Tuesday, April 24, 2007

You Say Potato, I Say Vegetable

Julie Lindsay has an interesting post discussing using common language – including terminology and spelling – in a global collaboration project:
Using language to communicate meaning on a global playing field is a challenge. This has become evident this week while working with the Horizon Project. This project involves 58 students from 5 diverse classrooms as well as many educators from many different parts of the world. It is being conducted with English as the first and only language however we are witnessing national and cultural differences in the way we express ourselves and even how we spell.
She documents several cases of differences in both terminology and spelling between classes in different parts of the world, and wonders about the value of agreeing on a standard. You should read the many thoughtful comments, but I’ll repeat most of my comment here:
I think the students can handle it. I think it's something to talk about with them - definitely a teachable moment - but once they are aware of the issue, I think they'll do just fine. If we encourage them to make sure they communicate with each other any time there is confusion, isn't that a valuable skill in and of itself?

And, of course, unless you are planning on convincing the entire web (at least the English portion of it) to standardize, aren't our 21st century students going to have to learn to deal with it?
To me, both of these points are critical in the 21st century. Our students (and adults) will need to be really good at communicating with folks that not only don’t share the same time zone, but often have other differences – both in terms of language usage and in terms of cultural differences. By helping them learn to communicate better – and to be open and transparent when there is a communication problem – we are preparing them to be successful not only with international collaboration projects, but in their own schools, classrooms and families. Good communication skills will serve them well anywhere and everywhere.

This in turn made me wonder about spelling. I’m a pretty decent speller, most likely because I read a ton when I was a kid. While I haven’t taken any tests or anything, my guess would be that my spelling might be slightly worse now than when I graduated from college. Why? Several reasons, including age and that I don’t get the chance to read as much as I used to. But I think the main reason might be spell-check. Since I write almost exclusively on a computer, I know that it will auto-correct both typos and close misspellings, and that it will flag any words that it can’t autocorrect. That most likely allows me to be a little more “sloppy” when I’m composing my writing, which probably contributes – over the long run – to “losing” some of my spelling skills.

Some folks might say that’s the problem with spell-check, but I guess I would argue the opposite. If I have the ability to communicate effectively by using a tool like spell-check, then is the “skill” of unaided spelling one that I need anymore? If I can “get my ideas down” quickly and easily and use the tools available to me to clean it up and effectively communicate, is that a bad thing? As long as our students have the opportunity to interact with vast amounts of textual information (which gives them a large vocabulary and allows them to spell well enough to both read and compose), and that experience allows them to process, understand, and remix that information, is it as important as it used to be for them to master spelling?

I’m not saying that spelling (and grammar) aren’t important - they definitely are as a means to communication. But maybe we should be broadening our horizons a little bit and thinking about educating our students in the spelling and grammar of a “flatter”, ubiquitously and globally connected, technology-enabled world, not a geographically and technologically isolated one. Maybe it would behove us to analyse our programmes just a little bit and realise that changes are happening in our world - and perhaps we should honour and adapt to those changes.


  1. Spell checkers certainly do change things. Firefox 2 spell checks everything I type in this box, so I don't have to proofread it like I used to.

    You also raise an interesting question on whether unaided spelling is needed anymore. I think a way that would help us answer that is to ask whether skill has intrinsic value, or only value as a means to produce a result.

    I would have to say the latter. Now, I would say that unaided spelling still has some importance, because it is sometimes necessary to produce handwritten notes, or to create text a computer can interpret.

  2. Thanks for continuing the conversation Karl. You may be interested to listen to the student podcast included in my blog post yesterday where I discuss the use of English in the Horizon Project and ask the students how they feel about the different approaches. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, they decided that clarity of communication was far more important than how particular words are spelled/spelt.

  3. The words that Karl cites (behove, analyse, programmes, realise, honour) don't really cause too much confusion for readers. We English teachers have always needed to explain the differences between British and American spellings. The words that Julie Lindsay cites (spelled, spelt) are, of course, a different matter. The most common mistakes involve look-alikes that spell-check doesn't notice (possess versus posses, there versus their, affect versus effect, etc.)

