Have you ever sent an embarrassing text because of autocorrect? Do you use spell check to fix your errors before you hit that send button? There’s no denying that with the digitization of our communication, we have come to rely more and more on features that check for errors on our behalf. In fact, the first thing I’ll do once I complete this article is ask my computer to run a spell check, just in case there’s a spelling error that I missed.
It’s easy to think that kids will be okay if they don’t learn how to spell properly because the technology exists to correct their mistakes. However, the truth is that being able to spell properly is a vital skill for reading, and more importantly, for understanding and being understood.
Why is spelling important?
Learning to spell and learning to read both rely on knowledge of the relationships between letters and sounds. When we write, thinking too hard about how to spell uses up cognitive resources necessary for other aspects of composition. Kids with poor spelling skills may limit what they write to words they can spell. This means that even though a child may have a wonderful imagination and a lot to say, they are too embarrassed or self-conscious to express themselves in writing.
To learn a language, you need to gain knowledge of its structure. By teaching a language systematically-following the “rules”-you can decode or make sense of it. Spelling is important because it ensures accuracy. If we all follow the same rules, we can all understand what we read (the content) in the correct way (the context). This comprehension facilitates communication. Even a computer needs its language (code) to be written correctly to make sure that it can carry out its tasks.
While we can rely on computers to check our spelling, computers are not immune to errors either, especially where a word is very badly spelled or the grammar is poor. It’s one thing to expect technology to note our errors but another thing entirely to expect it to know exactly what we intended to say. It’s necessary for kids to have a sufficient understanding of how a word should be spelled in order to recognize when the spell checker has made a mistake. This can easily happen, especially with homophones, which are words that sound the same but are spelled differently, for example, “see” and “sea” or the constantly confused “there,” “their,” and “they’re.”
For all of us, but especially young readers or those with reading difficulties, poor spelling is distracting. It’s challenging to read for meaning when your brain is also trying to deal with spelling errors.
What are the disadvantages of using a spell checker or predictive text?
Using a spell checker, especially when guessing at a spelling, can result in error. Spell check is great for bringing small mistakes to our attention but:
- It can make us less careful when we type, because we trust it to notice our mistakes.
- It doesn’t catch all errors. A poor speller may not produce a close enough approximation of the correct word for the spell checker to make the right suggestion.
- Where teens or adults are dependent on electronic spell checkers, they may be unable to produce a written document that is error-free.
- It will not always correctly place punctuation or correct grammar either, especially in a poorly constructed sentence.
- Predictive text, like that on a smartphone, also “learns as it goes,” which means that if you consistently spell a word incorrectly, it will eventually default to that incorrect spelling.
What are the negative effects of spell check?
Another effect of autocorrect or spell check on spelling is the lack of motivation to learn how to spell a word correctly. One study suggests that relying on this technology might be harmful for learning because it reduces the amount of effort invested in the learning task. “Why should I bother when the computer can do it for me?”
Is there a positive side to spell check?
Yes, not everything about spell check, autocorrect, and predictive text is bad. It’s beneficial to be able to use technology such as spell check to support correct spelling and grammar, but we must learn not to become reliant on functions such as predictive text, which choose our words for us. We should teach our kids to use these technologies in conjunction with their own literacy skills. By encouraging creativity and curiosity about language and meaning, we can help kids confidently expand their vocabularies.
Spell check or autocorrect can also make an enormous difference for kids and adults with learning disorders such as dyslexia or dysgraphia. Where such barriers to spelling and writing with confidence exist, technology can make written communication a whole lot easier. Still, even those reliant on such technology should remember that it is not perfect and that mistakes can and do happen.
Is spell check the problem?
Given what I have just written, it’s easy to think that autocorrect is ruining people’s spelling. In fact, this is not true-digital spell checkers are simply masking the underlying problem of poor spelling skills among many kids and adults. This problem is easily identified when kids are required to write a thank-you note to their grandma or complete classwork or assignments in pen and paper rather than by using a computer. As parents, we should make sure that our children have regular opportunities to write and practice their spelling.
English can seem like a very complex language, but most of the rules are consistent, and with regular practice, kids will soon get the hang of things.
In the adult world, our first impression often comes from a written text, whether it’s a resume, an email, a text message, or a love letter. Good spelling plays a fundamental role in how others perceive us. Something that is well written and properly presented makes a lasting impression on the reader.
While technology can be a great asset in teaching literacy skills or assisting kids and adults with reading disorders or learning difficulties, it should replace personal basic literacy skills. We should teach kids to use technology as a means of bolstering their own knowledge.