Students need passion for language

Adelaide Green Porridge Cafe highlights a University lecturer’s argument for abandoning the rules of spelling by noting how distracting it must be to mark a paper that contains numerous errors.  I have assessed hundreds of assignments (exam and word processed) this year alone, and a lack of attention to accurate spelling is a real barrier to communication.

Of course, if someone writes “arguement” instead of “argument”, it is still possible to understand the content.  But suggesting that students’ lack of grammatical and spelling knowledge (or willingness to learn) should be tolerated is not fair on them. 

It is insulting to insinuate students are incapable of learning to write accurately.  Given this attitude, why bother with schools, unless they are just a holding pen whilst parents are busy with jobs or other commitments. 

Accepting poor spelling from students also means accepting lower standards outside of education.  At present, the reputation of an organisation is adversely affected when its websites, press releases, letters, signage and so forth are littered with errors. 

In public relations, language is a tool of our trade and I actually believe a zero tolerance to bad spelling should be adopted as a way of really focusing students’ minds on its importance. 

Corporate speak (epitomised by David Brent) and inaccuracy in grammar are invading the language.  Even BBC journalists seems incapable of understanding that an organisation is a single entity when they state “the government are” instead of “the government is”.  One of my many pet hates.

I accept that many people have dyslexia and other problems with language, but my experience is that as students these guys usually take greater care in the work they submit.

Ken Smith, of New Bucks University, who made the suggestion of abandoning the rules may have been deliberately stirring up debate.  But when confronted by poor grammar, I find myself shouting “i before e, except after c” and other simple rules that I was taught several decades ago.  Indeed, I remind all my students of the difference between its and it’s because I cannot stand to see them get this wrong.  [See The University of Buckingham writing guide]

It is shocking to realise that tens of thousands of young people leave school without basic literacy skills.  A recent Channel 4 show claimed over five million British adults have a reading age of 12 or less.  Simply accepting poor spelling from those who master sufficient English to get to University isn’t the answer to low literacy levels.

Former teacher, Phil Beadle, epitomises a love for language, and the benefits it delivers, not least to adult learners who have been the victims of a laissez faire (let do) attitude to English in schools.

I believe we need to encourage students to read good writing , teach them the basic rules and challenge their errors rather than accept them. 

Let’s be proud of the English language, embrace its rules and idiosyncrasies and be passionate about communicating accurately and with a joy for words, their meaning and spelling.

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

6 thoughts on “Students need passion for language”

  1. When I did my HND in journalism in 2003, some of us were mature students who didn’t have Higher English and some were straight out of 6th year secondary education who did have it. We were given a complete overhaul on spelling and grammar and our lecturer got us to look out for misplaced apostrophes in newspapers and report them to the Apostrophe Appreciation Society!
    A fun way to recap on lessons taught a while ago. The lack of good English skills brought many a lecture to a halt – but only in the beginning. Our lecturer asked the class if we wanted to appear like numbskulls once we left. That and threats of hanging, drawing and quartering pulled up the socks of many very swiftly indeed!

  2. Jill, Thanks for your thoughts. We sometimes have students feedback negatively when we go over basics in class, but I agree with you that trying to make it fun and the occassional threat is important in ensuring we remember the essentials of English, even if we were lucky enough to have ever been taught them.

  3. I went to a car boot sale recently. It was as much as I could do to stop myself taking out a felt pen and correcting the numerous punctuation mistakes on the signs on the tables and car boots. Caring about apostrophes (and spelling and grammar) doesn’t make for an easy life.

  4. “Simply accepting poor spelling from those who master sufficient English to get to University isn’t the answer to low literacy levels.”

    I would, however, be a mistake to assess a students potential for access to University based on their ability to spell. One’s ability to spell is not a reflection of intelligence nor creativity. Nor is it really a measure of literacy. It is simply an expression of compliance to a standard.

    How can you expect anyone to be proud of a language that they have no cultural stake in? Even most native English speakers cannot trace their cultural roots along language lines. Like our students, most of us have had to adopt this language for pragmatic reasons or through oppression.

    Since there is no official central standard to the English language, any rules that we may impose are essentially culturally based. It is important to clarify to our students which dialect of English we are teaching them in order to qualify what we deem “correct” or “incorrect”.

    For more on this notion please check out this article:
    http://tristanverboven.wordpress.com/2009/11/25/spell-check-this/

  5. Whilst agreeing that an ability to spell accurately is not a measure of intelligence (depending of course on your definition of intelligence), compliance to a standard is important in ensuring that your communications are not going to be misunderstood as a result of frequent errors.

    English is a language that has its roots in many cultures and is flexible according to social changes. That is clear even from reading Dickens let alone going back to Shakespeare.

    Although we do not have guardians of English (unlike our more particular French neighbours), there are rules that can be understood and followed as good practice.

    I also think that focusing on the dialect or cultural bias of a sender of information is not the issue – good communications depends on the receiver understanding what is being sent to them. For those of us working in a communications profession, being sloppy about language conveys a very poor image.

    Besides, my main point is that not bothering to help people understand even basic rules of spelling is being patronising rather than reflecting a dynamic language that will adapt to cultural usage.

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