Spelling test

At the height of the ‘grade inflation’ debate earlier this week, Google’s John Herlihy mentioned on RTE’s Drive Time that he was disturbed by the number of application letters and supporting documents that he received which showed that the applicant could not spell properly and could not express themselves well. Such applications, he disclosed, were not taken into consideration by Google.

I have suggested previously in this blog that correct spelling and grammar are essential tools of communication, and that those who have not mastered them will be seriously disadvantaged. When I was a lecturer, I was always astounded by the number of students who, while extremely bright, could not put together a sentence that was grammatically correct and had no spelling errors.

I think I would myself look beyond the spelling when considering an applicant for a job, unless spelling was directly relevant. However, the disclosure by Google shows that the ability to spell is still an important skill and that schools and colleges need to take this more seriously. However, primarily this needs to be addressed in the early years of education. An illiterate student, by the time s/he gets to university, is often beyond the point at which third level remedial action can make much of a difference; and in any case we are not resourced for it. I would argue that primary schools need to move correct spelling and grammar right to the top of their agenda.

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17 Comments on “Spelling test”

  1. Aoife Citizen Says:

    If he had said they threw away applications from wheel chair users for jobs that did not involved walking, would we all start tearing our hair out about the teaching of ambulation skills in schools? Dyslexia is a disability with no correlation to other, more important skills: dyslexics, in fact, are often better programmers and quite often have a powerful ability to express themselves. I am dyslexic but I do not feel I am less able to express myself than other people.

    Nor is spelling still an important skill, spell checkers have seen to that. The remaining difficulty, with homophones, could easily be solved with context dependent spell checking, as someone from Google would well know. In fact, the reason it hasn’t is that, almost by definition, the potential ambiguity caused by homophones presents no barrier to communication.

    The use of good spelling as a shibboleth is wrong. Dyslexia is a disability, but it would be a harmless disability if we could just recognize that poor spelling is neither a symptom of poor education, nor of poor ability.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Well said Aoife.

  3. Jilly Says:

    Aoife, I think you may be missing the main point here. If people (any people) are sending out applications with spelling errors in them, they’re clearly not spell-checking them. So the fact that there is a technological aid to improving spelling doesn’t prove that good spelling isn’t important. And with regard to dyslexia, that only accounts for a small proportion of the population. I’ve noticed that many of my dyslexic students are the most aware and rigorous about editing and correcting their prose. It’s what the non-dyslexic students think they’re writing that bothers me…

    But in answer to the main post, while I think that spelling mistakes are a problem, I’m more concerned by poor grammar and the strange phenomenon of blithe misuse of words (which I think of as the Humpty-Dumpty approach to writing: “a word means what I want it to mean”).

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      On this we agree: we should spell check application forms, we should also ask a friend to proof read all the application material, we should dress up for our interviews and we should pretend you know where you want to be in five years; you have been careful in separating the issues. My problem is that people aren’t generally so careful; the original blog post seemed to move from the statement about job applications to one about having poor spelling in more general written communication.

      My spelling is usually fine because of automatic spell-checkers, but I am more likely to make a mistake, not notice a red underline, than someone who is naturally good at spelling and I frequently mix up their and there, the three weathers and so on: I have read those words as often as anyone, I am someone who reads a lot, but for me remembering which is for some reason, very difficult. For an academic paper, or a job application, I would ask someone to proof read, but for commenting here, or on the other boards and blogs I pay attention to, or emailing everyday correspondence, or whatever, I can’t be expected to do that. Nonetheless, people do judge what I write, judge me, by the fact they can spot my occasional mistake and they are wrong to do so. I also teach at the board and there there is no spell checker: given the material I teach that would not be a problem, but lazy assumptions about spelling ability and general ability effect the way I am regarded.

      I am sensitive about this and resent the whole history of minor events that have lead to that sensitivity. We need to judge a piece of writing by how well it communicates and articulates its message, not by how well it conforms to some rules. To take a random example, we need to take a break from listing, with supercilious disdain, amusing howlers regarding the misplacing of apostrophes and instead ask whether the apostrophe, an unvoiced punctuation, is really needed.

      • kevin denny Says:

        Aoife, I don’t know what the numbers are but I’m guessing that only a small number of people are dyslexic. I am also aware that there is some uncertainty about this so that the numbers who are diagnosed has risen in recent years. But one cannot necessarily take these numbers at face value: at Leaving Cert level there are huge numbers presenting with one or other form of special need.
        So my point is that there may be genuine reasons why people make spelling mistakes (dyslexia) and not so genuine (carelessness). As it stands, people are using typos etc as a cheap signal of the latter: now if dyslexia accounts for only a small proportion of these then thats not so unreasonable although it will be unfair to some people.
        If you are recruiting, you have lots of applications to sort through and not enough time so one has to find handy ways of doing this, psychologists talk about “fast and frugal heuristics”. So when I receive letters addressed (as I often do) to “Kenny” I believe that, for the most part, the writer is careless. I don’t put them in the waste-bin automatically but I am not impressed either. In short, I don’t think spelling as a signal is a shibboleth.
        In any event, its important that debates on academic standards don’t get derailed by this one issue.

  4. Perry Share Says:

    Aoife – I am impressed that your defence of poor punctuation and spelling is so perfectly rendered, with a very stylish use of the colon there in the first sentence! (Of course the spell-checker on this blog software is alerting me to misspellings in the words Aoife and defence above!).

    From time to time written languages go through states of flux where various alternate spellings and other grammatical forms contend for supremacy. One period would be the English of the 15th and 16th centuries – where foreign influences and new technology (printing) had major impacts and it took quite a period for spelling to settle down again.

