Spelling it out: is it time English speakers loosened up?

I can’t remember exactly how often spelling tests happened at school – maybe every week or two – but I do remember I looked forward to them. We’d be tested, I’d do well, then I’d feel good about myself. Children who weren’t good at spelling would feel bad about themselves. That’s just how it worked.

In some ways prescriptivism about spelling is falling out of fashion. Today, even the biggest pedants (I’m looking at you, Stephen Fry) will concede that it is in rather poor taste to emphasise the form of something as fluid as language over its function. But when it comes to the classroom, a lot of that understanding flies out the window. Children just have to learn how to spell – like it or lump it.

Last year, Oxford professor Simon Horobin published a book that called this attitude into question. In Does Spelling Matter? he agreed that to some extent children just have to knuckle down and learn spelling: it’s an essential part of learning to read and write. However, when interviewed Horobin argued “we live in a society in which a single spelling mistake can be considered evidence of illiteracy and even stupidity”. Is this an issue specific to English speakers?

English is an uncommonly tricky language to spell. Every rule seems to have an exception and homophones (for example “rough” and “ruff”) abound. English has a complicated history, influenced structurally by many other languages and keen on borrowing words from yet more. As a result, it is very tolerant of illogical spellings (“receipt” anybody?). It is also spoken with a large variety of accents, so it would be difficult to come up with a good English phonemic orthography (where a system of signs corresponds exactly to sounds). This is good news for English speakers who are keen to learn Italian, Albanian, or Finnish – these languages feature a much more regular correspondence between spelling and pronunciation.

English spelling is so difficult that we take some kind of perverse pleasure in encouraging people to compete in public to show how well they can do it. Spelling competitions are also part of public life in the Netherlands – the Gret Hoot Dictee has been televised every year since 1991. Yet as Michelle Tsai on Slate has reported, language contests exist in other countries, but take different forms. In some Chinese competitions, for example, children compete to look words up in the dictionary faster than anybody else.

Spelling has taken on a kind of special status in English: good spelling equates to high intelligence. This assumption, Horobin argues, is a red herring: good spelling is simply a matter of memorisation.

And it’s not always just a case of how good your memory is – spellings just change sometimes. Horobin encourages us to remember that “our standard spelling is just an arbitrary set of conventions which were only fully codified in the 19th century”.

While children have to pass tests, how far does learning to spell always have to be an exercise in parroting? Spelling, Horobin suggests, could be used “as a door to a wider understanding and appreciation of the structure of the English language, its history and its diversity”. Learning about silent letters is absolutely baffling to a lot of children, for example, but “as relics of earlier pronunciations, they are interesting ways of signalling how the language has changed over time”. This kind of knowledge can help break up the “listen, spell, repeat” pattern.

With difficult words, a little knowledge always has to come in between hearing and spelling a word. Horobin says it is impossible to distinguish homophones like practice/practise, stationery/stationary without understanding what they mean and how they are used. Rote learning is better swallowed when mixed with lessons in etymology and the history of the language.

Learning about etymology can help with learning other languages, too. Take a simple word like “justice”. You’ve probably known how to spell it for so long that you’ve forgotten that the ending (spelling the sound “iss” as “ice”) is counterintuitive to a lot of children. Explaining that the word is borrowed from French, however, might make it clearer. Sounded out in French, the sound at the end makes a bit more sense (by analogy to a place like Nice). A very brief explanation of this kind is a chance for a short history lesson (French was spoken at the medieval court in England) and a reminder that children already know a lot more French than they realise.

Teaching spelling in this way may make learning it more interesting but also encourage creativity. I’ve always had a feeling that the loosening of conventions around spelling and punctuation might help children and young people to feel more empowered or authentic in their use of language. Maybe textspeak could help a young person feel able to use their own words in their own voice.

Of course children have to learn how to spell: it’s a key skill and one you need to pass exams. But fretting over it’s rigidity is a peculiarly Anglophone obsession, not a universal one. As Horobin tells us, it is not worth fetishising skill in spelling to the emotional detriment of children who struggle with it. The idea that it says anything about a person’s intelligence is simply a mistake: one we need to fix.

Read more stories:

Do syllables exist?

What happens in the brain when you learn a language?

The US farm that teaches Yiddish to the world – video

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