Spelling and student writing: Does it matter much? Should it matter more?

testing (Medium)With the exception of top brass, very few reporters and editors in newsrooms have offices. Our desks are so close that if I stretch too far, I could knock my colleague Kyle Wingfield in the head. (Not that he couldn’t use a friendly thump to the head now and then. You can read his political blog here.)

So both praise and proscription are often overheard by all in newsrooms. I find it more painful to be a bystander to a pillorying than to be a victim.

One of the worst lashings I ever overheard was directed at a reporter who confused “it’s” and “its” in the lead of an important story, a mistake that also slipped by the copy desk.  The editor lamented that the piece could have been a contest entry but for that mistake.

His critique must have stayed with me because I can’t get past the misuse of the words to this day.

And that includes a presentation of new standards in my own school system a while back.  The audience was handed examples of excellent student work. And the writing and reasoning were impressive. However, what I remember most was that the 8th grade paper featured an opening sentence that contained both “it’s” and “its,” neither used correctly.

Should it matter?

I remain surprised how often student work chosen for display suffers spelling or grammatical errors. At a school open house, I watched a student PowerPoint on international poverty where I stopped counting after the seventh misspelled word.

Here’s my question to teachers and schools: If you are choosing student work to showcase, is it appropriate to ask students to correct any errors?

The teacher showing us the PowerPoint told us how impressed he was with the perceptions and insights of the sixth graders who created it. I was surprised that he didn’t reference the spelling mistakes, perhaps to explain that he was more concerned with the students’ insights. I couldn’t celebrate their original thinking because I was too busy wishing they knew how to spell “separate” and “Eritrea.”

I understand that the top goal is to prod students to write, but exquisite writing can be undermined by spelling errors.

Should only perfect papers/PowerPoints be shared or should parents see the students’ original work without prettification?

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

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[...] Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog)Spelling and student writing: Does it matter much? Should it matter more?Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog)testing (Medium) With the exception of top brass, very few reporters and editors in newsrooms have offices.  [...]


December 3rd, 2012
5:38 am

If you read some of the emails sent by my colleagues, you would understand that many teachers are awful writers. Misspelled words, subject verb disagreements, and basic grammatical errors litter their writing. My guess is that many of these teachers don’t notice the errors themselves.


December 3rd, 2012
6:00 am

What a stupid topic. Why don’t we just get rid of education. Who needs it. Let’s continue to be a stupid nation while the rest of the world continues to pass us by.


December 3rd, 2012
6:02 am

Seriously, Maureen, I’m waiting for “Counting to 10: Does it matter much? Should it matter more?”

mountain man

December 3rd, 2012
6:16 am

“Spelling and student writing: Does it matter much?”

Only if they want to get a job. If I see a resume with an error in it – it goes in the trash!

mountain man

December 3rd, 2012
6:18 am

Do we really need cashiers who can count? After all they have registers. We don’t need any math beyond how to operate the calculator on your I-phone (all kids have these, even the poor kids).

Attentive Parent/Invisible Serfs Collar

December 3rd, 2012
6:29 am

Maureen, I think a big part of the problem with writing and spelling is that so many kids now read whole words or by syllables instead of phonetically. The spelling combos that would be memorized via use over time as shorthand for the sounds they represent never get internalized. Kids rely on spellcheck and do not recognize they have a homonym problem. Spellcheck will not help with the wrong word.

Little recreational quality reading means there is no internal voice using words to create a vivid mental picture. This generation is too addicted to the visual to make it through those adjectives in print or unknown words full of meaning.

Then the software writing programs create crutches. The prompts get something flowing on the page but without the story residing within the writer’s own head.

A big part of what is going on in education now globally has to do with a rejection of the rational, abstract mind. Nothing bolsters the ability to reason abstractly like the ability to read phonetically and fluently and then describe the available mental scenarios in print.

The spelling and poor writing are a symptom of what is a very real effort to create New Kinds of Minds. Minds that Feel rather than Know. You are just noticing the symptoms of the Change in Emphasis while we are still Transitioning.

At Great Personal and National Loss to the Future that will be Available.


December 3rd, 2012
6:31 am

Good insight is what a teacher wants on an in-class essay or rough draft. What many teachers are failing to do is to take the time to read drafts, comment on the drafts and then have the students revise at least twice to seriously limit mistakes if not catch them all. If we teach our students to be thorough in writing, I’ll bet they will be more thorough when testing too….