    I think we are again in one of those periods – digital technology and globalisation being the drivers. For example, having lived in Ireland, the UK and Australia, and having been exposed to numerous other ‘Englishes’, I really have no idea any more what is the ‘acceptable’ form in Ireland: ‘socialise’ or ‘socialize’. I always use the former, but here the spell-checker is telling me the latter is correct.

    There are other changes that may be more or less logical: I can see why inflammable has mutated into flammable, as the former is actually confusing; but as I have mentioned before, it is a bit of a mystery to me as to why ‘biassed’ has become ‘bias’ for about a tenth of users, but I suspect it has to do with how the word sounds. No doubt a lurking linguist could enlighten me.

    But two things are clear: there will always be changes in written language; and there will always be people who are concerned about it and see it as evidence of a decline (in standards, in the young people of today, or of civilisation in general).

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      Actually I could of done with quotes around “you know where you want to be in five years”, showing that I meant this a repetition of the cliche and an illustration of the slightly meaningless ritual of social compliance that goes along with the job application process; leaving them out makes it look like I made an error with my subject pronouns!

      There is actually an interesting point here; as a dyslexic I am, of course, opposed to unvoiced punctuation, if it is unambiguous in speech, it should not be needed in writing. Quotes present a challenge though, quote marks are unvoiced, but the difficulty of distinguishing between quoted and unquoted speech when talking leads to awkward phrasing and those air-quotes people sometimes use.

      Another interesting point is that informal speech permits another type of quote, the synecdochial-paraphrase, “he was like, oh my god and I was like, yes really”, for which there is no punctuation or other more formal equivalent.

  5. NMQ Says:

    As always, great discussions on this blog.

    In context, I’m an ICT secondary school teacher (Irish, living in UK) and can completely relate to what the main article was about.
    Regarding dyslexia and other difficulties that (some) people have, I’d also go with point that this is a slighly different topic. I see a huge amount of pupils who have no awareness of spelling/grammatical errors, and as commented on, have no concept of spell-checking, let alone proof-reading.
    I can appreciate where Aoife Citizen is coming from that potentially you could ignored and not just because you’ve heard of spell check. At least in a school situation now, I’m aware of all pupils that have a learning difficulty so can work with them to support their learning.
    BUT, I would be very surprised if applications to Google (and other companies) are instantly dismissed on grounds of spelling, i.e. I’m sure they’re all pre-read and if it’s pointed out the candidate has dyslexia (or any other), I’m sure this is taken into consideration. And if not, then it’s chucked in the bin 🙂

    Regarding the original blog post, having worked in a difficult (in relation to economic background of pupils) schools and an excellent schools, one of the major factors that needs to be resolved, is the basic level of reading and writing skills. From what I saw, most pupils can learn as much as each other (irrespective of background), but if they can’t read or write, it’s a lost cause. Even by secondary school, it’s very difficult to recover them from not having this ability, let alone when/if they get to university.

    Just my two cents, keep up the great posts.

  6. Sally Says:

    I agree. Google itself can of course be an aid in this.

  7. I also teach at the board and there there is no spell checker: given the material I teach that would not be a problem, but lazy assumptions about spelling ability and general ability effect the way I am regarded

  8. Wendymr Says:

    The employer’s perspective on this – and this is what employers tell us where I work, at an agency teaching people job-search skills – is that poor spelling, grammar and presentation in job applications is seen as a concern because it suggests poor attention to detail, not just because they want to hire perfect spellers. The presentation of a job application matters as much as personal appearance an an interview: just as you wouldn’t appear for a job interview with messy hair and creased clothing, you shouldn’t submit an application full of mistakes.

    So when an employer puts a resume/CV full of spelling and grammar errors in the reject pile, it’s not a judgement made on the candidate’s ability to use the tools of written communication, but a judgement on the amount of effort the candidate puts into their application. As Aoife says, it’s possible to use spellcheck, grammar check and contextual spelling check, and it’s possible to have someone else check the documents over – and anyone should do that regardless of how good their written language skills, because even the experts make mistakes. One or two mistakes in an application is excusable; when the application is full of errors, then the implication is that the candidate just couldn’t be bothered. And if that candidate won’t put the time and effort into presenting the best possible application for a job, what else do they take shortcuts over?

  9. Longman Oz Says:

    I think that there is little or no excuse for either poor spelling or poor grammar. The bar needs to be set higher than just getting the message across. This issue extends far beyond job application. It feeds into every email, memo, and proposal that I receive and feel the need to correct before I can add my name to it.

    For sure, it should not be the responsibility of third level institutions to teach students (of an alleged academic calibre) how to write correctly. However, it does need to be a priority of the primary and secondary educators of this country to take responsibility for how well the work force of tomorrow communicates!

  10. Neal Says:

    Good points about no excuse for spelling errors, and you’d be surprised how many secondary pupils I see have no concept of getting some sort of peer review of their work before submitting. I have a policy in place in my classrooms that they’re not allowed tell me they’re finished until they’ve asked at least one student beside them to look it over and give their thoughts.
    Perhaps there should be some emphasis on this sort of group work also (Much of secondary school work is essentially done solo), at the end of the day we’re all human so even with spell checkers we can miss things. A second opinion is always better.
    Now, who wants to review my comment and find the typos 😉

  11. Through working with primary and secondary level students I have found those who cannot spell can be taught to spell at any age. I have assisted grade 2 students to spell the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious so they can understand how to spell.
    The problem as I see it is not that the students cannot spell, it is that they have a learning style where they have not picked up the strategy of spelling visually. Their teachers probably did not know how the student learned and so were unable to teach the student how to spell properly. This does assume that the teacher knew how to spell.

  12. John Says:

    Yes, the difference between wondering and wandering for example.

  13. […] have also picked up on it. The following two blogs give contrasting views on the subject, one pro and one con and it shows that blogs give a voice to the voiceless and allow them to express their […]

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