Does Spelling Really Matter?posted on 27th November 2020
When children struggle with spelling, it can be a worry for all involved, especially if you are a parent, teacher or tutor who wants to see that child progress and achieve. Does it really matter if they don't progress? Whilst some people recount famous people in business and media who struggled with spelling and how well they have done with life, there are many more adults who have less wonderful stories to tell. Throughout my 20 plus years of working with dyslexic children and adults, as the Director of Westcountry SEN and as a registered therapist, I can tell you many adults never got past those school days of spelling tests and dread the thought of anyone finding out. This article looks at the deeper issues of not achieving literacy in childhood and the impact of this on adulthood in our modern society.
I think all people who work with children who find spelling hard, would struggle to find the benefits of being a child in primary school who is getting left behind in their literacy. The same would be said for teenagers who will probably lose marks in their exams due to spelling issues. However, once children leave education and join the adult workforce, not being able to spell can have terrible life consequences.
In March 2019, a report was published in the Guardian which stated that 9 million adults in the UK were functionally illiterate. Links between low literacy skills and lower life expectancy, depression and obesity are continually found in research. In 2017, half of the 85,000 adults who were in UK prisons were illiterate. It is estimated that low levels of literacy cost the UK 367 million a year as adults struggle to find jobs and to stay employed. Additionally, adults with low literacy skills are at risk of isolation, tend to have a lack of self-esteem and are at high risk for depression.
This is very worrying when we think in June 2019, 22% of children tested on grammar, punctuation and spelling failed to achieve the expected level in their English SAT’s examinations.
Not all children who are poor at spelling end up in poverty or turn to crime. Some of the most successful people in business and celebrities openly talk about how they struggled with spelling and other literacy tasks at school. Often you see the same celebrities depicted as role models (e.g. Richard Branson and Einstein). There are indeed many famously talented people who have dyslexia and other cognitive differences that have impinged on their spelling. Still, if you look at the statistics above, for every one celebrity, there are thousands of adults who are being held back in their life struggling with literacy difficulties.
Let’s briefly take a look at the impact poor spelling may have on an individual.
When children are young, they draw and make up stories that are often illegible. It’s the thrill of producing and making something, combined with their caregivers praising the achievements that spur them on. Most children are naturally creative, and it flows from them.
However, by the time children are 6 – 7 years old, they will naturally be forming their self-identity. In the classroom, they look at other children and begin building their sense of self (e.g. what traits and capabilities belong to them and how are they different from others). Children at this age will be noticing differences, especially in the classroom; some children will start to measure themselves by comparing themselves.
Compared to the children in my classroom, how well can I run, draw, do maths, write sentences, score in tests and spell?
Competency comes from the experience of being able to do things successfully and fluently. Feelings of competency lead to self-efficacy, which is the feeling people have when they know they can do something.
Feelings of incompetence can lead to an ‘incompetent self-perception’. Which means the person feels incapable. This causes low self-esteem, dependency on others and resistance to taking on new challenges.
Regarding spelling, let’s think about how much a child is exposed to this activity. Throughout their school years, their spelling will be tested and commented upon. If the child chooses easier words, they will be told to increase their use of vocabulary in their writing. At home, parents are encouraged to help their children with spelling lists and often, for reasons we will discuss below, their child’s ability to spell can be a huge concern for many parents and caregivers.
When children are frequently struggling to achieve with their spelling, feelings of incompetency will grow and, in many cases, solidify within them as they move into adulthood. Feeling ‘no good’ at something can slowly slide into ‘I’m no good as a person’ in general. There is always a risk that feelings of incompetency in one academic area spreads out into all areas and across the child’s life. This will undoubtedly cause depression, anxiety and a withdrawal from trying new things.
When children have low self-efficacy, they do not believe they can achieve and will always need an adult. This causes an over-dependency and reluctance to try.
Signs of this dependency are:
- Saying I don’t know without trying.
- Constantly looking at the adult for reassurance.
- Hesitancy to engage without encouragement.
- Only being able to work in a one-to-one environment.
- Not being able to start any age-related work when left alone.
- Feelings of distress when asked to work alone.
Writing reluctance is common in children and adults who struggle to spell. All negative associations they make about themselves and their spelling competency can be hidden away as long as no-one finds out. As soon as the pen hits the paper, the perception is they will be judged (and commonly are).
- Messy, illegible handwriting.
- Not having any ideas.
- Writing as little as possible.
- Distraction behaviours in the classroom.
- Missing school or truancy.
In the 21st-century, spelling errors are continually judged, attacked and criticised in the public eye. In many cases, the communicator’s intended message is instantly dismissed or devalued when a spelling error is seen.
For some people in society, it’s a sense of ‘rightness’ that has been violated. The perception is that the right’ way of spelling a particular word was not respected. This perception suspends empathy regarding the person trying to communicate; it is the sense of wrongness that becomes the overriding factor and it’s offensive. If you look at social media, verbal attacks and criticisms for spelling mistakes are common.
“I’ve had the experience of this from both sides.”
A couple of years ago I made a video for Westcountry SEN. Whilst I had a tonne of work to do, the pressure to make this video for our social media sites was continually weighing down on me. We didn’t have the budget to pay for someone to do it, so I had to do it myself late in the evenings when the office and home were quieter. I worked on this video for a solid week late at night, learning the video software and then creating the content.
When the video was finally finished, I was full of pride and the joy of achievement. I’d gone from knowing nothing about making a video to crafting one that I knew successfully captured the heart of Westcountry SEN in both the content and feel. As a person who thrives on the feelings of self-efficacy, I was feeling good as I uploaded it across social media platforms. As I began, I realised I needed a cover image, so I quickly created an additional section of the video and wrote a short piece of what it was about. I watched the video one more time to check all was well, pressed publish and went to bed.
