I have to look up “vying” every time I use it. Although I pride myself on my spelling, I can never trust myself to write the word. When you make an error as an adult, it can be embarrassing, but you don’t know humiliation until you’ve seen your mistake in 72pt type on the page of a newspaper or magazine.
English spelling is not easy, as any foreigner will tell you. We have what outsiders may see as a gallimaufry of a language, with as many exceptions to rules as rules themselves. It is certainly not as simple as more phonetic tongues, but its reputation as completely lawless is unfair – almost 50 per cent of English words are predictable, based on sound-letter correspondences that can be taught.
For example, the spellings of the “k” sound in “back”, “cook” and “tract” are predictable to those who have learned the rules (as are the present participles of “lie”, “tie” or indeed “vie” ). A further 34 per cent of words are predictable except for one sound – for example, “knit”, “boat” and “two”. Because of these wrinkles, the language is perceived as difficult and our reactions become emotional.
The shame of typos, of spelling badly, of not recognising poor spelling, is common. That shame hinders our aim of being understood: it can force us to pick a “less perfect” word because we cannot spell the perfect one, it can force us to change what we want to say completely and it can lead us to say nothing at all.
Or it can lead to our writing nonsense. I have a complicated relationship with autocorrect on my phone. I fear making spelling mistakes so leave it on and then find I have sent complete gibberish to someone. But I just can’t turn it off. I so envy those who gaily put “ignore typos, sent on the move” at the end of their emails.
A simple mistake can undermine a complicated and erudite point. Being able to spell signals an educated person. We talk a lot about cultural capital, but a typo or misspelling can do more harm than not recognising a Classical reference when you bump into one.
At heart, spelling is about being understood. Just as we need to learn how to articulate in oracy so that we are heard in a meaningful way, we need to be able to spell when reading and writing so that we can ensure we are reading what we think we are reading and writing what we hope to be writing.
But while the teaching of spelling is so integral to what we do in education, and indeed life, it doesn’t necessarily feel as though it has that level of importance in schools. It is always there, of course: a red-pen correction, a list sent home, a test where it is snuggled up to punctuation and grammar. But it never gets the limelight. It is, in the words of US expert Rebecca Tremain, “an afterthought”.
What the research tells us is that, if we are to take spelling seriously, it needs to be far more than that. It needs to have parity with reading – to be honed and crafted, fought over, weaved between subjects, relentlessly pursued, systematically taught in the ways that the evidence suggests are most effective, and enjoyed for pleasure.
This will fill many with horror. Having had the focus on grammar, the idea of breaking spelling down and obsessing about its parts and rules could fuel fears of a desire to make learning procedural, dull and boring. But like grammar, spelling is only as dull as you make it. What the researchers emphasise above all else is that teaching it should be fun.
And it can be fun. A treasure hunt through history (etymology), creativity (mnemonics), games (spotting rule-breakers) and more.
We need to make friends with spelling. We need to learn to love its idiosyncrasies and embrace its eccentricities. The current focus on vocabulary is vital, but let’s not overlook spelling: it deserves to be up there vying for our attention, too.