Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Does correct spelling matter?

There's an interesting debate raging in the UK currently, between a 'new' university lecturer, a Dr Smith and an 'old' university professor, a Dr Grayling. It is probably not entirely unfair to say that 'new' universities in the UK are organisations that are traditionally weak on the research side of things and strong on the teaching side of things. Equally, 'new' universities (ie usually ex polytechnics) tend to be less competitive institutions, attracting more often than not academically less gifted students or students coming to universities through less traditional routes (eg they mid attend university mid-career).

Well, the 'raging' (I am exaggerating!) debate is about the question of whether or not we as academics should punish students for spelling errors and such or whether we should accept those as legitimate 'variants' of English as 'new' university Dr Smith suggests. 'Old' university Dr Grayling duly makes a mockery of Dr Smith's views by producing a coherent commentary relying on proper English that rapidly disintegrates into incoherent ramblings and random accumulations of letters that don't make sense at all anymore. His point: proper English matters. In a way you'd say that probably he is a snob, albeit a leftish one (writing for the GUARDIAN). Surely there is a big difference between someone who ignores minor spelling mistakes students make (yes, there's plenty of them in 'new' and 'old' universities alike) and someone who passes essays even though they are incomprehensible because the words can't be made sense of any longer as they do not resemble existing words; or someone who passes essays where the sentence structure is such that the meaning cannot be ascertained any longer.

Mind you, this is not just a problem in English speaking countries. Long suffering colleagues in Germany tell similar tales. German language instruction that focuses these days more on 'interpretation' of poems and 'critical thinking' skills then grammar and spelling seems to have wrecked many students ability to express themselves properly in that language.

Difficult one: I have to be honest, with English not being my first language, it annoys me hugely having to read essays by students whose first language is English, yet whose English is MUCH worse than mine. And yes, I have come across essays by students whose first language is English that were to a large extent incomprehensible, because the English was so terrible. - I have no idea how those folks managed to get through high-school, and indeed how they managed to sail through their undergraduate years, but yes, such students do exist! - My take on this has always been to ignore mistakes that do not impact on content, but I can see that that might be problematic. After all, prospective employers of our graduates have every reason to assume that students we graduate have a proper command of the language of instruction that we use in our teaching, or don't they? On the other hand, should I really give a higher grade to a native English speaker over an English-as-second language speaker just because the latter's English is worse, while the actual critical content of both essays is of fairly comparable quality?

What's your take on this?

1 comment:

  1. "A bad workman blames his tools" is all I can say to Dr Smith, and to all others in the education profession who no longer appear to be able to educate!

    'Name and shame' by posting examples of bad English on the Facebook 'Spelling, punctuation and grammar' group. Can the 'Shcool' photo be included? Who owns the copyright?

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