This article was written by Jeff C, a tutor of Bespoke Tuition since 2012. Jeff studied Theology & Religious Studies at Cambridge University and writes music for radio and independent films. Jeff can be available for hourly tutorials, online tutoring and residential tuition. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org to receive a complimentary online 30 minute tutorial with Jeff.
Spelling mistakes are obvious
So often we get bogged down in spelling: it’s often the number one thing that “sticks out” when we read a student’s work, and poor spelling can set alarm bells going and create a sense of urgency that something needs to be fixed.
Spelling mistakes are easy to fix
Part of the reason for this is that a spelling mistake is so easy to explain, and so easy to fix: just change a letter or two and you’re done! Furthermore, there is a clear “right and wrong” answer, which makes it seem like it’s more important than anything else.
Examiners are not allowed to care
Most mark schemes have a prescribed maximum allowance for spelling, in addition to punctuation and grammar. Grouped all together (sometimes termed “SPaG”), this could be worth as much as 30% of the marks for a creative writing exam, at primary school level. At secondary school level, e.g for 13+ and GCSE writing, SPaG is awarded far fewer marks, perhaps at a maximum of 20% or even 10% of the marks available.
Spelling mistakes won’t affect your grade
In fact, examiners are told to check spelling proportional to the word count. In other words, in a writing piece of five hundred words, if five words are spelled wrong, that only represents 1% of words. This is unlikely to have any impact on the awarded mark for spelling.
What matters more than spelling?
So, if spelling doesn’t matter, what does? Even if 30% of the marks available are for spelling, punctuation and grammar, 70% of the marks are for other things. This is different for every exam, every examiner, and every candidate. However, examiners are mostly looking for things like: answering the question; impressive vocabulary; maturity of writing style; long, flowing sentences; good structure; a high word count; five senses; emotions; etc. In order to secure a high grade in the exam, it is so important for students to be focused on these areas, and not on spelling.
Fear of spelling can destroy creativity
The danger of immediately zoning in on spelling mistakes is that it can make students scared of writing, and scared of using interesting or exciting vocabulary. Students may prefer to use an easy, comfortable word like “big”, rather than an exciting word like “enormous”, purely because one is easier to spell. For this reason, it is so important to praise students for writing quickly, writing a lot, and writing interesting words, even if spelling suffers as a result.
What if my child is genuinely terrible at spelling?
First of all, don’t panic, for all of the reasons above: spelling is not even close to the number one thing that examiners are looking for. However, if your child is really spelling more than half their words wrong, a much better strategy is to go through and highlight or underline the correctly-spelled words. You can then even tally a total, and the feedback becomes, “Well done, you spelled fifty words correct!” as opposed to, “How terrible, you spelled fifty words wrong!”
Spelling is hard
Spelling in English is really, really hard: much, much harder than other European languages, which tend to follow a much clearer and more consistent phonetic system. Like anything that is hard, the key is that practice makes perfect. And we are always going to want to practise more when we feel excited and supported, not criticised and othered.