blog post that argued spelling doesn’t matter much in the modern world for many of those same reasons. I encourage you to read both of her articles (here’s her original 2008 blog, and her 2016 follow-up article). In her writing, she argues several key points against spelling education: That proper spelling doesn’t signify education or intelligence; that individual expression is more important than technical perfection; and that children can learn better and maintain healthier lives without it.

These are valid points that are worth discussing because many of them hold some truth individually (and also because her work is prominently featured at the top of search results on this topic). However, it is my opinion that she misses the bigger picture.

Spelling vs Intelligence

In 2008, Trunk fought back against spelling purists harassing her in the comment section by stating spell checkers aren’t perfect. I agree. It’s just a blog; don’t harass people. However, in 2016, she wrote this: 

“Spellcheck insures [sic] that when the writing counts, the spelling will be right.”

I point to this reversal not to make fun of her, but to illustrate the crux of my own counter-argument: The purpose of spelling education is to teach meaning, and it has very little to do with rote memorization nor the values of being a detail-oriented person.

After all, it is not so difficult to catch errors that spell check misses. While different spell checking technologies have vastly improved at catching semantic errors, the entire reason behind teaching written language is that spelling and semantics are intrinsically linked.

If you don’t catch the difference between “insure” and “ensure,” it’s because you either don’t know their meanings or you didn’t read your own writing critically enough when reviewing it. On a blog this is no big deal, no matter how many haters appear in the comments. In the capacity of a paying job or a legal document, this single letter difference can destroy all of your effort and credibility. People don’t take you seriously when they believe you don’t know the meaning of the words you use, even if they can divine your intention by context.

Language is the lubricant of professionalism

It is a very common counter-argument around the internet to say proper language is important for work, and Trunk rightly brings it up, so let’s dig into that and see how it holds up.

My father is a perfect example of what Trunk describes when she argues that proper spelling doesn’t signify someone’s education level or intelligence. It steel-mans her assertion to point to the fact my father was at the top of a few billion-dollar construction companies in his career as a Project Manager, where he was responsible for building sports domes, hotels, factories, and commercial buildings. He was an expert at estimating projects in his head on-site, then formalizing those estimates into blueprints for use in directing multiple teams at once for extended periods of time - but my father can’t spell words to save his life.

That doesn’t mean spelling wasn’t important to him or his work. If he were the only one in the company, it would be on him to have presentable spelling in official documents, presentations for city leaders, and final plans that had to be approved by scrupulous inspectors. Dad was part of a large team that all picked up each other’s slack to create things greater than the sum of their parts. He provided value to them with his specialties the same way they improved his work through proof-reading, dictation, and creating artful representations from his misspelled rough drafts.

This is why Trunk misses the point. The fact that some people are bad at spelling does not mean that proper spelling shouldn’t be important, even given all of our modern advancements. Getting hired to draft proper English is a complement to one’s team, not a compliment to one’s ego. Managers hire you because your skills complete teams, and no amount of creative voice can account for being unable to hold one’s own in a professional position.

I believe it’s outright dangerous to assert otherwise. Formal education isn’t supposed to fill you with only positive knowledge, but with negative knowledge as well. If you’re not good at spelling, you can still get through school just fine. Importantly, you’re better off knowing your weaknesses as much as you understand your strengths. Shielding students from this reality can cause them to put themselves in unwinnable situations. If they have forged themselves in the relative safety of the education system to accept their weaknesses in an adult manner, they will supplement those weaknesses professionally as opposed to failing upward into a dead end.

Does spelling suppress creativity?

The knowledge gained from spelling education is not just the order and selection of letters. No, it encompasses the entirety of human experience. Every language ever is an amalgamation and refinement of what came before. English in particular has so many loan words and foreign systems in it, it’s considered one of the hardest languages to learn and use. That complexity comes with obvious downsides, yes, but also a tremendous upside: an almost infinite level of inclusivity and expression.

Trunk argues in her 2016 article that strict spelling stifles a student’s creative voice. The exact opposite is true! A deep understanding of where words come from, as well as the story of their evolution, makes us more worldly. Worldliness is an important ingredient in creativity. If looseness of association is the magic ingredient of art, strictness of association is the magic sauce of intention.

