Does Spelling Still Matter?
By Coquina Healy Restrepo
Every time I write my name in Microsoft Word, spellcheck tells me I’ve misspelt it.
I ask Google at least once a week what’s the difference between ‘quiet’ and ‘quite’. Then promptly
forget which one to use when I need it.
When I tried spelling “dilapidated”, I had to re-write it in my search engine three times like this:
‘word for a broken building.’
These are just a few reasons on why I know I can talk about what being a bad speller is like and
why it’s important to learn how to spell. The debate about if learning spelling is still important is
often said by people who complain that computers can solve all of their problems. Which would be
true, except you need to be able to spell the word you need in order to get the spellcheck to work.
Proper spelling is something every adult struggles with even though we have been studying
spelling throughout our entire education. We may all have different average vocabulary sizes but
we all misspell many of the same common words. Words like ‘acknowledge’, ‘apparent’ and
‘necessary’ are often the most used in speech but the hardest to remember how to spell; and that’s
All humans are speakers and listeners, we naturally pick up vocabulary easier when we are
speaking with one another and not through reading. Yet we’ve been taught to link spelling with
reading which a memory process that is distinctly different from learning how to properly spell a
Spelling is linked to the memory process of recalling a words’ shape, sound and definition which
supports our ability to read and write in our primary and secondary language. It’s important for ESL
learners to understand spelling because it reinforces our language skills and also helps with higher
level communication skills just as writing and information retrieval. If we want our learners to be
able to use their ESL skills professionally and work in higher communication fields, they need to
have a good grasp on how to spell.
Our job isn’t to give them spelling lists or enter them into an adult spelling contest. Our goal is to
help our learners develop the spelling skills they need to be able to understand what a word looks
like and how to spell and find it. Spelling skills are connected to improving literacy, memory recall
and an expanded vocabulary. But what are the skills necessary for a good speller?
Why do we spell and why is it so hard?
Spelling is not a natural skill. Most of our early reading and writing skills came from two mediums:
listening and drawing. When words were intuitive pictograms and we only one or two words used
to describe the same thing, spelling was a lot easier.
Then our vocabularies became larger because new words were being introduced and invented
from different cultures. The Greeks had to learn Persian and Macedonian; Romans needed to
learn two different forms of Egyptian, old Germanic languages and Celtic dialects. And each of
those languages had their own pictures, their own phonetic systems, and their own alphabets.
The English alphabet is even a construction of three different languages: Ancient Gaelic plus Latin
and adapted Ruins. Originally, English only had twenty letters to explain over thirty-six distinctive
sounds! When the Romans arrived, their scribes had to create six extra letters in order to describe
the distinct sounds such as the ‘h’, ‘r’, soft ’s’, hard ’t’, ‘p’ and ‘z’ sound. The other ten sounds were
made by combining different letters and spelling words to illustrate things like ‘sc’, ‘ll’, ‘mn’ and ‘oe’.
But this didn’t happen quickly and spelling in English would change every few years due to its
Short history of English Spelling:
English language has this long and incredibly complex history that we’ve boiled down into three
Old English - The original
base language of English was a strange mix of Gaelic, Anglo and
German which all blended together depending on the region. Then Latin monks came to England
and realized they had no idea how to write down what everyone was saying so they made up an
Middle English - Normands came and took over England and their French speaking monks didn’t
like the kind of English the Latins made up.
“Modern” English - Around the time of the Renaissance people were going back to reading Latin
and realized it looked really pretty! So they started spelling everything in Latin.
This whole timeline boiled down over five different distinct languages with different ideas about
what a word should look like and turned it into one, messy language: English. The way English
spelling began to shape into looked a little like this:
If you think it sounds Latin then spell it with Latin rules.
If it wasn’t invented before 1200 A.D. then spell it like the French but pronounce it like it’s English.