This is not a rant.

We’re all back to the classroom now, and for me that means back to Moodle postings. I am a fan of Moodle postings. For those who don’t use the system—Moodle is an open-access classroom software that enables any number of communications and tasks, among them the establishment of “forums” for student discussion of readings. I use these forums as springboards for class discussion, so I tend to require one Moodle forum post per week, with the reassurance to students that I am looking for their spontaneous thoughts and questions about the readings, not for a finished argument or essay.

Recently, noting yet another yawning crevasse between my idea of literate orthography and my students’ spelling in their Moodle posts—and having eliminated an epidemic of dyslexia as the cause—I asked in class whether there was a spell-check function on Moodle. “Oh, no, and it’s such a pain,” said one student. “You have to write the posts in Word and spell-check them and then copy them into Moodle, and the line breaks are all weird.”

I reiterated my basic advice never to trust spell-checking software. I also assured the class that I did not expect them to go through the Word-to-Moodle transfer just to get their spelling up to par for posts, though I did expect formal papers to be thoroughly proofread.

Here are a few of the words I encountered on Moodle, all from native English speakers, few attributable to typos:

  • handfull
  • sentances
  • spectrem
  • streightforward
  • necceicarly
  • definate
  • omnicient
  • dialouge
  • incedentent
  • personalaties
  • discription
  • catalist
  • exposistion

Maybe hand wringing is the appropriate response to these spellings. Maybe we should return to the debates about reading and spelling or the decline of orthography in the age of texting. Some readers of this blog are far more knowledgeable than I in the correlations between reading and graphophonemic knowledge acquisition. Right now—though I am interested to discover that I mistook a variation in platform (those who utilized the Word-to-Moodle transfer versus those who wrote directly on Moodle) for a variation in spelling ability—I am not really perturbed by the spellings themselves. I’m mostly curious about the business of norms.

Histories of English spelling, after all, contain a litany of happy and not-so-happy accidents, from the Norman Conquest to the Great Vowel Shift to the court’s move from Wessex to London. Most agree that our extremely quirky spelling was regularized by the invention of the printing press, the publication of the King James Bible, and the dictionaries of Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster. Despite attempts at spelling reform, we have become increasingly prescriptivist in our attitude toward spelling as these authorities have cemented themselves in our culture. Spell check is only the latest iteration of centuries of norming.

But aside from the inference that poor spelling means illiteracy—an inference that spell check may be inadvertently eroding—who cares? Consider, for instance, that we spell scissors with a silent c because 16th-century English scholars wrongly linked the word to the Latin scindere; that the silent h in ghost is a gift from the Hollanders who staffed early English presses and wanted to match their Dutch orthography; that fantasy was generally considered a misspelling of phantasy until the 1920s. Lacking a regulatory body like the Académie Française, English has more openings for revised and evolving spelling conventions. Not one of my students’ Moodle misspellings misled me as to their meaning. If I’d been a monk in 1300 and chosen necessarily as my preferred orthography, my student’s choice of necceicarly would not necessarily have earned him a lashing.

I would be remiss if I did not advise students who will be entering the world of résumés, job applications, and reports to bring their orthography in line with today’s accepted practice. To do otherwise would seriously injure their chances of advancement. But I wonder if the assumptions many of us grew up with—that “proper” spelling is a direct consequence of wide reading, and that “improper” spelling is a failure (of pedagogy, of intellectual curiosity, of care, of morals)—will stand up as our future unfolds in the age of spell check and Twitter. (Quickest way to reduce 143 characters to 140 characters: let through become thru.) We are talking not about some ultimate good, after all, but about something that, according to the definition of standard in Merriam-Webster, is “substantially uniform and well established by usage in the speech and writing of the educated and widely recognized as acceptable.” When it comes to “standard spelling,” judging by my students’ Moodle posts, the developments of the last five centuries may have produced a shakier, and perhaps less essential, edifice than my seventh-grade spelling teacher ever thought.

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