A funny thing happened on the way to middle school, though. Just as I thought he’d get shamed for his abominable spelling, and feared that future employers would shun him, I noticed he wasn’t alone. Some smart friends were also bad spellers. Homework handouts from teachers contained spelling mistakes. We saw plenty of businesses make big goofs, and governmental spelling blunders have become so frequent that news agencies track them like a ticker-tape. (Was it really just a generation ago Dan Quayle may have lost a shot at the presidency by misspelling “potato”?)
In an age where we LOL and ROFL, where we transmit through Siri and Alexa instead of typing, where auto-correct both fixes and generates errors in our written work, we have to wonder: Can anyone spell anymore, and does it even matter?
The answer seems to be changing at the speed of — well, the speed of a new generation.
A dying art?
First, it’s hard to tell whether spelling abilities have declined, partly because it’s not usually tested anymore in a way we can isolate and track.
In elementary schools, state accountability tests “seldom include direct measures for spelling competence,” though it’s considered as part of overall writing assessments, said Roberta Price Gardner, assistant professor of Reading and Literacy Education at Kennesaw State University and chairwoman of the elementary steering committee for the National Council of Teachers of English.
We certainly aren’t teaching spelling in schools the way we once were, partly because of national Common Core standards released in 2010.
“I think the days of the spelling basals, the textbooks, are pretty much gone,” said Sandra Wilde, a retired professor of curriculum and teaching at Hunter College and the author of several books on spelling and reading. Many schools today don’t even teach spelling as a separate topic — it’s been called the stepchild of the curriculum.
That’s good, in that traditional list-memorizing turned out not to work that well. (Wish we’d known that in first grade.)
But it’s bad in other ways.
“Some people refer to spelling as a mechanical skill . . . but that’s not what our brain imaging research shows,” said Virginia Berninger, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Washington.
“Spelling is a way of accessing meaning,” she said. It's connected to the parts of the brain that involve executive functions and self-government.
"Now there's been a lot more research and we know a lot more about effective ways to teach spelling, but it's at a time when spelling has just about disappeared from the curriculum just like handwriting did,” she said.
Most kids now learn spelling in kindergarten through second grade as part of bigger topics like phonics and reading. That makes sense: Good readers are usually good spellers. Plenty of children, though, need more focused approaches, including many of the estimated 1 in 5 students with a learning disability. With school budgets pressed — and a natural tendency to avoid teaching what we don’t test — spelling doesn’t rank high.
Poor spelling matters surprisingly little for some things. Spelling errors don’t count against students on the essay portion of the SAT, according to the College Board, which administers the exam. It counts little on other standardized tests, Sasha Fawaz of Kaplan Test Prep said in an email — though students have come to wrongly assume it doesn’t matter in other parts of college applications, including personal essays, where mistakes can really damage their chances.
Alexa, spell auto-correct
More than anything, technology is changing everything.
By middle school and high school, students start saying things like “I don’t have to spend time on this because I can ask Siri,” Gardner said. “I’m even guilty of it. I use Grammarly. … We’re less likely to self-monitor our spelling because we know the computer will do it for us.”
Spellcheck isn’t foolproof, of course, and Berninger noted that you need a certain level of spelling proficiency to even recognize whether the computer understands your intentions.
Beyond spell check, though, technology has created almost a separate track of communication, one where grammatical conventions aren’t expected or even ideal. With Twitter, for instance, posters abbreviate or omit letters to get their point across in an economical way. It’s almost like “a whole new language, a whole new shorthand if you will,” Gardner said. That blurs the lines of what’s acceptable in more formal communications.
Where are we going?
One person who isn’t concerned that proper spelling — or writing — is on its way out is Jacob Wobbrock, a professor of human-computer interaction at the Information School of the University of Washington. He was part of a recent study with Stanford University that showed a speech recognition program could send messages faster, and with fewer spelling errors, than texting.
Technology leads to new behaviors: “The behavior we see around spelling is one of shortcutting,” Wobbrock said. People know if they type the first few letters of the word it’ll be completed. Predictive writing, when you can approve a sentence the computer suggests, is also advancing.
While this might encourage a certain homogeneity in language, he doesn’t see a future where we’re all talking into our wrist-phones to write academic papers, or won’t care about errors.
Speech-to-text “will always be subject to certain social constraints, privacy constraints. . . . I don’t believe there will be a day where we only talk to our machines,” he said.
"I’m not sure there’s a good way to talk about these things apart from the context we’re in. I don’t think we’ll ever want to be in a place — and I don’t think people are in a place — where a formal communication . . . [is] being forgiven for problems and typos and mistakes.”
All these conversations left me thinking about the space in my brain that used to be saturated with memorized phone numbers, until my smartphone took over the job. I can’t say that’s bad.
Maybe that’s the bar that’s lowering, and the trick is to get kids to learn enough basic spelling skills to leverage technology. (Although, as Wobbrock said: “User expectations are evolving. And there’s a bit of a race, as the technology improves our expectations increase, and then we get a little sloppier.")
For now, my husband and I are fortunate enough to afford outside testing and tutoring for our son, and we’ll see where that goes. He’s also old enough for a phone now, which has strikingly reduced his error rate — or at least the errors we see. He’s still playful and intelligent, loving and kind.
I’m afraid to ask if he can spell “potato,” but — even without a spelling trophy — he might still be president one day.
Rebekah Denn is a freelance writer based in Seattle. Find her on Twitter @RebekahDenn.