Give Students 'A' For Effort, Not 'F' For Misspelling

Encourage self-expression says this English teacher.


        (Editor's note: This column is written by High School English teacher Jerry Heverly. Its tag line is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do an experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary.)

         If someone were to ask me to define my job as a high school English teacher—which, oddly enough, no one has yet done—I would say it has two parts.

         My first job, as I see it, is to interest kids in reading. I try to show my students that reading is worth the effort, that it is enjoyable, useful, and meaningful in their lives.

         My second job has to do with writing. I start with the assumption that somewhere in their lives my students will be called upon to engage in consequential writing. I try to introduce them to the conventions of grammar and spelling that will enable them to participate in the world of the written word—a place most of them have never visited.

         To perform these two functions requires that I navigate a very hazardous path, one that protects my students’ egos while still coaxing them towards improvement. I have the capacity to show them a better way; I also have the ability to turn them off fatally to both reading and writing.

         Most everyone has had the experience some time in his or her life of receiving criticism. Even those who profited from such censure would concede that it’s often an unpleasant experience that can knock you off track for a while.

         When a student receives an essay back from the teacher with a dozen misspelled words circled in red (or any color) the natural reaction is to avoid that kind of pain in the future. The best strategy for dodging this kind of rebuke is to rein in one’s vocabulary to only words you know you can spell.

         The obvious retort here is, of course, that if students aren’t made aware of their errors, how can they correct them? There’s also the predictable contempt that many folks have for teachers who spend time protecting the self-esteem of kids at the cost of back-to-basics strictness.

         My own solution to this paradox is to shift my role from critic to editor.

         When a student hands in a story or essay to me I find ways to show them their errors. Sometimes I circle mistakes. I might write notes in the margin. Occasionally I sit down and type a corrected version of their work to show them how it should look. In some cases I ignore most of their errors, focusing on one or two important issues.

         I never reduce their grade on a paper because of errors. And I provide them with oodles of time to hand in emended versions with the errors fixed.

         I want students to take chances. I want their writing to reflect their thinking free of the self-imposed constraints that they internalize when someone like me repeatedly points out their errors.

         That means I tread carefully when I try to steer them towards more conventional spelling.

         Adults wishing to demonstrate the general incompetence of teachers will cite the spelling anomalies of the young.  I’m convinced that older folks get so exercised over these errors because following the conventions of spelling is one of the fundamental ways that members of a community signify their commitment to the larger group.

         If you care about others you try to follow the rules of the group. That may be why so many of my students, who do not yet feel themselves a part of the larger community, are so sloppy with their spelling.  

         “It is the effort to use words well,” wrote John Holt, “to say what one wants to say, to people whom he trusts and wants to reach and move, that alone will teach a young person to use words better.”  

Read other columns from the Entirely Secondary archive.

