Larning to spell iz steel inportunt

As background noise this morning, as on most Sunday mornings, I had Fareed Zakaria’s show on. He was interviewing Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman and CEO, and posed an interesting question. Paraphrasing what I only halfway heard: “With all the spell checkers on all the devices we use today, will our children still learn to spell?”

Interesting question. Not a great answer. Schmidt ignored the crux of the question and spouted the company line by saying when he was in school, he had to memorize everything. Now he just looks it up.

Well, that’s all peachy keen, assuming a student has the access, means, and time to look up something. And even then, he can’t look things up if he can’t read and spell.

Reading, writing, and arithmetic are still the basics and these skills need to be learned, memorized, absorbed, injected, inculcated, force-fed or devoured as early as possible for as long as possible. Whatever it takes. The basics must be in the child’s head — actually understood and learned — for those times when he or she has to think and reason without external tools, or power, or resources. Education does not truly belong to the individual until it has been internalized.

Calculators did not negate the need to learn basic math. Kids still need to be able to do mental arithmetic on the fly and to understand the process. Calculators are pretty useless if you don’t know which numbers to enter, in which order, and with which operators. (As one who always struggled with math, I know this firsthand.) Besides, there’s no guarantee there will always be a calculator at hand.

Getting back to Zakaria’s spell checker question — I groaned as soon as I heard it. Spell checkers can be helpful — if you’re at a keyboard and if you’re being checked by a spell checker (or remember to run one), but I’ve yet to see one that doesn’t make mistakes. Big, awful, egregious, horrifying, sometimes funny mistakes. They ignore context, they confuse words, they lack a lot of words, and they flag words that are absolutely correct. Like any other software, spell checkers are written by fallible human beings trying to codify an extremely complex language, and a frighteningly large percent of our population (including the developers) can’t spell their way out of a paper bag.

Of course kids will still learn to spell! They must learn. They won’t have learned their own language if they haven’t learned to spell it. They won’t be able to read and write if they haven’t learned to spell.

Of course kids must learn to spell! If only to know when the spell checkers are wrong.

Ode to the Spell Checker

Eye halve a spelling chequer
It came with my pea sea
It plainly marques four my revue
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.

Eye strike a key and type a word
And weight four it two say
Weather eye am wrong oar write
It shows me strait a weigh

As soon as a mist ache is maid
It nose bee fore two long
And eye can put the error rite
Its rare le a ever wrong.

Eye have run this poem threw it
I am shore your pleased two no
Its letter perfect awl the weigh

6 comments

  1. Oh, and as a side note, I’ve always found it amusing that one cannot spell the word “phonics” phonetically. 🙂
    __________
    LOL! I’d never thought about that. Big FAIL for whoever coined the word.

  2. Here’s one part of the problem that’s often forgotten and/or ignored about spelling – in order to be able to spell (and for that matter, read, especially unfamiliar words), one has to be taught PHONICS when one is learning to read and spell, especially with the English language. Memorizing words for reading or spelling is pretty useless except for certain very odd forms or irregular verbs, spellings, etc. That’s part of the problem of a language that has stolen about 60% of its content from other languages. I was taught phonics in 1st grade along with reading (back in the 60s) and it really made a big difference for me. To this day, it helps – I’m a medical transcriptionist now, and if I need to check/find/reference a term, I can think of many different sounds to look under after I’ve exhausted the obvious ones. I think we need to go back to teaching phonics for reading and spelling; for that matter, we need to go back to teaching spelling! oh yes, and handwriting – that’s going by the wayside, too.
    _________
    Personally, I’ve never known any method other than phonics. Seems to be the way my grandkids are being taught now; if there’s another method out there, I’m glad they aren’t being subjected to it. And you’re so right about the handwriting! Too many keyboards too early, and kids will never learn how to write. (My handwriting, never very good, has degraded noticeably over the last ten years as I’ve come to rely almost exclusively on keyboards.)

  3. Dis waz the bhest poenm dat i eva saw in my lihf…i really injoyed it and lihked it…u shoiuld read some ov my poehms becuz they r the bestest eva.
    ___________
    Thanx fer dropin bye, bob. im glad yu lihkd it.

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