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The University of Hull recently announced that students will not be marked down for poor spelling, punctuation and grammar – calling it ‘elitist’ – in a bid to provide a more inclusive assessment system for all students, regardless of their background.
What’s problematic with this decision is the implication that students from disadvantaged backgrounds or those for whom English is an additional language need this policy to achieve well.
However, it’s not correct spelling that creates this prejudice. Rather, the university’s decision associates spelling with academic achievement.
As someone who was an EAL student, has headed up a pretty successful English department and taught several pupils labelled with ‘EAL’, correct spelling isn’t ‘elitist’ – it’s an education every child should be entitled to and a skill every student can learn.
Spelling shouldn’t hold people back, but confidence in the skill can enable and support success in the future. Whether it be an email, job application, reading a book or writing an article, accurate spelling and written communication skills do make a difference.
I remember a lesson where I was teaching students speech writing. One child picked up on a spelling error in my piece. We discussed whether it mattered that I’d spelled something wrong, with a bit of banter around my credibility as their English teacher.
They decided, quite rightly I think, that it did matter. It’s not about being a self-proclaimed Shakespearean prodigy or about policing pieces of work: accurate spelling is a part of written communication and signals attention to detail.
However, that’s not to say that spelling is the be-all and end-all either. In its guidance for GCSE English Language, Ofqual states that students must use “accurate spelling and grammar”.
Some of my pupils and their parents would have been disheartened and angry that this element of the exam was non-negotiable. However, as an examiner, I always reassured them that the word ‘perfect’ isn’t used in the mark scheme and examiners always look to award – not take away.
My students were excellent at so many things; they excelled in other assessment objectives and spelling didn’t need to hold them back.
Ultimately what we need to address are our attitudes to literacy: it should absolutely be taught in every classroom, but it shouldn’t be the focal point of any success journey.
Unfortunately, teaching around spelling can sometimes be prejudiced – I’ve seen it from colleagues and even parents. Research by the Children and Families Policy Research Unit suggests that children with dyslexia and those on the autism spectrum who struggle with reading, spelling and literacy skills feel anxious, stressed and sad.
Red pen marking, calling out students for poor spelling and undermining their intelligence based on one element of literacy is unfair. Teaching spelling should in no way belittle students. It should be done to simply improve written communication.
As a writer and former English teacher, of course spelling matters – it’s a major part of my work. With the digital world opening up an array of possibilities for future generations, I can see why spelling may seem like a secondary skill.
That’s only if we look at it in isolation though. We need to ‘level up’ our teaching of literacy skills in the wider context and relevance of the digital world.
We also need to remove stigmas associated with spelling. Perhaps this is an area exam boards, schools and even workplaces need to revise if they are to be wholly inclusive.
Literacy is an important set of skills and it’s not as simple as saying it does or doesn’t matter anymore. Typos and a few errors here and there shouldn’t be a game-changer, but they do matter and I can’t imagine a world where we just ignore correcting them.
Instead, we need to address why so many children struggle with spelling, the teaching and learning of literacy and how we tackle a variety of problematic attitudes and perceptions in this area – not just at school, but in the wider working world too.
Zahara Chowdhury is a former teacher. She is a writer and founder of School Should Be, a platform where students, parents and teachers can have conversations that matter. Listen to her education podcast at anchor.fm/schoolshouldbe or find her on Twitter at @zaharachowdhur2.
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