Smart guy October 11, 2012 at 07:53 PM
Saying that spelling is not necessary because of spell check is like saying that math is not necessary because of calculators. There are numerous studies that show how grade inflation has been on the raise for decades; which means that students now, on average, have higher grades then student did 20 years ago but have lower test scores (SAT, etc.). But then again, this is not just a teachers problem, what are teachers to do when a parent like Gloria reinforces to her own child that spelling is not important; do you think that student will care if they turn in a paper that is marked up with spelling errors but still gets a good grade because they tried?
Dalamar October 11, 2012 at 08:01 PM
Students are in school to learn. If they already knew how to read and write, they wouldn't need to go to school in the first place. As long as they are proficient at the end of the class, what happens inbetween is all part of the growth process. Writing is akin to creating a work of art. The mind should be undisturbed to be able to transform thought into a physical representation of that thought. Getting students to participate voluntarily and with a modicum of interest is the most important. The rest will follow.
Leah Hall October 11, 2012 at 09:10 PM
Good to know (the stats, that is). According to a recent national test, my daughter is "off the charts" in every subject except writing "mechanics" which includes spelling. In the real world, we need to work on our weaknesses while also playing to our strengths. The first step is a comprehensive metric, typically a grading system. Then comes the hard part, setting goals and striving to acheive them. If we all get caught up in the grades themselves, we are not doing our kids any real service in the long run. My daughter needs to work on her spelling. So did her father when he was her age. Now he has a PHD in Applied Math, spells fine, and no one can read his handwriting or printing so he types. In our family, we all know that with hard work and developmentally appropriate support, our daughter's academic career is likely to share some aspects of her father's story. Read often with your children at an early age, parents. This one thing, perhaps more than any other, will make for better student outcomes in high school and beyond.
Robert Marrujo October 11, 2012 at 09:30 PM
Conversely, though, coddling the kids isn't going to prepare them for college or the workplace. Encouragement can be a powerful tool, but we're talking about high school kids who are lacking reading and writing skills that they should have mastered circa middle school, if not earlier. Less than ideal is certainly a fair assessment of the reality of the situation here, but we're talking about a school system that is clearly routinely passing kids through that should be getting held back. That blame falls squarely on the shoulders of those who are assessing these kids.
Tom Abate (Editor) October 11, 2012 at 09:39 PM
Sideways to this discussion, the state released school test results today; how San Leandro showed is a matter of perspective: http://sanleandro.patch.com/articles/test-scores-inch-up-at-san-leandro-unified
Robert Marrujo October 11, 2012 at 09:44 PM
More to your point, though, Tom, I agree with the critics that we certainly can't keep hitting our heads against the wall. Perhaps a starting point can be the identification of students who are severely under-performing and getting them into a comprehensive course of remedial English classes. That seems the only sensible solution to the problem, along with the district and school working together to find exactly where the breakdown is occurring that allows for poor student performance to result in passing grades on their report cards.
Ken Briggs October 11, 2012 at 11:38 PM
teacher could have put in the correct spelling and make him/ her re write the paper. then what about wrords that sound the same and which word to use . we have very few real good teachers . for the ones that do not want to learn then kick them out ,put them in another class orschool .
Robert Marrujo October 11, 2012 at 11:52 PM
"That is why we have remedial English in college campuses across America. It is a way for under-educated students to learn how to spell the words they somehow missed in the first twelve years of their education." These classes have been inundated in recent years because our schools are churning out kids missing these basic skills. Remedial classes aren't meant to be used in the volume that they currently are; it's the equivalent of building a boat and not caring that it's all full of holes, with the rationalization being that there are plenty of flotation devices on board. It makes more sense to build a boat that doesn't sink. These classes are supposed to be for the exceptions, not massive chunks of graduating high school students whose passing grades supposedly demonstrate that they have learned and mastered this info already.
Robert Marrujo October 11, 2012 at 11:59 PM
EXACTLY. Teachers are under pressure from the administration and parents to let these kids skid from grade to grade. Thus, they will "pass" a class, but when it comes time to put up, they can't, and either flunk out of college or spend years floating through remedial courses (which are a huge money pit for the student and taxpayers). Loved the calculator comparison, spot on.
Thomas Clarke October 12, 2012 at 01:05 AM