    Ever since "invented spelling" became the rage in elementary school, I've stopped being so passionate about spelling. I've come to realize that maybe it's petty to spend precious learning time on spelling when ideas matter more. Bad spelling doesn't mean bad thinking.

    Nonetheless, I find misspelled words and bad mechanics very annoying--and I can't help but judge people who allow them to creep into their writing. I assume the writer is lazy or careless or ignorant. Sometimes it feels that the writer is just plain rude, not caring enough about the reader to deliver the message cleanly and clearly. When a "brilliant" idea is delivered with sloppy spelling and poor mechanics, I feel embarrassed for the writer.

    The problem with bad spelling (and I'm not talking here about what Julie Lindsay calls "national and cultural differences in the way we express ourselves") is that it often interferes with the message the writer is trying to deliver.

    Bad grammer and frequant mispelings distracts the reader and make the writer. Look stupid. Even if they isn't. thats why i'm embarrassed when teachers write sloppy on there blogs teachers are supposed to maintain hi standards i think

  4. Cheryl, I agree that students need to learn to write well to effectively communicate their ideas - and that includes spelling and grammar. The point I was trying to make was that maybe with the wide availability of tools to help them with that, maybe we don't need to spend quite as much time making sure they can do those things with 100% accuracy "unaided." Instead, maybe we should spend some of that time on how to more effectively communicate with the much wider audience that they now have.

    On another note, I wonder how "stupid" you and I would look in the middle of an IM session. As David Warlick often points out, our students invented and mastered the grammar of Instant Messaging pretty much on their own. IM is now a highly useful and important means of communication, not just for personal communication, but in the corporate and government arenas as well. And somehow they managed to do that without thirteen years of formal schooling . . .

  5. Karl


    I don't believe English teachers at Arapahoe spend any time teaching spelling nowadays. With spell-check, why do we need to bother? JK. JK.

    I agree fully with your comment, "We should spend...time on how to more effectively communicate with the much wider audience that [our students] now have." In fact, I believe that our English teachers are doing precisely that! LOL!

    Yes, I would look bad in a situation that used IM. (In earlier days, I also would have looked bad in a situation that used the Morse Code.)

    From what I've observed, IM seems to be the newest form of teenage slang. WAU?

    Slang has always been a way for adolescents to exclude boring old adults from their conversations. IM is clever and efficient--but so was Valley Girl talk and "ghetto" talk and hippie talk. Slang always involves abbreviations and bastardizations and substandard diction (WTF!)

    I didn't realize that IM language is used in government and corporate settings. When I think about it, this doesn't surprise me at all. Jargon and obfuscation have always characterized the language of government. All one needs to do is to reread Orwell's essay about "Newspeak" in the back of 1984 to realize that government folks have always tampered with the language. It's a way to control the masses. To reduce vocabulary, afterall, is to reduce intellect.


  6. I know it is cliche for me to as an English teacher to agree with another English teacher, but I agree with Cheryl.
    Students present almost all information in a very unprofessional way--full of spelling and grammatical errors. I believe the professionalism with which one presents him or herself is important even if that professionalism is acheived through your computer's brain instead of your own.
    Maybe we shouldn't teach spelling but should, instead, teach students how to use spell check and also why presenting yourself as a professional is pivotal.

  7. I'm a pretty good speller. The tool I find myself using more and more is the thesaurus. I guess that brings up the argument of whether or not we should be teaching so much vocabulary in our schools. Limited spelling. Limited vocabulary. What's next? Challenge the minds of your young people at YouthPlay.

  8. I believe it is essential to teach vocabulary within a student's zone of proximal development - it's about brain development here, not passing a test.

  9. Great thoughts (as always).

    I think for the horizon project and my classroom that I teach the students about context. If they are discussing items, IM speak is fine, however, on the main wiki page which we are considering a scholarly work, IM speak is totally unacceptable.

    I agree that students need to be taught the professionalism of being a student, there is a time and place for everything. If a student is doing a scholarly work, they should spell check according to their standard english for that class or wiki.

    And yes, the English discussion has been a huge eye opener for us and the students. It is also interesting that our Firefox checks in American English and most spell checkers default in that way. Without such an understanding going into a project like horizon, a wiki war could ensue, that is for sure!''Thank you for your participation with the project, Karl!