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Spelling? My phone takes care of that

news | Published in TES magazine on 2 August, 2013 | By: William Stewart

Education guru Sugata Mitra challenges the ‘right’ way to write

Learning how to spell and construct grammatical sentences has long been considered a basic pillar of good schooling.

But now one of education’s most radical and influential thinkers has claimed that the growth of technology makes spelling and grammar a “bit unnecessary”, at least in their conventional form.

Professor Sugata Mitra - famous for his “Hole in the Wall” experiment, which allowed children to teach themselves after he installed an internet- linked computer into the wall of a slum in Delhi, India - said that resisting developments such as “text-speak” could be a mistake.

“This emphasis on grammar and spelling, I find it a bit unnecessary because they are skills that were very essential maybe a hundred years ago but they are not right now,” the academic, who is based at Newcastle University in England, told TES.

“Firstly, my phone corrects my spelling so I don’t really need to think about it and, secondly, because I often skip grammar and write in a cryptic way.”

Professor Mitra said this suggests that the importance of good grammar is declining. “My entire background tells me, ‘No, no, it is really bad what you are saying’, but I think there is a change and we have to learn to live with it,” he said.

The academic, who is now using the $1 million (£670,000) TED prize he won this year to set up seven internet-controlled “cloud schools”, suggested that technology may have changed what good grammar means.

“Should (students) learn how to write good sentences? Yes, of course they should,” he said. “They should learn how to convey emotion and meaning through writing.

“But we have perhaps a mistaken notion that the way in which we write is the right way and that the way in which young people write through their SMS texting language is not the right way.

“If there is a generation who believe that SMS language is a better way of expressing emotion than our way, then are we absolutely sure that they are making a mistake and we are not?”

Professor Mitra’s comments run counter to the thinking of England’s education ministers, who introduced compulsory national spelling and grammar tests for half a million 10- and 11-year-old students in May.

The country’s National Association for the Teaching of English is also unconvinced. “The skills of using grammar effectively in the context of writing and spelling accurately are just as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago,” said Joe Walsh, the association’s co-director. “Electronic devices can suggest alternatives but they cannot think for you.”

Mr Walsh added that English teachers may study and discuss different forms of language, such as text-speak, with students. “But they would always focus on the contexts in which it is appropriate to use such language and the contexts in which it would be inappropriate to do so.”

Professor Mitra also argued that the advent of Google has implications for the way in which schools impart knowledge.

When asked whether students would always need a body of knowledge to thrive in society, the academic said: “My entire schooling tells me what you are saying is correct. But I have a little voice inside me which says that too may be under threat.”

Professor Mitra said people could excel in business without coming from a traditional academic background or knowing “about Byron or Shelley”.

“My question is, ‘Are we missing something?’” he said. “And are we missing it because we are coming from a background where it is very hard for us to say that they can be as good as us?”


Photo credit: Corbis

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Comment (6)

  • Absolutely, you don't need good grammar or spelling to efficiently convey a point in a text.

    But in nearly every other walk of life, poor writing skills will not suffice. All children should be taught to write clearly enough, not just in order that they are understood - but so that they cannot be misunderstood. That's a vital skill in business, academia, trade, sales etc.

    It's a scandal to poorly equip children with the tools to communicate clearly later in life. One day they'll need to do more than text, and it's damaging to take away an emphasis on grammar now.

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    2 August, 2013


  • I absolutely disagree with Professor Mitra. Although my own writing may not be perfect I am continually striving to correct and improve myself without having to rely on auto-complete or spelling and grammar checks. Pupils who relyon these tools I think will become lazier as time goes by. Good spelling and grammar should be taught as well as the skills for how to use it properly. His sentence about SMS language is appalling and shows how he has lost the argument. SMS language 'may' be right for the context of texting but it is certainly not right for the context of written answers to questions in an exam or reports in business.

    I am equally appalled by his position on possibly not requiring a body of knowledge. There is no way I can hold in my head all the knowledge I ever need and therefore I do understand that just as much as I would use a book to extend my understanding I might have to refer to the Internet to expand my knowledge on something. But in order to evaluate that knowledge presented to me on the Internet I need to have my own knowledge and understanding to evaluate it against.

    The only point Professor Mitra makes which I would agree with is that you do not need to come from a traditional academic background in order to succeed in business.

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    2 August, 2013


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    3 August, 2013

    Eileen McGeeney

  • We need to remember to accept and embrace something because it is happening does not always make it a good thing. For example, we talk about society and how it is breaking down, would we suggest this is embraced and celebrated? As an educator, I think yes embrace the changes brought about today but do not forget the need for good grammar and spelling. We do not want to forget the beauty of the English Language. Will this, if accepted and brings about change, therefore put children of reading some of the most classic and beautiful novels ever to be written. We need to think carefully about this!

    I, for one, do not want to allow children to grow up with a narrow restricted vocabulary. If we allow this we are restricting their development as people and the development of such a wonderful language.
    We have to think of all people involved in education and does this approach suit everyone?

    I am not saying don't expose them to it, I am simply saying we need to uphold what makes the English Language so important worldwide to many.

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    3 August, 2013

    Eileen McGeeney

  • LOL. Prof mitra is X

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    7 August, 2013


  • 'Textspeak' is perfect for short communications where each texter, as in a game of tennis, 'bats' their reply back to the other. However, try reading a big block of text/sms language and you will find it a) an incredible bore and b) quite difficult to stay focussed and interested. This is primarily because the texted message is intended only for utilitarian communication and therefore is limited in its range of vocabulary, nuance and levels of subtlety. These qualities are what make great written works such a delight to read and enjoy and which enable extremely complex information/knowledge to be made accessible to all. However, in the case of textspeak, all the aforementioned qualities are incompatible and superfluous because the desired aims of this form of communication are speed, brevity, clarity and cost-effectiveness.
    Text language can also be viewed as a sort of code or shorthand which contains many minor variations for a particular word or phrase but which is fairly easy to decipher by most people There are even dictionaries of text 'acronyms' such as 'IMHO' or 'in my honest opinion'... and so on. Court reporters/ stenographers/palentypists using their reporting equipment have long used a very similar abbreviated code to take down the spoken word during court proceedings. Later this is transcribed into formal English.

    IMHO, however those of us with a good background in English grammar, vocabulary and writing make the most creative texters!

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    13 August, 2013


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