Sentenced by SPaG: Grappling with Misspelling

SPaG: a computer screen with narrow focus

My name is Paul and I’ve been accused of being a member of the ‘Spelling Police’. I mean, I’m an English teacher, so it’s kind of my job. Also in my defence, I don’t have the gumption (or the time) to openly correct the SPaG faux pas of complete strangers, though I freely admit to bristling at their mistakes and mentally correcting them. And I am guilty as charged of automatically thinking less of the perpetrators, particularly those in high office.

Real-world SPaG

The charges against me were brought last week by Peter Kyle, MP for Hove and Portslade. MPs of all persuasions have faced enough abuse in recent times but Mr Kyle has to endure an extra layer of invective because of his acute dyslexia. Shamefully, he routinely gets branded “thick” by people basking in their own intelligence and who should, therefore, know that spelling, punctuation and grammar are not the sole or even particularly accurate indicators of IQ or achievement levels.

Mr Kyle’s comments on his learning difficulties – “Sometimes words are just shapes. However much I try to engage my brain, the connection just isn’t there. I can see the shape but it simply has no meaning. Frustrating, huh” – are particularly pertinent to modern education given the increased weighting allocated to SPaG by the reforms of his fellow MP, Michael Gove. God forbid we ever return to the times that Kyle proceeds to describe from his own school days – “A teacher forced me to stand and read Shakespeare. I did it one painful word at a time. The teacher and some kids thought it very amusing. Most looked at the floor in embarrassment or pity” – yet it feels like we’ve already gone backwards from when I began teaching.

Shakespeare woz ‘ere

I vividly recall during teacher training being given a piece of writing to assess that was littered with spelling errors. That word ‘littered’ reveals my own innate prejudice, implying that the writing was a mess. It was also brilliant. The words flowed beautifully and could have been the work of the next Agatha Christie, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Irvine Welsh, authors who have all famously overcome problems with spelling; every word of this model student could be clearly read and understood, so the only obstacle to a reader’s appreciation would be their own awareness that it was not technically correct. The lesson learnt was that we should focus on the positive and reward the creative skills.

Of course, accuracy is (or at least can be) vitally important and is rightly encouraged. There’s a reason why those “Let’s eat(,) Grandma” memes keep doing the rounds. On the other hand, we don’t read Shakespeare and criticise him for misspelling ‘wrapped’ as ‘wrapt’. Shakespeare was also a notoriously bad speller but got away with it because of the fluidity of language pre-Samuel Johnson and his dictionary. Misspelling ‘Shakespeare’ on a Literature paper is a cardinal sin, which is ironic given that the many variations on the Bard’s name during his own lifetime included Shakesspere, Shakysper, Shaxpeer and Shexpere! I suspect that the common ‘could have’ to ‘could of’ mutation would evolve into being grammatically permissible if it weren’t for the pedants who take offence. As one of those said pedants, what I probably ought to be doing is asking myself why it really matters when I know full well the meaning?

All’s well that ends well

It is only right that teachers continue to correct students while there are marks at stake but it’s also important that we strike a balance between praising strengths and attempting to rectify perceived weaknesses. And that we retain an awareness that some students – no matter how hard they try – are not going to crack certain aspects of SPaG. Though they will be penalised by the mark scheme, this by no means makes them stupid. Peter Kyle left school first time around with barely any qualifications. He bravely returned at 25 and got accepted to Sussex University at his third attempt. The secret to his success: working harder than most to achieve the same. The average member of the ‘Spelling Police’ is quick to point out blindingly obvious mistakes and yet slow to credit the resilience of those around us who are every day battling learning impediments. Six years after starting university, Kyle left with a degree and a PhD in community economic development, equipping him with a handy retort to the spelling police: “It’s Dr Thick to you!”

Secondary SPaG

If your students are grappling with SPaG, we have a selection of secondary resources that can help! Our SPaG Samurai unit of work is the perfect choice to combat common SPaG errors. Choose from teaching powerpoints and English worksheets on spelling, punctuation, and grammar, collect your samurai armour, and become an elite warrior in the war on SPaG! It’s a simple, fun, and unique way to nip common errors in the bud before they blossom…

SPaG Samurai: KS3 & GCSE Grammar Worksheets

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