'Bravery with language is what we should be teaching... the patterns and logic of spelling should not become a parameter to creative output'
Following recent news that low-attaining teenagers 'make more spelling mistakes than 30 years ago', Susannah Commings, Classical Civilisation teacher at Taunton School, argues that the issue surrounding spelling needs to be turned on its head.
It is easy to whinge about the state of pupils’ spelling in the twenty-first century; we all know that language is inherently lazy and spelling slides towards the simplest pattern that best expresses phonetic needs; we all know that standardised spelling only really was born with the word-lists and dictionaries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and that English is a mongrel tangle of borrowing and compounding.
Yet we also know that today’s teenager ‘writes’ far more to one another via texts, messaging and commenting online, exercising the language endlessly, freely, and with a mind to instant and explicit communication. So why are we surprised to find students naturally moving towards a simplification of spelling that American linguists were systematically exploring in 1906? Is this less of a decline and more of an evolution that will actually lead to the survival of the fittest forms?
I am starting to think that the whole issue of spelling – and perhaps teaching - needs to be swung around and viewed from the other end of the telescope. The standardisation of clothing sizes in the 1940s was finally accepted as hopelessly outdated in the 1990s; the change in body-shape over the twentieth century meant that clothing patterns were out of step with the humans they were created to clothe, or in the first instance constrictively designed to conform to a mid-century ideal that was rarely relevant even then. So, too, perhaps we should re-evaluate the ‘dress size’ we expect to fit the twenty-first century teenager’s understanding and use of written communication. Spelling exists to facilitate communication, yet incomprehensible archaic and unvocalised spelling patterns have become a barrier to many students’ confidence and breadth of working vocabulary. Our educational culture now accepts that ‘bad spelling’ is often symptomatic of differing learning pathways or dyslexia. Perhaps we should also be looking harder at the shape of every teenager we seek to mentally ‘clothe’, the product of a quick-fire, reader-centric, internet generation. Perhaps we should question whether a rigid emphasis on ‘correct’ spelling is conducive to modern articulation and communication.
Language is alive: words die, words are resurrected, suffer semantic change, become taboo, are re-clothed. This malleability is much of the real pleasure in using language in my work at Taunton School; children have a bravery with neologism, with compounding, with the creation of verbs from nouns and adjectives, that makes ‘Under Milk Wood’, or Shakespeare, or Gerald Manley Hopkins, or ‘Riddley Walker’ so energising and fresh in the classroom. A bravery that is pounded out of us by assessment objectives and mark schemes – and if you are not careful, out of them, too. Bravery with language is what we should be teaching and, while understanding the patterns and logic of spelling is at the root of this sort of experimentation, perhaps it should not become a parameter to creative output.
Punctuation is possibly less flexible: in the simple act of expressing oneself the pauses and the phrasing is more than half the worth of the words they herd into meaning. But when the debate narrows its focus onto the comfortable right-or-wrong-answer of spelling – such a rare certainty in the world of English teaching – then perhaps we are just looking for an easy reason to apply a grade. Maybe we should be reminding ourselves of the purpose behind a pass grade at English Language GCSE: that a facility with the English language is not a privilege of our students but a right; the right to communicate effectively and to their utmost as and when they need.