The next day in the comments section, there had been a lot of activity. About 50% were positive, but the other 50% had picked up a spelling mistake in the cover image text and an obvious typo in the sentence description. People were offended by the spelling error, and I found this fascinating. It didn’t harm my self-efficacy as a spelling mistake couldn’t take away what I have achieved, but from some of the comments, I can see how this can happen to people. The comments disregarded the company, suggesting no child can learn with us. It was like the one mistake meant everything else was rejectable to them. What would it be like if I was crushable over public rejection like this? Could all of my years working with children and building Westcountry SEN be defined by one spelling mistake? Some members of the public certainly thought so. Whilst some people felt it their right to become a keyboard warrior and attack Westcountry SEN, I wondered how many others just attached Westcountry SEN in their mind? I’m pretty sure this mental dismissal occurred, even more so now I know what that feels like.
A company who had previously done some printing work for me sent out a marketing email offering to design flyers, media materials and basically take care of our marketing needs. I knew the people who worked at this company. They were honest and charming guys. However, within their marketing email was a repeated grammar mistake, mixing your and you’re. It’s easy to do, it didn’t distract from the message, but I felt a small part of me condemn them and thought ‘not a chance’ with my marking material because of these errors. This was my fleeting thoughts; I was horrified to have dismissed them. Me, the person who has spent over 20 years providing specialist support and working with struggling spellers and campaigning for more empathy with literacy struggles. My momentary condemnation (and it was momentary) gave me insight into people’s judgements on spelling. Why do we dismiss people, either fleetingly or forever, due to how they have arranged some letters on a page or screen?
At the time of writing this course, I can quite confidently say that I make more typos than anyone I know. I have an eye condition that recently has opened a door in how adults who cannot spell might be treated.
I have a degenerative condition in both my eyes. I always knew that in my late 30’s I would need an operation on both eyes, but these operations would be about a year apart to let the first eye heal before interfering with the other.
The first eye was operated on in early 2019. It went well, and as expected at the end of the operation, the lens was replaced with a distance lens. So I have no near distance, but really great distance vision. As a naturally short-sighted person, this was great to see so far away, and I relied on my other eye to read. I did try reading glasses, but old surgeries have left a scar across my retina, so whilst distance is wonderful, close up is bright and difficult. This was never going to be a long term problem though, as my left eye would be operated on and the eyes would be balanced, and special glasses to accommodate the near vision would be made. Even for someone who reads, writes, replies to 100’s of emails a day, a year is not a long time to wait.
However, COVID-19 struck, and all non-essential surgery was cancelled and delayed. I’m not complaining at all; there are far more important health care issues in the world to concentrate on at the moment. However, my left eye has deteriorated past the point of where it would have been operated on, so my near vision is tricky. Most of my writing is ‘top-down’. What this essentially means is whilst I’m thinking and hearing in my head and what my brain is telling me is being written, what I’m actually typing, emailing and texting is not what I’m hearing, it’s full of typos that my brain isn’t letting me attend to. Due to sight issues, my brain is having a hard enough job trying to piece all the visual data together and it is making lots of mistakes and worse still, not spotting autocorrect issues. I will have the operation in the future so I’m not worried, but it has given me a wonderful insight into judgements and perceptions from others.
I’ve had interesting responses to my significant number of typos and errors—especially the relies to people sent with speed. The tutors who work for Westcountry SEN have just got used to trying to translate my messages. Clients of Westcountry SEN don’t seem to care as they measure us by how well they are learning, or their child is learning. Where it causes the most issues are with people who have not had dealings with our organisation before. Professional relationships get quickly eroded. I have to work very hard at proofreading all my documents, and communication which takes too long for it to be realistic in my working day, my eyes tire very quickly. Or I must get someone else to do it, else that one typo that I couldn’t recognise has a high chance of dissolving our professional credibility. It’s happened several times now. It’s strange as this spelling judgment is only a few hundred years old. It was very uncommon for people to be able to spell or write consistently; it was the norm for people to spell words in different ways in the same document and no-one minded. How did we become so rigid?
Whilst I could talk about this fascinating aspect of being judged by our spelling, where and why that might have come from, the important issue is here is that people who are on the wrong side of spelling competency will be on the side of being negatively judged by society.
Credibility is the quality to believe or trust in something or someone. If a person has credibility, then they are believed to be true to their word. Ask yourself, would one spelling mistake or typo make someone less credible?
The Business Quarterly published an article regarding psychologists who conducted an experiment with 536 professional recruiters. They asked them to provide feedback on their candidate selection. They all said that a spelling mistake or a typo would put the candidate in a negative light, even if that candidate had all the experience and skills they were looking for.
Spelling has been continually proven to be separate from intelligence and aptitude, yet it becomes a measuring tool for someone’s potential? It’s a terrible fact within our present-day society.
This article was not designed to scare you away from the responsibility of working with children and adults who cannot spell competently. If you are a teacher or tutor it was not intended to make you feel responsible for the condition of a struggling speller’s future life. Nor was it intended to make parents worry more. However, this article does highlight the importance of a socially created spelling issue and the impact on the individuals who struggle with it, both at school and later in the adult world.
I do not think we can change society’s deeper judgements in one day and force society to relax about spelling errors – I wish we could. So, instead, let’s do everything we can to help struggling spellers become competent and confident with their literacy and catch children earlier in their struggles while they are at school. It’s only by working together and having earlier interventions we can armour these children for later life.