Correct spelling is nothing to sneer at

A spelling competition doesn't sound promising, but any display of knowledge stretched to the limit is exciting
Click to follow
The Independent Online

My weak spots are Peloponnese, fuchsia and millennium, all of which I have to stop and think quite hard about. I taught myself to spell Nietzsche by long hours of dedication; practice and practise hold no more terrors for me; and I have now reached the point where I pick fights with dictionaries and flatly refuse to acknowledge the possibility of the first u in "soubriquet" or "hiccupping" spelt with only one p.

My weak spots are Peloponnese, fuchsia and millennium, all of which I have to stop and think quite hard about. I taught myself to spell Nietzsche by long hours of dedication; practice and practise hold no more terrors for me; and I have now reached the point where I pick fights with dictionaries and flatly refuse to acknowledge the possibility of the first u in "soubriquet" or "hiccupping" spelt with only one p.

So for a boffin like me, the prospect of the BBC's upcoming quiz show, Hard Spell, is a thrilling one. It's going to be an American-style spelling bee for kids. Anyone who saw the fascinating documentary last year about the American National Spelling Bee, Spellbound, will appreciate how dramatic such a contest can be. Increasingly demanding words are thrown at children, who then have to spell them, sometimes without having a clear idea of the meaning of the word.

It doesn't sound very promising, but in reality any display of knowledge stretched to the limit is exciting. In the case of Spellbound, I enjoyed it so much that I was told by a fellow member of the cinema audience to shut up - it was the girl who didn't know that "hellebore" had two l's that did it.

The drama was intensified by the film's explaining some of the very surprising backgrounds of the competitors - intelligence, you reflected afterwards, can make itself apparent in the most unpromising circumstances. The film celebrated excellence and intelligence, as, indeed, the American institution of the spelling bee itself does.

The spelling competition has never been a part of our national life in the way it long has been in America. But this is an excellent idea. Competitions encourage wider effort; they present fields of endeavour as things worth aiming at; they convince people, even those who will never take part, that they ought at least to try.

Spelling, one might say, is not a spectator sport. That is not because it is too boring, but because everyone has to do it, all the time. If you can't do it, then you will inevitably face problems in life. If you won't do it, then you probably deserve those problems. Of course, there are plenty of examples of successful people who can't spell at all - even some professional writers. But in the general run of things, it will be harder for someone to get a decent job, say, if they can't write a letter without making mistakes.

You would think, then, that something like this which encourages children to make an effort, and alerts them to the importance of correctness would be fairly popular. You would be wrong. There are teachers - more than a few of them - who think that good spelling is unnecessary, a waste of time even.

Just because you can't spell, goes the argument, doesn't mean that you don't know what you're trying to say or that you don't know how to use words. That is no doubt true in an abstract way. Perhaps the world is full of people who know precisely what "supersede" means, use it with faultless exactitude, but somehow never quite manage to remember that there is no c in it. On the other hand, perhaps most people who know how to spell it also know what it means.

A spelling competition, so we are led to believe, is just seen as boring to teenagers. Ah: the apparently unanswerable response. Some 15-year-olds in your class think it would be boring: so, although it would encourage literacy and provide harmless entertainment for children who like words, let's not have it. In case it proves boring.

It seems to me quite incontestable that children should be encouraged to spell correctly; it also seems quite incredible that an English teacher should consider spelling unimportant. But the attitude explains a great deal about some very well documented problems with education today. Employers and university departments have, across the board, expressed their amazement that apparently well-qualified school leavers prove to be lacking in what used to be considered quite basic skills.

Spelling may, in the end, not be a very reliable indicator of intelligence, and it is certainly possible to imagine very intelligent and articulate people who lack the skill. But society has agreed that it is significant, and there is no doubt that people, at some point in their lives, will be judged partly on the basis of whether they can spell or not. It is simply the job of education to teach that skill, and it is incredible to hear professional teachers sneering at the notion.

I fear that this attitude is not all that unusual, however. A couple of years ago, I agreed to teach a residential course for sixth-formers who were interested in becoming journalists. They were from a disadvantaged part of London, but I would say they were intrinsically bright and capable. I set some written work: it arrived: I held my head in horror. Not one of them was capable of writing 20 words without making a mistake in spelling, and sometimes an elementary one.

The point here is not that they lacked ability, but that their education had never impressed on them the importance of accuracy. It seemed perfectly plausible to them, and to their teachers, that native ability and enthusiasm would be enough to qualify them to write prose for a living. The idea that accuracy might be needed had literally never occurred to them.

They had been taught in today's world of anything goes as long as you know what you're trying to say, where I presume that knowing what a word means, or how to use it in context without knowing how to spell it is enough. But of course they could not even do that, and were still left uncorrected.

The fact is that there is no debate to be had on this subject. In some areas of education, those who argue for a return to "old-fashioned values" are simply arguing for one form of education against another. In history, it is not obviously better to teach children the dates of reigns; in geography, it would not be an improvement to return to the recitation of capital cities.

But in the case of English, there is no argument. Without basic correctness, the value of the work is severely compromised. A student who cannot write grammatically, who does not understand punctuation in a vaguely systematic way, who cannot spell, may have other virtues. But he is being sent out into a world which will judge him on the basis of his failures.

The tragic thing about the dismissal of the importance of spelling is that it is so often voiced in the areas which most need it: where immigration is highest. Anyone who saw and enjoyed Spellbound, the American film, will have been struck by the fact that many of the successful contestants in the National Spelling Bee were the children of first-generation immigrants. For them, the challenge of mastering the intricacies of English spelling, represented by major competitions like this, are a way to improve themselves, and the first step on the way to achieving something in their family's new society.

That is something to be proud of: indeed, any child in this country entering the BBC's spelling bee will be trying to achieve something worthwhile. I sincerely hope that some of the children who do well in this evidently estimable contest are taught by teachers who dismiss spelling: I hope that they are told by such a person that spelling is "boring" and "doesn't matter"; and I hope they look at their teacher and see exactly how contemptible their teacher actually is.

Comments