Is correct spelling important?

Is Correct Spelling important?

With the advent of computers and word processing programs with spell checkers, some have queried the importance of teaching our children correct spelling.  Some educational reformists have suggested that focusing on spelling holds back the creative process of writing and that students will naturally develop skills through reading.

The use of texting and abbreviated and misspelt words now seems to be accepted and students can be tested on texting skills in communications studies. Most young people text on their mobile phones rather than talk. Most text abbreviations are phonetically based, such as “wot” for “what” and combination texts, such as “C U L8r”. Many children also used a form of youth code, a casual form of language such as “dat fing”, “gonna” or “wanna”. Texting is more like talking than writing.

Language changes over time are unavoidable. They also are common and expected and should be welcome as a language is not static but adapts to reflect cultural and technological changes. Things like email, texting, and Facebook have led to new words forming, new grammatical changes, and other modifications that are both subtle and noticeable.

In view of this how important is it to teach spelling and how important are the spelling lists all our children have to master.

Spelling over the last few years has been the subject of a commonly mailed piece of Internet “wisdom.”

“Aoccdrnig to rscheearch by the Lngiusiitc Dptanmeret at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”

Translation:

According to research by the Linguistic Department at Cambridge University, it doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be at the right place. The rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without a problem. This is because the human mind does not read every letter by itself, but the word as a whole.”

This paragraph has circulated on the internet since 2003. It is sometimes used to defend inconsistent (poor) spelling, or choosing not to teach it. [1]

There was in fact no research project. If you could read the first paragraph and did not need the translation it is because you are a fluent reader and could figure out the predictable text. Professor Jones says the path to fluent reading includes a firm foundation in the sounds represented by letters and their spelling. Do we read the whole words in an instant, or by sounds? A fluent reader quickly sees the whole word but to achieve this the reader has mastered the connection between letter combinations and the sounds they represent. Spelling is an integral part of language. Teaching spelling and handwriting enables students including those who struggle, to use different senses and strengths to learn and master the relationship between the sounds and symbols of our language.

We are often told that English spelling is difficult with inconsistent rules. One of the main reasons that English seems so irregular is that we have lots of different spellings for the same sound. For example, the /k/ sound can be spelled with several different letters and letter combinations,

For example, k (king), c (cat), ck (back), qu (queen), and ch (chorus).

Why is this? Modern English has been influenced by several core languages, mainly Anglo-Saxon, Norman French (a dialect of Old French used in medieval Normandy), Latin, and Greek. Because each of these languages contributed its own conventions for spelling speech sounds and syllables, the spelling of a word is often related to, and even explained by, its history and language of origin.

The story of the English language begins roughly 1,600 years ago with the decline of the Roman Empire. At its height, the Roman Empire stretched from Britain to North Africa to the Persian Gulf, but barbarian attackers forced the Empire to split apart and withdraw from its outposts. After the Romans left Britain in 450 A.D., Germanic tribes known as Jutes, Angles, and Saxons invaded, pushing the Celtic inhabitants (who had lived under Roman rule for 400 years) to the west. As Celtic and Latin words, roots, and pronunciations were absorbed into the invaders’ Low West German languages, Anglo-Saxon — or Old English — was born. The most common, frequent words of Modern English — like those for animals, family members, numbers, common objects, emotions, and universal daily activities — are preserved from Anglo-Saxon. Some examples include goat, wife, mother, one, house, love, cook, and walk. Of the 100 words used most often in English, all can be traced to Anglo-Saxon origins.

The Viking invasions between 750 AD and 1050 also brought Norse words into the English language. Norse and Anglo-Saxon were similar but the Norsemen added some distinctly Scandinavian words. Nine hundred words are of Scandinavian origin. These include: get, hit, leg, low, root, want and wrong. Words beginning with sk like sky and skein are Norse. The new Norse words stood alongside the existing Anglo-Saxon ones. In English you can rear (Anglo-Saxon) a child or raise (Norse) a child. Other synonyms include wish and want, craft and skill, hide and skin. Thanks to the Danes “the language was given another dimension, more light and shade and more variety.”[2]

In 1066, Britain was invaded by William the Conqueror from Normandy. As a result, the Norman French language was imposed on the British natives for almost 400 years. Norman French and Old English were gradually amalgamated, merging by the late 15th century into what is now known as Middle English. From Norman French we gained thousands of terms for legal concepts, social and moral ideals, and artistic values (such as justice, peace, courageous, magnificent, and beauty). Though the Normans spoke Norman French, their cultured class wrote in both their native tongue and Latin, languages that were closely related members of an Indo-European language family. Latin-based vocabulary became the language of scholarship, commerce, and official communication: for example: solar, equine, residence, designate, and refer.

During the Renaissance, which was a time of renewed interest in classical Roman and Greek culture and language, the growth of scientific studies created a need to name many discoveries. Scholars looked to Greek to coin new terms (such as atmosphere, gravity, and chronology. At the same time, as printed material became more common in the late 1500s, scholars trained in the classics brought even more Latin-based words (such as malevolent, fortitude, maternal, stadium, and calculus) into English.

