Times Higher Education – Just spell it like it is

Teaching a large first-year course at a British university, I am fed up with correcting my students’ atrocious spelling. Aren’t we all!?

But why must we suffer? Instead of complaining about the state of the education system as we correct the same mistakes year after year, I’ve got a better idea. University teachers should simply accept as variant spelling those words our students most commonly misspell. — Ken Smith, Times Higher Education Supplement

I sympathize with Ken Smith’s frustration, but not the solution he proposes.

There’s a good case to be made for being flexible with language.

Text-message abbreviations and chat-room shortcuts are not simply degraded forms of idealized English. They are a set of conventions that serve a purpose, such as improving the efficiency of two-thumb typists, or letting members of a group focus on the free flow of ideas (or gossip, or vitriol, or whatever) rather than on the more rigid and time-consuming conventions of standard prose.

Professionals and educators have little to gain by belittling or ignoring the accomplishments of youngsters who are skilled in these kinds of communication, just as today’s college students have much to lose if they don’t take advantage of their time at university to develop the intellectual habits that are necessary for the reading and writing of complex, well-organized, authoritative texts.

Ken, I’d suggest that you let students know that certain assignments, such as in-class essays or overnight reflection papers, will be evaluated only on creativity, or the student’s ability to apply a key concept or to spot the methodological error in a case study.

But for an assignment in which the student has access to a spell-checker, or where the point of the assignment is to model professional behavior (writing reports that could be used to determine a defendant’s guilt or innocence, for example), to encourage this kind of compositional sloppiness would be a crime.

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