Posted in Teaching

Words and ideas

I string words together on the clothesline of this blog. Some mean something to some readers; some mean something different. Words are slippery with meaning and imagery and contexts and memory and ideas and moments shared and rediscovered.

I’m forever exhorting my students to choose their words carefully. To use the words “I dug around in there until I found it” brings to mind a particular image when the context is of searching for a piece of clothing at the back of the cupboard. Those are not the words I’d use when the context is searching for a mole you half remembered was nestled amongst your pubic hair (overheard train conversation). For that particular context I would use different words – I would choose different words.

‘Choose’ implies a deliberateness that ‘use’ doesn’t. That’s one of the things with words. We can use them (choose them) to convey particular meanings/messages and the reader happily remains unaware of our choices. The writing seems natural, as if there’s no other way to say it, to write it … to think it. No other way to think. We can manipulate the reader, cause him or her to imagine things he or she hadn’t thought to imagine before, to connect two distinct ideas that they hadn’t connected before, to even come up with the notion that two plus two equals five if we use/choose just the right words.

Precision in language is not to be underestimated. It’s a hallmark of critical thinking – of knowing what you mean and writing/speaking what you mean so that your reader/listener/audience doesn’t have to guess at your meaning. There is no ambiguity in your meaning, unless you choose it to be so. Disturbingly, for people like me, precision is often underestimated. In fact, some people don’t think about it at all. They use words as though one is as good as another and we all know, when we stop to think about it, that one is not the same as another.

But strings of words can also cause us to think in particular ways. My attention was caught by a newspaper headline yesterday about student teachers getting an ‘F’. It turns out that in a study conducted by an Australian university, many (in some cases most) pre-service teachers – that is, university students studying to be teachers – are very poor spellers. My own experience teaching pre-service teachers means that this finding was not news to me.

It may be shocking to you, or you may be quite unsurprised by this news … that those preparing to be your children’s and grandchildren’s teachers have poor spelling skills. The report then did something interesting. It connected two unrelated ideas: 1. poor spelling and 2. becoming a teacher.

It suggested that stricter spelling tests are needed prior to admission to university to ensure that those who cannot spell cannot become teachers. In our society, spelling and intelligence are linked. If you can spell well, then you are obviously intelligent. If you can’t, then you obviously lack intelligence. This is a truth for many people. Clearly, if teachers cannot spell well, they are not intelligent and therefore should not be teaching our children.

The connection between the two unrelated ideas was made ‘naturally’, despite the lack of any evidence indicating a link between ability to spell and ability to teach. The article, and perhaps the press release the story came from, took an uncritical look at the issue; it failed to raise serious questions, and left little room for thinking differently about the issue. It did this through strings of words that presented taken-for-granted assumptions about the audience – that they would immediately agree with the outcome suggested (more testing) and then turn the page to read about what the Kardashians are up to now.

Well, why don’t we (yes, dear reader, that means you and I) ask some critical questions before we turn the page and get up-to-date on the latest Kardashian capers? Why don’t we engage in some critical thinking? What questions do you have?

Here are just some of mine … please feel free to add your own in the comments section.

Questions about the nature of intelligence and the link (if there is one) between intelligence and spelling ability.

Questions about what we value in teachers. I note that the article didn’t call for an empathy test, or a test of a person’s capacity to form positive and supportive relationships with students and parents. Nobody seems to be calling for a test of a teacher’s capacity to deal with the often unrelenting demands of parents (leading, in one case I heard of recently, to a principal’s suicide), or of violent children.

Is spelling the thin edge of the wedge? If a teacher can’t spell, then maybe they can’t teach either; maybe they can’t see a hurting child and speak a kind word; maybe they can’t motivate and engage children or foster a child’s creativity and resilience, or nurture a child’s spirit …

The taken-for-granted assumption that a capacity to spell is what determines a person’s capacity to teach effectively speaks to a lack of critical thought … and in my view, for what it’s worth, that speaks to lazy thinking, which in my book is worse than poor spelling.

Words and ideas matter. Being able to communicate those ideas clearly and effectively, with the best/most appropriate words, matters. Yes, spelling matters, particularly for teachers, but to not allow someone in to teaching on the basis of poor spelling means we may miss out on developing some wonderful teachers. Teachers with heart and soul and passion.

Those things matter too.

I’d really like to hear from you. Please feel free to post a polite and respectful comment below in response to the news story, or to my post in general. What qualities are important in the teachers of your children/grandchildren/great grandchildren? Should spelling ability be the sole determinant of admission into a teaching degree?

What matters to you?


I like to travel and take photographs. I like to blog about both.

3 thoughts on “Words and ideas

  1. This has me thinking, Sharon.

    I had an attitude shift a few years ago that sort of morphed from ‘grammar nazi’ into something else, but I’m not sure what. “Cherry’s” drives me crazy in my own head but not so much that I go on diatribes. I know I was among the (I don’t even know how many) folks that already had a reasonably sound ability with grammar and writing and spelling and mechanics and all of it. But I think I will always feel as though there is more that I don’t understand/yet know in language than what I do. And I’m still making progress and having to make decisions about the way I use language; learning and changing as I go. AND, learning to spell new words. Because obviously, there are a zillion more words that I don’t know than the ones I do.