 

What did all this merging, layering, and borrowing mean for English’s spelling system? The short answer is that it became more complex: As explained below, the pronunciation of some of the oldest Anglo-Saxon words diverged from their spelling, and both Norman French and Greek contributed some new spellings.

 

Today, most of our regular sound-symbol links come from the Anglo-Saxon layer of language (for example, almost all consonant spellings). Most of our irregular spellings come from Anglo-Saxon as well. Because the spelling of a word usually changes much more slowly than its pronunciation, some of our oldest and most common words (such as said, does, friend, and enough) have retained spellings that show how they were pronounced eight or 10 centuries ago. During and after the Renaissance, however, English adopted words from many other languages—and their spellings were adopted as well.

For example, we have barbecue, plaza, marijuana, and chocolate from Spanish; bayou, gauche, ballet, and levee from French; piano and cello from Italian; schmooze, schmaltz, and schlock from Yiddish. For the most part, these adoptions added words to the English language, but unlike the earlier changes in which spelling patterns were adopted (e.g., from cwene to queen), they did not affect already established spelling patterns.

The many layers of the English language do make it harder to learn to spell, but they also provide a rich vocabulary: The English language has roughly double the number of words of seemingly comparable languages like German, Spanish, and French.

“The great quality of English is its teeming vocabulary, 80% of which is foreign born.”[3]

“A living language is like a man suffering incessantly from small haemorrhages, and what is needs above all else is constant transfusions of new blood from other tongues. The day the gates go up, that is the day it begins to die.”[4]

We need the language to be constantly changing and adapting so texting is part of the changes and must be absorbed. This does not mean spelling should not be taught and learnt.

We live in an English speaking world. When Julius Caesar landed in England nearly 2 000 years ago English did not exist. At the end of the sixteenth Century English was the native speech of five or six million people. Today the speakers of English are in every corner of the globe. English is used by 750 million people and only about half of these have English as their native tongue. Of all the world’s languages (which now number around 2,700), it is arguably the richest in vocabulary. The Oxford English Dictionary lists 500 000 words and a further half million technical and scientific terms remain uncatalogued. English spread within predominantly English speaking countries like the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. English has become a second language in India, Nigeria and Singapore for example.

In the book “The Story of English” based on a television series broadcast by the BBC in the 1980’s, the great diversity of spoken and written English is emphasised. American English, West Indian English, Australian English, South African English for instance are all very different and add their own touches to the English Language.

The chapter on Australian English is very interesting. When the first settlers arrived in 1788, Australia was a vast, remote and inhospitable continent and different in every way from the colonial motherland. E.E. Morris a nineteenth-century pioneer in the story of Australian English wrote:

“It is probably not too much to say that there never was an instance in history when so many new words were needed, and that there never will be again for never did settlers come, nor can they ever come again, upon Flora and Fauna so completely different from anything seen by them before.”

The new Australians put some under employed English words to good use. Creek which at that time meant “an estuary, or arm of the sea” was widely applied to streams and small rivers. A bludger (originally “a low thief” is now “one who evades his responsibilities and imposes on others”. Words had to serve many functions. Back for instance has dozens of uses in Australian English from back-block to outback. A lot of the words we think of as “Australian” are 18th and 19th century words from regional parts of England and Scotland. A dust-up comes from Ireland via the cotton mills of Lancashire. Billy comes from Scotland meaning a milk pail. “Larrikin” is from Worcester and Warwickshire and meant ‘a mischievous or frolicsome youth’. Cobber comes from Suffolk and was from the verb cob which meant to take a liking to someone.

In more modern times Australian English has produced notable similes and metaphors such as “as scarce as rocking horse manure”, “as bald as a bandicoot”, and “as lonely as a country dunny”. The Australian passion for abbreviations is widespread. A Stevedore or Wharfman is now a Wharfie. This was made memorable by the simile ‘as inconspicuous as Liberace at a Wharfie’s picnic’.  A garbo is a garbage collector; a cozzie is a swimming costume and a prezzie  is a present and here we all know what a smoko is. A “beaut arvo” could describe a lovely afternoon. Barry Humphries claims to have overheard an Australian woman describing her hysterectomy – “She said she had a hizzie in the hozzie.”

Australian English is alive and well. We are fortunate to have English as our national language because of its wide diversity and immense vocabulary. Our children need to be taught spelling to reinforce their fluency and the purpose of standardised spelling is to enable readers to understand writing, to aid communication and ensure clarity. Long live the spelling test and spell check in the tattoo parlour.

Handy Homework Spelling App

Download Handy Homework spelling app

 

[1] The Importance of Spelling by Susan Jones, M. ED 2/2009

[2]  The Story of English BBC 1986

[3] The Story of English BBC 1986

[4] H.L. Mencken

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