Does Spelling Count?

In a perfect world, students might be judged by their ideas alone -- not by whether they write "you're" or "your." But that isn't the world we live in.

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It happens every time. As I hand the test out to my middle school students, one of them will invariably look up, pencil at the ready, and ask, "Does spelling count?"

Let's ignore the fact that my students should know better than to even ask this question in the first place. I've answered it more times than I care to remember, usually in the fall of the new school year, and it goes something like this:

Yes. Spelling counts. I have lots of witty quips loaded up in my quiver about why it counts, but my new favorite comes from homeschooling mom of four Jodi Jackson Stewart who tweeted me with her answer to this question: "Spelling counts here because spelling counts out there."

Let's imagine you work in human resources department in a company like Google, or in the admissions department of a popular university. You are responsible for reading thousands of applications and whittling those thousands down to a handful of promising candidates by next Tuesday, when you will meet with your boss. The application files are thick, and at the height of admissions or hiring season you have learned to carry a couple of extra grocery bags around in your car for toting these files back and forth between work and home. You have four meetings and a dentist appointment tomorrow, and you simply can't imagine how you will get through these application files.

Now, imagine that it's late on Monday night. Your kids have been put to bed, but your spouse is insisting on some alone time, and you've already spent nine hours today reading through these applications. The one in your hand looks pretty much like all those thousands of others. If only there were some way to decide without having to wade through the 500-word essay about the summer spent digging latrines in Kenya...

And there it is -- an easy way out, right there in the third sentence: "The days are hot and dry, your thirsty, tired, and homesick." Not "you're," but "your." The essay may go on to articulate inspired truths about human nature. It may reveal some novel insight that has never been revealed before. But here's the rub: This admissions officer with the limited time and frustrated spouse is done. Three lines into the essay, the application lands squarely on the "No" pile.

This example tends to upset my students. They wail, "But that's unfair! Shouldn't it be the ideas that count? That's about appearances, not content!" And they are right. Ideas should be judged on substance rather than appearances, but this simply is not how our world works. We live in a society where appearances matter, where in order to be heard and taken seriously we are judged quickly and superficially.

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her website, and is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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