Does Spelling Count?

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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.

I wrote a piece recently for this magazine about the reasons I enforce dress codes among my middle school students. I got a lot of flak because some readers believed I was "slut-shaming," judging my female students by their hemlines rather than their brains or character, but I disagree. Do I wish that I could send my students out into the world wearing whatever they want and still see them judged on the content of their intellect and character?

Sure. I absolutely agree that we should not be judging girls on the length of their skirts any more than we judge them on their ability to discern "affect" from "effect," but we do. In order to get through the door at an interview or past the threshold of an application process, my students are going to have to meet a standard, and it's part of my job to teach them about that standard.

That said, I teach my students to dream about a world in which they can be respected for the content of their thoughts rather than for the style of their clothes or the placement of their commas. In fact, I hope they grow up to be the people who can help the world embrace this vision of substance over style. The reality is that in order to create change for tomorrow, my students must be heard, and part of my job is to teach them how to be heard in the world as it exists today. If I taught my students that they could go to a job interview wearing a bikini and wielding a wadded resume riddled with errors and still be respected for their brains and skills, I would not be doing them any favors.

This is true even for students who struggle with spelling and grammar because of some glitch in their processing, a learning disability, or a simple lack of exposure to written language. Many of these weak spellers are lovely, intelligent people, and I would love to promise them that society will see past their flawed spelling, grammar, and diction to the ideas beneath. But I can't. So I note their errors, meet them where they are, work within the parameters of their challenges, and help them get to a place where their ideas will be taken seriously.

That's my job; I'm a teacher. I teach my students how to think for themselves and express their own ideas. I teach them how to be heard and appreciated and valued in the world we live in, even as they work to change it into a better place.

So yes, spelling counts.

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a former English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her site, Coming of Age in the Middleand 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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