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Spell Check: Making Spelling Worse, Not Better


Q. Isn't computer spell-check software making writing instruction much easier? After all, the kids can rely on the automatic spell-checking and not get bogged down with minor details like how a word is spelled.


The thing about writing is that there ARE no "minor details." The name of the game is precision, and if you are dependent on a machine to make you precise in language, and utterly lack precision without the machine, then you are worse off, not better.


No teacher should ever permit students to use the spell-check function when composing on a computer. It is intended for use in catching mere typographical errors for the adult world. In school, computer spell-check cripples a budding writer, denying the importance of the basic rules and skills of writing and making that student dependent on a machine.


A computer can never be as complex as the human mind, and it is the students' minds that we are teaching, not the machines.


Computer spell-check mechanisms are notorious for "correcting" words that were spelled correctly, and missing incorrect words that, to the machine, look right. Examples: homonyms, which are words that sound the same but are spelled or punctuated differently, such as "they're" and "their," "role" and "roll," and "it's" and "its." Spell-check doesn't pick up errors of usage in those situations, and yet homonyms give lots of people lots of trouble. What does it matter? Communication fails when people misunderstand the message because of spelling errors. And that's a biggie.


Spell-check is useless for the most important spelling task in the business word - spelling people's names right. And it often flags phrases as "wrong" that are grammatically correct, because a computer, a dead machine, can never master the nuances of the living, breathing, extraordinarily complex English language. Teachers should know this.


Spelling ability has eroded in large part because of spell-check.


A study of spell-check software at the University of Pittsburgh shows the folly of relying on spell-check. Twenty-three college students were given a one-page business letter to edit. Half used spell-check software and half used only their heads.


Those students with higher SAT scores who used computer spell-check still made 16 errors in "editing" that one page. The higher-SAT students who used only their heads made 5 errors.


Students with lower SAT's made more errors, but the brain-only kids made 12.3 errors, while those "aided" by spell-check made 17.


Homework: The Pitt spell-check study was reported on and several other locations.


By Susan Darst Williams Writing 09 2008


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