One perspective

December 3rd, 2012
6:36 am

It depends. Was the work produced during a timed writing situation (like a test)? In this case, the student might not have had the time to edit and polish the work. Is it a final draft of a paper or presentation they’ve been working on for some time? Then there should be fewer errors. Should the teacher be the one to line edit every child’s project or paper to perfection? No–because then it’s not the child’s work but the teachers. Many professional writers have the benefit of copy editors, and even they make mistakes (or let mistakes go by) as witnessed in your opening anecdote. And many professional people have become quite successful without ever learning to spell particularly well. Some of my friends in the medical profession write emails that would make a sixth grader cringe. I value well supported ideas, logical reasoning and creativity over perfect spelling in a piece of student writing–the latter anyone (even a computer) can fix, the former is much harder to accomplish.


December 3rd, 2012
6:37 am

32 years of teaching and counting, and YES, it matters! I count off points if my 4th graders don’t put capital letters and punctuation on sentences – and you wouldn’t believe the number of them (many in the higher reading level bracket) who don’t! As for the its/it’s confusion, it’s actually very simple. I tell my students to insert the words “it is” in the sentence. If it makes sense, use the contraction “it’s”. If the word is followed by a noun, the correct spelling is “its” – a possessive pronoun. Same thing for they’re/their!

Cindy Lutenbacher

December 3rd, 2012
6:40 am

To Teacher: you may be right. On the other hand, e-mails are typically composed in haste and sent just as quickly. And we ALL make mistakes.
Public presentations of student work demand editing–by the students (with teacher help). Teachers can speak privately with parents about their kids and their challenges.
I utterly SLAM students in my first-year (college) comp classes for grammar errors because I want them to be/appear as professional as possible. But the system I’ve created allows them to earn half of the points back OR to avoid errors in the first place by working with me on drafts. However, I only have between 50 and 75 comp students. High school teachers have 150 or more.

One perspective

December 3rd, 2012
6:40 am

Oops–should be “teacher’s” in line six. Slipped by my early morning copy editor.


December 3rd, 2012
6:46 am

My college freshman comp students make all kinds of errors that end up in the writing they submit for a grade. I now find it necessary to include this sentence in almost every essay critique: Your grade on this essay would be considerably higher had you taken the time to proofread for grammar, spelling, and punctuation.


December 3rd, 2012
6:51 am

I deal with this with my 2-4th graders. I want to see their work polished before going up; first, however, is the push to get them to write down their ideas! It is almost as if they are scared to write. They talk a mile a minute, and can synthesize verbally, but putting it down is just too much effort. I tell them to spell like it sounds for the getting-it-on-paper part. (I show them an example of my then-5 year old’s story “The Blak Wido Spidr”)

Handwriting is not taught in my system any more, and so we have 10 year olds whose printing is illegible. Forget about cursive writing!

The kids, by and large, are good at finding errors in our daily language review, but cannot see their own lack of capitals, periods, and misspellings.

Jack ®

December 3rd, 2012
7:00 am

It’s obvious that reading, writing and arithmetic were not taught to most bloggers. And forget about sentence structure; it’s a long lost art.

Ivan Cohen

December 3rd, 2012
7:05 am

Writing is bound to be a thing of the past, thanks in part to texting and tweeting.

Mountain Man

December 3rd, 2012
7:11 am

“I tell my students to insert the words “it is” in the sentence. If it makes sense, use the contraction “it’s”. If the word is followed by a noun, the correct spelling is “its” – a possessive pronoun. Same thing for they’re/their!”

Same thing my teachers taught me in the sixties.

Too bad you can’t teach that to some of the bloggers on the AJC.

Mom of 3

December 3rd, 2012
7:14 am

It is very important. We recently switched our kids from public to private school. There is a vast difference in the amount and quality of their writing. I believe the constant focus on standardized tests and the increased class sizes don’t help the situation. Public school teachers don’t have the time to teach students how to correctly edit their work. Our experience was that if it wasn’t on the CRCT then it probably wasn’t going to be taught. (And I think there is a big difference between finding the grammar error in a sentence on a standardized test and actually going through the writing/revising/editing process.

Mountain Man

December 3rd, 2012
7:15 am

“Writing is bound to be a thing of the past, thanks in part to texting and tweeting.”

No, writing will be around forever. It is a problem to read something that is written and have to crack it like a code – what does LOL mean. Blak? Oh, they mean black. If I received something like that from an employee, I would question whether they need to be working for us or not. Even worse, if they send something out like that to a customer! Our words represent ourselves, and if we use bad spelling or grammar, it shows we are either ignorant or lazy.