Jerry is the problem with our schools. He teaches uner the aegis of the Bell Curve. The statistical majority gives us the upper 15 per cent do well in his class. The majority gather around the mean performance which is below the average for the entire state. Then there are the losers opposite the successes. Way too much time is spent on the kids who fail. Let them fail. Do not give them a diploma until they demonstrate understanding and command. Of course Jerry likes to focus on the challenges instead of the task. He is like the other teachers out there, preparing students to fail to get a job. Believe me, being able to spell and write well and comprehend are values that directly impact where your career will grow. Most of the students at SLHS will fail, as their teachers fail as well.
Thomas Clarke October 12, 2012 at 01:10 AM
Leah, I am sure your husband is wonderful in his profession. Applied Mathematics is its own discipline. However, you might want to look at your own mechanics. If your husbands spells "fine" I am pleased. Your choice of the word fine is lousy grammar. There are lots of ways to say what you said, but fine is not it. I am sure he spells words in line with Standard American English most of the time and efforts consistently at using the aids to do so.
David October 12, 2012 at 03:00 AM
Certainly we can all point to successful people who spell poorly, who occasionally make obvious grammar mistakes (lord knows all the rich idiots on TV saying "between you and I), and even those who can't really do long division. What you don't see and what you don't point to are the innumerable failures who cannot spell well, cannot speak or write well, or cannot solve simple math problems. These failures are legion. As the Wall Street Journal noted in a large survey of employers, inability to spell/speak/write properly was the #1 reason for an employer to reject a job applicant. By ignoring these skills, schools continue to set up vast numbers of students for failure. Again, 50% of college--*college* grads are unemployed or underemployed, never mind "mere" high school grads. And yet, certain people want to keep on spending more money on teachers who are paid the most on average in the entire country and continue to reward failure.
David October 12, 2012 at 03:25 AM
Not all of us are artists. Precious few are. Lord knows I'm not a creative writer and will never be published as such. The vast majority of American students who are also in that boat should at least be able to write and spell competently. If they can't do that, there is no point to learning "how to write" creatively in school. You might as well shut down the public schools and just let the kids "express themselves" in the pidgin they develop on their own.
David October 12, 2012 at 03:26 AM
Again, Mr. Clarke and I agree. Miracles may never cease.
Leah Hall October 12, 2012 at 03:50 AM
Forgive me, Thomas. Now he has a PHd in Applied Math, he spells words correctly....
Dalamar October 12, 2012 at 05:33 AM
Apparently reading comprehension isn't one of your strong suits either.
David October 12, 2012 at 01:24 PM
Perhaps Dalamar, you're advocating a failed policy such as "whole language" learning. You can't "teach" a kid to be the next great novelist. You *can* teach them to write correctly, if not necessarily creatively. You focus on the impossible, ignoring not only the possible, but the useful.
Dalamar October 12, 2012 at 02:28 PM
David, Maybe it's time for you to take a vacation. I said "As long as they are proficient at the end of the class, what happens inbetween is all part of the growth process." "Getting students to participate voluntarily and with a modicum of interest is the most important. The rest will follow." In simpler terms I was saying- Yes spelling and grammar are important, but getting them to write with interest voluntarily will KEEP THEM MOTIVATED. With the motivation, they will also learn grammar and spelling throughout the class.
David October 12, 2012 at 04:01 PM
What happens in between is part of the *teaching* process. You, like Mr. Heverly here, seem to think that kids learn spelling & grammar through osmosis. As long as you start them off with getting them to read, then by the end of the year, magically they'll learn spelling and grammar. Or as you state "the rest will follow." I can throw a bunch of numbers at kids and try to get them interested in math. Let's say for the sake of argument, they are fascinated by tales of billions and googles and fractions. Will the skills of addition, subtraction and such follow? So that by the end of the class, they're magically proficient absent actual teaching? No. Neither will they with spelling and grammar. Perhaps you didn't mean exactly what you wrote. That's fine. But let's get real, the whole language kind of learning fad you sound like you'd be fine with has been an abject failure in the classroom. If you're not advocating that, then fine.
Dalamar October 12, 2012 at 04:53 PM
Hello David, Don't lose focus, let's stay on point. We're not talking about math. It's unfortunate there are some students who get graduated up to another grade without the proper skills. The fact remains there are students who should be learning the new material of the new class. Reading is key in many aspects of learning including spelling and grammatical form. (The Importance of Learning to Readwww.kidsandreading.co.uk › Children & Reading) If a teacher can improve through teaching, coaching and reinforcing their spelling skills during this journey in a reading and/or writing skills class while maintaining their interest and motivation, then it's still a success. No one said they would magically learn these things on their own or through osmosis. Unless that's how you would describe learning in general.
Leah Hall October 12, 2012 at 07:50 PM
Food for thought: Those too quick to label young people, beware: "Sir John Gurdon, Nobel Prize winner, was 'too stupid' for science at school" Don't miss the picture of the teacher evaluation he received at age 15 and has kept on the wall above his desk. :) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/9594351/Sir-John-Gurdon-Nobel-Prize-winner-was-too-stupid-for-science-at-school.html