    I suppose at face value, I judge bad spelling in a roundabout kind of way. I have stopped saying it out loud. I just take photos and text it to the people who will appreciate the misery of it. But think about what it takes to be a good speller. It might mean having a really good memory, or reading a lot, or a lot of rote learning, or practicing, or or having had consistent exposure to learning experiences that boosted the skill. And you’ve also got to care about it. Fortunately, I must have had a good enough combination of all of these, and have just always been naturally good at it. In grade 8, I was being a punk and after weeks upon weeks of getting 20/20 on the weekly spelling test, I started intentionally spelling words incorrectly because I was just so BORED. Of course, now, often teaching grade 8s, I know that I was just being a bit of a smarty pants, and I also think of the people around me who really did struggle and how annoying and sad it must have been for me to create a scene like that. But looking at 14 year old me… I wasn’t engaged. So being a good speller doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is engaged in ideas or even loosely making progress with writing as a craft. I think the opposite applies too; being a poor speller doesn’t mean that someone isn’t engaged in something else or useful in other ways.

    From a teacher’s standpoint, it makes me want to be really deliberate about building mechanics and spelling and grammar into something else, rather than having these specific skills isolated to be practiced on their own in ways that aren’t particularly engaging. But that makes me think of the challenges with that; how I wonder what technology is doing to the ‘input’ of language into our brains and hands (as muscles)… having spell check and auto-correct means that when kids write on paper, they don’t even write capital i/I and I think it’s probably because their fingers and brains are so used to the one version of the letter (that is: I press this button and I get the ‘I’ that I want). Way too much to think about. It’s holidays!

    As for teacher testing… shucks, I dunno. It’s not ridiculous to want our teachers to spell well, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world. Patience probably comes more in handy than spelling. Can we do patience testing?


  2. Well nothing like a new year Post from Sharon to get us all thinking.

    To start with the choice of words. I had a brilliant English teacher in high school (1959 – 1960). She taught us the use and meaning of using English to it’s best advantage. I still avoid use of the word “got” and you do not pick a friend you choose them. You pick scabs or sores. Evan though I only had her for 2 years she made a distinct impression on me and my choice of reading material – I cannot read badly written books no matter how interesting they are as I find I am correcting their English or phrasing of paragraphs. Luckily I have found many good authors and stick to those.

    In primary school we always had a “Library” class once a week. The librarian taught us many things but one that stood out was how to use a dictionary which for me has always been a godsend as I am a very poor speller. Before spell check if I was writing something important I would have my dictionary at the ready. Now I must say that even though I could not spell very well I was taught very well the use the English language and know the difference between too and to, their and there, brought and bought etc also to use words that have subtle changes such as also for too. These were taught by dedicated teachers who loved their craft and I couldn’t care a hoot if they could spell or not, they were teachers who brought fun into the classroom and made us think.

    Now as to a spelling test for teachers – what are they really trying to achieve? I think if I was looking for a primary teacher for my grandson I would expect a well rounded knowledge and interests and to be able to teach those skills. One does no have to be a mathematician to teach basic maths to primary school children, however it is ideal that a primary school teacher can teach the art of learning.

    High or Secondary School teaching is another matter and I am disappointed with the options available to my granddaughter. She would like to do ancient history and because of this is unable to do chemistry. Are we giving too many options but not enough depth for a well rounded knowledge in the basics. We can always find ways to study our interests but it should not be a the cost of the basics. Going back to my own high school days certain subjects such as history, maths, English, pysics/chemisrty and social science were not negotiable – everyone did those subjects in the 1st year then we could branch out with home economics, biology, business studies etc. When we left school at 15 years of age we were able to be employed and trained for our chosen occupation or do the Leaving Certificate for higher education qualifications and university. Now students are leaving at 17years still with only the basics, still requiring further education or training.

    If we want good teachers, and everyone would agree that we do, it is about time that there is some way to gauge the value of good teachers. It’s a bit like nursing, when they made it a university course there were many who could do the study but when it came to actual people, blood, mess and hard work many dropped out wasting time effort and cost.

    I’m afraid it is people like you, Sharon, who has the passion to teach to find a way that can bring out the passion in others who will eventually teach our children.

    I must admit I have a great respect for today’s teachers. The class of 7 and 8 year olds I have been involved in this last year has opened my eyes to the work of the teacher of this class. A few of the children come to school dirty. Their uniforms have not been laundered over the weekend. Now this is no criticism of the children or their learning capacity it is an observation of the priority of the parents and of the different family values now. If you worked with a colleague who came to work unwashed unkempt and a bit smelly you would have the right to ask them to clean up their act, however teachers are not, they still have to work with these children. In the same class there are some very disruptive and rude children, they annoy their fellow students and are rude to the teacher – however, I think the teacher has little choice but to put up with this bad behaviour.

    I have to ask myself, who but the dedicated would like to work in this environment.

    There’s no doubt about it Sharon, you bring out the thinker in me. I have put in a good hours work here. Hope it’s worth it.


    1. Thanks Aunty Jan. I appreciate the thought and time you put into your response. To know that I bring out the thinker in you is affirming to me as a teacher. Thanks again.


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