December 3rd, 2012
7:16 am

Catlady put her finger on it:

“They talk a mile a minute, and can synthesize verbally, but putting it down is just too much effort. I tell them to spell like it sounds for the getting-it-on-paper part. (I show them an example of my then-5 year old’s story “The Blak Wido Spidr”)”

For the elementary grades, that may be ok, but as the grade level goes up, so should the expectation of correct spelling, punctuation and grammar. The best way I know of to assist in that effort is outside reading, fiction or non-fiction yet with all of today’s noisey distractions for children, I fear that just quietly curling up with a good book is becoming a relic of the past. Sad.


December 3rd, 2012
7:16 am

Unless there’s a return to rigor in how we teach grammar and writing, we’ll continue to produce students whose skills in both are abysmal. As those students become adults, they will perpetuate these deficiencies in their own children; we can only hope that those adults don’t decide to become educators. While teachers may believe that students’ writing contains impressive “insights and impressions” in spite of grammatical flaws, the writing lacks clarity and precision; readers like Ms. Downey who know better will be distracted from the message because they can’t trust the words and structures being used to deliver it. Reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic used to be the foundation of our educational system; that foundation is crumbling rapidly.


December 3rd, 2012
7:17 am

I’m a college professor in the sciences. Writing is important and resumes or CVs should be perfect. Really, so should emails… it’s easy enough to do and most email and word programs have grammar and spelling checks (although not so useful for technical writing, but not bad either).
From a professional Associate Press writer two days ago about the tragic death of the KC football player who killed his wife, then himself, the latter in front of his coach…
“Not mentioned was Jovan Belcher, the Chiefs linebacker who killed his girlfriend and then himself a day earlier, across the parking lot from the stadium.”
If Bill Draper of the Associated Press, who wrote this, read this carefully, he would see that it is composed in such a way that it sounds like he killed himself a day before he killed his girlfriend!
The devil is in the detail and students at all levels, as well as non-student or student adults, should write and spell properly. Not dealt with in the article here Maureen is whether a student can compose a piece that makes a logical argument for the point at hand. I teach PhD students and whether they are from South Georgia or South Korea, they cannot write coherently, cannot spell and do not know basic grammar. Many of their mistakes also are seen in newspapers such as the AJC (e.g., beginning a sentence with ‘And’…. really?). Granted, language including the English language evolves and many believe it is fine to begin sentences with ‘And’ or with adverbs and prepositions etc, but the rules are there not to be stuffy, but to decrease confusion by the reader.

Mary Grabar

December 3rd, 2012
7:26 am

Who cares about such petty bourgeois things, when students learn about really important things, like “international poverty”? Next thing you know, you’ll be asking them to learn about the Constitution and to think in a logical, linear manner–all hallmarks of the imperialist Bushitler education policies.

South Georgia Retiree

December 3rd, 2012
7:31 am

Good student work with errors (presented without the author’s name in a public setting) should be a topic for parents to learn about the school’s writing program. Praise and constructive criticism together can improve the writing process and impress upon students and parents the need to proofread one more time before submitting work.
We all make errors if we write enough, but if teachers consistently let papers slip by without correcting errors, they need training to continue in their job of teaching writing. Not everyone cares whether writing is without mistakes, but schools should care and strive to produce student writing that is free of error. Writers who produce excellent work are those who have learned the hard way through a painful process of correction.

Mountain Man

December 3rd, 2012
7:46 am

Case in point – from another blog:

Besides, the standard bearer of the SEC! SEC! (dogs) doesn’t even have to strap em on the beat the B1G, right dogs?

Can someone please rewrite this sentence so that it makes sense?


December 3rd, 2012
7:48 am

Is this an extension of the debate of whether to teach cursive ?

Maureen Downey

December 3rd, 2012
7:53 am

@Bob, Cursive was discussed on Momania a few weeks ago, but I would be happy to discuss here. We have not done so for a while.

Maureen Downey

December 3rd, 2012
7:57 am

@Jack, I have to note that this blogging tool does not allow posters to go back and edit so errors are impossible to correct once a post is published.


Whirled Peas

December 3rd, 2012
8:18 am

It is Maureen Downey who needs a thump on the head, not Kyle Wingfield.
When one gets to the business world and has to send e-mails and doesn’t know the difference between their, there and they’re, he is likely to have a limited career path. We make judgements about people that we otherwise don’t know well, and spelling is one of the things we judge.

mother of 2

December 3rd, 2012
8:23 am

I think that spelling and grammar are very important, and students should be required to correct any errors before work is presented. I’ve also noticed that writing instruction is very different at private schools where teachers have far fewer student papers to correct. My privately educated child writes very well and pays attention to spelling and grammar far more than my publicly educated child.