David October 12, 2012 at 08:42 PM
Yes, yes, Leah, and Einstein was famously thought to be "slow." For every one brilliant, successful person, there are literally millions who are thought of as "slow" because they don't spell well, or speak correctly, and can't get a job.
Leah Hall October 12, 2012 at 10:04 PM
We are in some ways in violent agreement, David. I won't argue with you that tragically, much human potential in our society is wasted. I think you and I agree that the one group we can't blame for that is the young people themselves. Children raised in households with 2 loving and resourced parents have an enormous advantage over kids born into poverty or broken households, which more often (but not always) means being raised by a single struggling parent. At the end of the day, our children thrive on our good attention and care, period. As many of the comments in this string remind me, teachers are on the firing line by many in our community, but I think we all understand the unfairness of that at some level. That said, I like this post about Sir John Gordon. It helps us remember some humility in all of this. Adults can be dead wrong in their evaluations and predictions about young people, so we all should proceed with great care.
David October 12, 2012 at 11:31 PM
Leah, teachers certainly share the blame. There are many examples as I've already given, where schools with similar (or even more "challenging") demographics do much better than SLUSD. We're always told how teachers are "professionals" with gobs of training and such and that's why they "deserve" the high pay and benefits they get for working half time. With such highly paid "professionals" we should expect a high level of performance. If I don't make my firm $X, I'm out. No severance, no pension, no retiree health care benefits. If a surgeon kills his patients with alarming regularity, he's sued out of his profession. If a lawyer loses every case, he has no more clients. What do we do with teachers who are ineffective? Give them tenure, $80k+/per half-year and a pension.
Tom Abate (Editor) October 13, 2012 at 01:50 AM
David said: " If a surgeon kills his patients with alarming regularity, he's sued out of his profession . . . What do we do with teachers who are ineffective? Give them tenure, $80k+/per half-year and a pension." The moral being to hold teachers accountable for student performance. Sounds good on one level. But the student body is not like the human body. The latter does not have a will of its own. Failing a student is not as simple as cutting out an appendix. And measuring whether a student has been "taught" seems far less measurable as whether a patient lives or dies.
Jack Bovill October 13, 2012 at 07:15 PM
If accurate spelling is David's only criteria, David would have rejected Agatha Crhistie and Winston Churchill. Well done David.
Thomas Clarke October 13, 2012 at 08:02 PM
Jack, you are so right, except when you are wrong. Both Agatha and Winston were products fo the British education system. Winston went to private schools with tutors and every possible advantage of wealth and position. He went on to preside over the destruction of the British Empire and the slaughter of thousands over three wars. His virulent racism is a blot on society. The British were happy to be rid of him as soon as the war ended and died a bitter old man. Winston is no one to claim. Agatha Christie was easily the most mixed up and confused woman of all time raised in an upper middle class family in Ulster, educated privately and without much in the way of rules. She resissted education, married young and played the world of Nurse in WW1. She abandoned her family and was rejected by her first husband. We would do well to pass on both of these people who were from families of wealth and white and who did not conform to doing well in school. Neither of them really amounted to the kind of person most folks would like to know. Both were odd and mean not real nice, by all accounts. The fact that they were both connected with the continuing crime of Northern Ireland is proof enough for me. Of course Jack you do favor the wealthy and white with all advantages. Probably a big fan of the British to boot. Remember who Americans fought against for Liberty and Freedom.
David October 13, 2012 at 08:34 PM
And yet, Tom, catholic schools in inner city milwaukee and elsewhere continue to do a better job by all accounts of educating the same kinds of kids who otherwise attend public schools and fail. We've been over this before. There are plenty of schools that do good jobs with a "disadvantaged" student body. California public schools in general and our schools in particular don't, by all measures
Leah Hall October 13, 2012 at 09:12 PM
Thought some might be interested.... "Is the U.S. Catching Up?" http://educationnext.org/is-the-us-catching-up/
Larry Smith February 07, 2013 at 02:42 AM
Sadly, we tend to "grade" people on their ability to turn a word or catch a phrase. One of my "A+" people used to work for the City of San Leandro as a janitor or maintenance person just as I did. I went on to get a college degree, but my good friend never did. I never attained greatness if you were to measure it according to the standards most people like to use today. In all the years that I have known him, I still seek his counsel, because what I lack in common sense, he seems to have an over-abundance. I am a well-educated person, he is a world-educated person. He has made me a better person for my knowing him, and I am not sure he could say the same about me. He is my good friend. His name is Harold Figueroa and he retired several years ago. He taught me much about life. So never, ever, assume that people are not important! And never assume that you cannot learn with every encounter.


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