Is our main goal really to produce a generation of good spellers?



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JAMES THOMLINSON, aka 'Mr T' discusses how the way writing is assessed forces teachers to put too much emphasis on aspects like spelling and punctuation.

Acronyms.jpgA friend of mine recently asked me, if there was one thing I could change about the education system, what would it be? A lot of answers rushed into my brain. The average pay of a teacher, a misinformed and ignorant society, or maybe just the general lack of government funding... After pondering over this question for a few minutes, I kept going back to the same thought. My biggest concern with our education system at the moment is the way in which student achievement is assessed. All quality teachers have a holistic understanding of what ‘student achievement’ actually means. We all know that a conclusion of a student’s success cannot come from a standardised test score. Yet, we are often forced to make meaningless judgements based around these types of irrelevant and often inaccurate sources of information. This article addresses concerns I have around the assessment of writing in the 21stcentury while slowly pecking away at the burden of misguided ‘common sense’ regarding education.  

The joy we must have felt the day we picked up our first crayon and started doodling down the ideas envisioned in our minds. Our ability to communicate thoughts and feelings using simply our creative ability, and a pen or pencil, separates us from any other creature on Earth. Ancient aboriginal used pictures and symbols. Young children use scribbles and comically misshapen drawings. As we learn and practise these skills we progress to words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. It truly is an amazing accomplishment when another person understands a message you have portrayed to them through your writing.

With the advances in technology our ability to access writing of all genres, and communicate through different written forums, has never been greater. Email and text has replaced letters and phone calls. Social media has connected the world through the touch of a button. The ability to reach large audiences easily creates an environment in which written language can flourish. However, my concern is that society’s belief around the teaching of writing is not evolving with the same tenacity.

I read a quote the other day by Eric Hoffer, an American moral and social philosopher, which really resounded with this issue. He said, "In times of change, it is the learners who will inherit the earth while the merely learned will remain beautifully equipped to cope with a world that no longer exists".

I believe our prejudice, which is based on an out-dated standard used to assess writing, is having a major effect on our students’ writing creativity. Writing creativity in general terms means a student’s ability to use writing to portray an original, imaginative, and spirited visual of their thoughts. This out-dated standard I refer to is those classic misconceptions people have about what it means to be a ‘good’ writer. Spelling, handwriting, grammar and punctuation are all ideas that we put way too much emphasis on in the classroom. The first thing I always hear when a parent looks through their child’s writing book is a passive aggressive comment about their handwriting, normally followed closely with a remark about a word they misspelt. My eye twitches every time I hear this and I have to restrain myself from throwing the large metre ruler, which I have tightly gripped in my clammy hand, in their general direction. No comment about the engaging story line, unique language, playful banter or deep underlining message. There are a lot of aspects they could comment on, yet these miniscule, irrelevant and frankly unimportant standards are always the first things to be critiqued. Even teachers, who should know better, fall into this trap. I myself have spent hours underlying and correcting spelling errors, and for what? Is our main goal really to produce a generation of good spellers? If this belief that being a ‘good’ writer somehow relates to our spelling or handwriting ability is true, then I am in serious trouble.

We now live in a world where writing in cursive and being a meticulous speller isn’t of need. Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that students who leave primary school need to be able to write legibly and spell most high frequency words correctly. However, we now have a range of amazing devices and apps that not only assist us but improve our writing capability.  Technology is only getting more advanced. As educators we need to embrace this change and start preparing for it. Clutching to old certainties cannot be our coping strategy anymore. The world we used to know does not exist. Asserting an old-fashioned, inadequate set of believes is not acceptable. Let us encourage and teach those important writing skills that still need to be learnt, but let’s stop creating these insignificant boxes of success. The judgement, anxiety and conformity caused by this type of thinking is absurd.  Not to mention the hours wasted planning and implementing unimportant lessons or hunting through books in search of irrelevant errors. Time is gold in the classroom. Instead, why not focus on exploring their imaginations. Free write about the troll hiding underneath the principal’s desk or the dragon smoke coming from the caretaker’s chimney. Make writing fun again and inspire originality.

Educators have an obligation to adapt their pedagogy. Learning environments must promote innovative thinking and students need to feel safe to share their ideas without petite and inadequate criticism.  We can’t shy away from being different. Being different is great, it reminds people that we aren’t programming robots.

Let’s be brave and only look back to see how far we’ve have come.

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  • Wow I love this so so much !! As a mum who is more worried about my child's awesome personality and quirky features than if they can spell or add two numbers together this article is perfection !!! I help out at school in my 6 year olds class at times and his last years teacher was very much so the spelling / grammar police .... and their creativeness in what they wrote was not encouraged at all!! There were so many kids that would get told off for not writing what they were "ment to write" hit the nail on the head here " Mr T " would love to hear more from you in the future :)

    Posted by Amelia, 20/04/2017 11:25am (3 years ago)

  • Well said. I think this emphasis on accuracy early on puts everyone at a disadvantage. The kids who can't spell or use grammar well but who have fab ideas don't see their worth, AND the ones who can spell etc get the message that their worth lies in their ability to be correct, therefore when it's time to get creative (where there's no right or wrong) or take risks (where the outcome is uncertain) they are unwilling. Lose lose. The good news, in my opinion, is that I don't think kids need everybody to believe in them, but they need at least one. So it's good to know that there are people out there believing in our children regardless of test results, telling them they are worth more than the results of the latest assessment. Keep up the great work Mr T, our kids need you on their side.

    Posted by Helen, 21/02/2017 8:29am (3 years ago)

  • I completely agree. I have done some research with reluctant boy writers and I have found that boys consider themselves to be poor writers because they struggle to spell, to use the correct grammar and they may consider their handwriting to be untidy. When all these factors are removed and the boys are told that their ideas and their voice is valued, they become more motivated to write and they let their incredible imaginations soar. We also let the boys use devices to record their ideas and this enables them to use spell check and their hands do not get sore from all the writing. Let's get away from the idea of perfect spelling and grammar - let's get our children writing again!

    Posted by Jill Watt, 20/02/2017 8:53pm (3 years ago)

  • Good point.
    Easy to judge the surface features, hard to dig in deep and understand the writer's message.

    Good spelling makes something easy to read though. So some time and attention needs to be given to it.

    Posted by Jamie Hoare, 20/02/2017 6:10pm (3 years ago)

  • Shot Mr T!! Welll worded and well thought out. Onwards and upwards!

    Posted by Conor McHoull, 20/02/2017 4:36pm (3 years ago)

  • Fantastic piece Mr T. I especially enjoyed the quote from Eric Hoffer, he has always been a go to for quotes for myself as well

    Posted by G. Walker, 20/02/2017 11:07am (3 years ago)

  • Hopefully New Zealand will be moving forward in a direction with a more hollistic view of education and assessment to allow learners the freedom to express themselves in their own style. This may also bring some joy to teachers who can reward originality and flare rather than assessing with rigid rules for the masses.
    Nice Mr T.

    Posted by B Davis, 20/02/2017 8:08am (3 years ago)

  • Awesome write up Me T! Being able to teach new methods of today means teachers who have been in the game for a while will need the appropriate PD to help them make their students more successful too!

    Posted by Antonia Anderson, 20/02/2017 7:07am (3 years ago)

  • Go MR T!!! You're so right. The world has changed and we need to embrace it. Jo

    Posted by Jo pearson , 20/02/2017 6:55am (3 years ago)

  • Well thought out James.

    Posted by Liz, 20/02/2017 6:54am (3 years ago)

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