December 3rd, 2012
8:37 am

They matter because written communication is still crucial in this country. Standardization of spelling and conventions is what keeps our language from becoming unreadable. If everyone just writes and spells and uses punctuation any way they want to, soon no one will be able to read or understand what is written. Everyone needs to be able to communicate in writing– not just emails but formally, using standard written English. Everyone needs to be be able to express ideas clearly and in an organized fashion. And it matters in all communication. If you get in the habit of writing correctly, then you will do it all the time. Ignoring conventions in emails is like ignoring the fact that two plus two equls four in informal math computations. And even if a computerized register can do the calculations for you, you need to know the correct numbers yourself. Computers make computations faster but they are not a substitute for your brain and the knowledge you should have inside your own head.


December 3rd, 2012
8:38 am

It’s the details that are getting past our kids, and what are not being emphasized by the teachers. Cursive, appropriate spelling, and simple math are difficult for my brilliant AP kids, one of whom is now working on a doctorate. I was a regional spelling champ and I constantly asked at home, “Shouldn’t you spell that correctly?” “Nah, the teachers don’t care,” was the reply. I believe it is it because there is little time available to be spent on the details. The homework for gifted kids is heavier than for the regular programming, the classes are large, and everyone needs to get home to a music lesson, sports practice, or to play on the computer or other technological device. My kids can speak about ideas and use very large words in context, but, no, they can’t spell or write them down without grammatical errors or even multiply 42 x 3 in their heads.

the prof

December 3rd, 2012
8:43 am

Doesn’t the early grades (K-2) curriculum teach them to attempt to spell phonetically rather than emphasizing spelling?

bootney farnsworth

December 3rd, 2012
8:57 am

“Spelling and student writing: Does it matter much?”

please tell me this is some kind of stupid trick question


December 3rd, 2012
8:59 am

I have been disturbed by the lack of correction my grandchildren have received on school papers they’ve done. They have gotten 100’s on papers that have atrocious handwriting, spelling and grammatical errors. When I’ve asked about this, my grandchildren tell me their teachers don’t “count off” for spelling or grammar errors. I cannot imagine why not. If I sent out papers with grammar or spelling errors on them, I would not have a job for very long. Handwriting, spelling and grammar are very important in obtaining and keeping a job. Teaching children grammar and spelling is critical.

Once Again

December 3rd, 2012
9:00 am

If it matters to a parent, it should matter to the school. That is why top-down government run education should be completely ended. Only the marketplace, full of freely competing businesses, should address education (along with home schooling). Only in the face of chronic failure of the government system would this question even come up. Parents have a responsibility to insure that their children get properly educated – this includes spelling, grammar, etc. Parents need to step up and demand that the failed system be ended so they can take their money back and re-assume responsiblity for their children.


December 3rd, 2012
9:06 am

My daughter’s elementary school does a wonderful job with writing style and grammar, but I have noticed less emphasis on spelling accuracy. I’m sure there is some rationale behind this. May as well show them how to use spellcheck on Powerpoint.


December 3rd, 2012
9:07 am

Please, please, don’t pose a math question. All the present and past educators on this blog will argue until eternity.

Maureen Downey

December 3rd, 2012
9:11 am

@bootney, The question here is whether it ought to matter in public performances — should schools only show student work that has been wiped clean of all errors? Or, at the very least, should teachers, when presenting student work that contains errors, explain why they didn’t have kids clean up their spelling or grammar for mass public consumption?


December 3rd, 2012
9:39 am

I remember having spelling classes from the 2nd grage through the 8th grade. When writing papers (for all English courses) we were graded on spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure through the 12th grade.


December 3rd, 2012
9:50 am

Does it really matter? When the State of Georgia comes out as the 48 in schooling the students out of 50 does it really matter? Governor Deal cut the HOPE program to where a student with just under the 3.0 can not get any help to go to college so they give up.

Then you have a state which allows a student to drop out of high school at the age of 16 does that matter. How can mom and dad or maybe just mom allow their children to drop out.

Everyone has ideas and the State of Georgia claims that they are looking hard to see what they can do to bring up those grades. Yet, what I read in our little newspaper the State of Georgia are missing or refusing to ask the “teachers”. Those are the people who they should be listing to, ask those teachers who teach grade school what needs to be done or changed.

I remember my two children coming home with a ton of home work, sometimes they would stay up as late as 11 pm. I would ask myself then what are they doing all day long.