Take Shakespeare as an example. “Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” This line is incredibly well known, but often colloquially misunderstood. Most people interpret this to mean Juliet is asking where Romeo is. The spelling of ‘wherefore’ however paints an entirely different scene, and was chosen specifically to pack as much emotion into the sentence as possible. 

Study its roots in Old English and understand its sibling words in related languages like Dutch and Norse, and you’ll see how the word evolved to fit the conventions of Shakespeare’s time. You will understand that Shakespeare (who wasn’t afraid to just make up words if it suited him) wanted a mature, regal and specific delivery of the modern equivalent “Why does it have to be you, Romeo?”

Juliet is not trying to locate the man. She is despairing that she loves someone as troublesome in her life as the son of her family’s arch nemesis. Shakespeare also plays with the word, because it can be equally interpreted as “why must you have that name?” Juliet monologues that things would be different if Romeo had a different one. Now, go back and read the original line with that in mind and see how it changes how you hear it in your head.

Also imagine that none of this mattered to you and you wanted to use Shakespeare’s line divorced of its context. Let’s say you call out to find your husband in a crowd. Any misuse of the allusion wouldn’t be creative so much as it would just be wrong. Cute, perhaps, but wrong.

What about the mental health detriment?

Trunk states in 2008 that perfectionism is a disorder, and references a form of this same argument in 2016 by saying perfectionism leads to depression. Both may be true. It’s worth pointing out that the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) no longer categorizes perfectionism in this way as of 2013, instead lumping it into a class of obsessive behaviors. Whichever way you slice it, it’s an anecdotal fallacy. Spelling education is detrimental to only an extreme few, if any, and the issues faced by such individuals are far beyond the scope of a discussion about education for the remaining vast majority.

Do children learn language better without being taught how to spell, though? Absolutely not. Trunk reasons that the expression of language is separate from the structure of language, then claims that learning the structure impedes the expression - one’s “unique voice.” This is a red herring for all of the reasons already discussed above. Trunk’s argument cannot be true when the art and form of language are inseparable. Art… form!

How spelling should actually be taught

So let’s assume I’m right for a moment. How does one teach spelling in the modern era? Thinking back, I’m not even sure if the spelling education I received twenty years ago stands up to this criticism. Almost all spelling I learned was by rote, and largely disassociated from meaning. To that end, Trunk may be right about people like me. The drive for perfectionism was a large part of my enthusiasm to learn words and language. Perhaps even, the fear of being wrong spurred me to action whenever I had to use a new word or phrase when communicating with people. I admit it’s stressful.

But I also fiercely defend that this love for language, spelling, perfectionism and righteousness never negatively impacted my creativity. It only ever increased it. My creative voice is stronger because of my love of language. In written works, it has given me the tools to express the most specific and concise ideas in the fewest words. In art, it has taught me how to speak directly to the emotions of my viewers and to hook them to my thesis.

I say let all students have access to these creative tools.

First and foremost, pair spelling assignments with other subjects. “Queue” is worth an entire week’s worth of history lessons on how French influenced English and why. “Cool” is a story about youth culture that’s perfect for a Social Studies curriculum. Math terminology is deeply rooted in latin and greek, and the tale of how each mathematician lived exposes the reason we needed each of their contributions and how they continue to impact us to this day.

Then, open us these teachings to technology. The fact is, technology is not an excuse for lazy brains. It is a tool to help people excel. So many classrooms and phones and tablets at the ready. Incorporate them into teaching the story of spelling and language. Have students search for the term, taking their best guess at how to spell it, and teach them along the way how to sift through and find the information they are looking for. Once you have the word, pull up dictionary entries that describe the history of the word through different languages. Whenever that history intersects with a prudent topic, pull up articles about those historic events and turn them into book reports! Have substitute teachers run NativeLang YouTube videos on off days! Play Words With Friends for recess when it rains!

This is what’s missing in schools, and it’s why you have so many students and full-grown adults claiming that spelling isn’t important anymore. They don’t realize how interconnected this is to all other areas of study.

Spelling IS culture. Spelling IS history. Spelling IS art.

It’s time we teach each other about it.

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