Why we shouldn't correct all spelling mistakes

14th October 2005 at 01:00
Covering work in red ink might satisfy traditionalists but does little to help understanding, says Bethan Marshall. Below TES website users give their views.

Nothing arouses as much passion in English teaching as the correct use of grammar and spelling. For some people a misspelt word is like a slap in the face, a split infinitive like a body blow.

For such champions of "standards" - who insist on equating correctness, as in technical accuracy, with correctness, as in good manners - there can be no argument: words misspelt, and sentences misconstrued, should always be underlined in red ink and corrected.

Traditionalists of this kind will no doubt seize on Ofsted's latest pronouncement. "Too few schools have a clear policy on correcting errors in pupils' work," the inspectors argue in their latest five-year study into the teaching of English. "Consequently, some teachers identify all mistakes, some almost none, and it is rarely made clear to pupils how they should respond."

Ever since the 1980s, when Professor Brian Cox published his report which formed the basis of the first national curriculum for English, there have been dire warnings that the marking of grammar and spelling is going to the dogs.

When John Rae, then headteacher of Westminster school, read Cox's report he saw in it the seeds of moral decline and was moved to write in the Observer that: "The overthrow of grammar coincided with the acceptance of the equivalent of creative writing in social behaviour.

"As nice points of grammar were mockingly dismissed as pedantic and irrelevant, so was punctiliousness in such matters as honesty, responsibility, property, gratitude, apology and so on."

This seemed an extravagant and slightly misplaced response to a document that dedicated whole sections to spelling and punctuation as well as knowledge about language. But it is this kind of reaction which makes the discussion of how best to achieve technical accuracy hopelessly emotive.

The latest Ofsted report is wisely quiet on such controversy, only mentioning technical accuracy in the section on assessment. Even here the report offers few guidelines other than suggesting staff be consistent. As Ofsted points out, teachers vary: some mark everything, others correct nothing; some demand that errors be corrected in triplicate, others give no advice at all.

It should be noted that variation in marking is greater between subjects than within English itself, yet even here it is not always consistent.

This is hardly surprising. There is a tension between wanting to encourage children's expression and helping them to do it accurately. Pupils often hesitate to make adventurous choices in their vocabulary if they think their books will be covered in red ink. Worrying about accuracy can impede the struggle to work out what they want to say. Sentence syntax collapses more often because pupils are grappling with difficult ideas than because they do not know a grammatical rule.

For these reasons English teachers, rightly, often put the content and meaning of a child's piece of writing first.

But more than that, copious use of the red pen does not work. Nor does mindlessly copying out spellings at the back of a book. Yes, the spelling of some words does just have to be learned, because English is hopelessly unphonetic and etymologically diverse, but on the whole it is better to engage pupils in identifying why and where they go wrong.

This means looking for patterns of error. Most common errors revolve around homophones, the doubling of letters, and words n which the vowel sounds in the final syllable is unclear.

Few mistakes involve more than one letter. If pupils know which of these problems they are most likely to trip up on it can make spelling seem less overwhelming. It also gives them a clearer idea of what to look out for next time and how to put it right.

Yet spelling is about much more than getting the word right, it is the most fascinating route into knowledge about the language.

Through the way we spell English we understand the history of this island - its rich cultural diversity, its conquerors and dubious imperial past. We also discover much about grammar through the morphology of words. The flexibility and complexity of the way prefixes and suffixes operate in English, for example, not only help children spell but give them a sense of the function of parts of speech in creating meaning.

So let us liberate spelling from the hands of the Gradgrinds and make it part of the way we find pleasure in words.

Bethan Marshall is a lecturer in English education at King's college London

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