The school system is a mess and if the State of Georgia keeps dragging it’s feet so will the children and the State of Gerogia will fall behing more.

What happens when the teacher's comments contain spelling errors?

December 3rd, 2012
9:52 am

“‘I tell my students to insert the words “it is” in the sentence. If it makes sense, use the contraction “it’s”. If the word is followed by a noun, the correct spelling is “its” – a possessive pronoun. Same thing for they’re/their!’

Same thing my teachers taught me in the sixties.”

Same thing my teachers taught me in the seventies.

I suspect that many teachers today *can’t* correct spelling and grammatical errors, because they themselves don’t know the material. Sad.


December 3rd, 2012
9:56 am

No need to round up the calvary on this – spellcheck can fix everything.


December 3rd, 2012
9:58 am

Spelling absolutely matters.

In the past few days I have read in editorials ‘principle’ which should have been “principal”; and ‘profit’ which should have been “prophet.”

I call that “poor public performance.”

One expects better from journalism.


December 3rd, 2012
9:59 am

Squirrel haven’s hunters rarin’ to shoot
Damage to wiring, pecan trees vexes east Ga. town

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 10/24/04

WASHINGTON, Ga. — Die, Nutkin, die.

This east Georgia town hasn’t yet brought out the calvary on its runaway squirrel population. But it has opened season on these pesky creatures, which chew through wiring, clean out entire pecan harvests and rarely manage to cross Washington’s charming, tree-lined streets before meeting their fate.


December 3rd, 2012
10:03 am

If a student’s work is to be presented as exemplary, then it should definitely be corrected before it is posted. At the very least, in elementary and middle school, proper nouns and the first words of sentences should be capitalized, there should be end punctuation, and all words should be spelled correctly.

Bad spelling drives me nuts. There are plenty of tools available to help with spelling.

Grammar, however, is a little more subjective. I know that I struggle with commas. I either use too many or not enough. From reading the posts here, I see that others struggle with subject/verb agreement and incorrect use of reflexive pronouns among other problems.


December 3rd, 2012
10:11 am

I think that as long as there is parady between student grade level and expectoration, it is ok.


December 3rd, 2012
10:12 am

It should have been corrected before being presented.

Private Citizen

December 3rd, 2012
10:29 am

When I saw the title, I thought it was about handwriting and I was going to say “Handwriting will be the domain of upper tier private schools.” I have had a portion of students with dysfunctional handwriting, as if they received very little direction grades 1-5, or nobody was home on the adult side during the years when the students rightfully were supposed to learn penmanship. I have had so many students with seemingly self-taught survival level penmanship skills. Students who question the use of margins or do what I call “bubble writing” where the lower case letters occupy the entire line space floor to ceiling and much of the letter formation is based on circles. I say apply attention to what is going on in the elementary schools and are students getting their sequential foundation there.

Another comment

December 3rd, 2012
10:35 am

I started in Catholic School, Geade 1 at age 5 with a mid Dec Birthday, in 1966. I had zero previous schooling, although I learned to read the newspaper by my self at 3. We were read to ever night by our high school dropout mother while my father was at his second shift job. We had 40 kids in my first grade class, Ironically taught in New York State by Sister Marietta. The other Maureen in my class, was dying of lykemia. She was 14 days younger than me, and the reason that I had been accepted so young. She had only wanted to go to school before she died. Which did happen the next summer, she is ironically buried 2 rows in front of both sets of my grand parents in the local cemetery.

I don’t recall Sr. Marietta or the lay teachers I had the next two years, followed by nuns again for three more years having any problem with 40 student class rooms. I do remember my second grade teacher pulling out a paddle for one of the boys. Boys being sent to the principal Sister Marion for pink construction paper ties. The biggest scandal at the school was when two or three of the wealthiest boys who attended the school decided to streal the tape recorders from the library in the 6th grade. The Priests would not let the parents buy their way out of this for their son’s. Instead they made the boys paint the exterior of the two story rectory during the summer. With the threat that if it happened agin the boys would next paint the convent. Every parent of couse made sure to drive their children by to see what Gould happen for misbehavior. Very Tom Sawyer like.

High 30 student to 40 students in the Catholic School I went to growing up was do able because, their was first complete control of discipline. Fear of the Nuns, Priests and Lay teachers. Then you never wanted your parents to be called.

The second thing is we did not have homework. We were expected to read at home and practice our cursive writing. I don’t recall ever having homework at this school until the 6th grade. Of course their was only mimiographs back then and not copiers. So none of the endless wasteful copy sheets sent home.