In a time of emojis and abbreviations, writing and spelling still matter
“You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.”
As Mara slowly enunciated each letter of the word “volatile,” everyone in the bleachers hung on the edge of their seats. The annual Spelling Bee had come down to two students, Mara and Ishan, and the suspense felt unbearable. For almost two hours, lower and middle school students spelled word after word and answered questions on vocabulary; we were now about to name this year’s champion. Mara eventually won and she will head on to the next level. Congratulations to Mara and all of the participants-you represented yourselves and your school well!
While entering the gym, several adults recalled our own spelling bee memories. Director of Enrollment Management Andrea Banks remembered when she won her eighth grade spelling bee. Perhaps a sign of age is that my winning word in the 4th grade spelling bee at Ninde S. Wilder Elementary School in Louisville, KY was the name of a country that no longer exists-Tanganyika. (For those too young to remember, in 1964 Tanganyika and Zanzibar joined together to form The United Republic of Tanzania.)
These days, we have spell check and auto-correct, so why do students even need to learn to spell? Think about how many times we grimace after auto-correct has filled in the correctly spelled but wrong word in a sentence. Like others, I have received too many cover letters that needed human proofreading to ensure that what somebody wrote fulfilled their intention.
Beyond spelling, there’s a bigger issue at work here. Contrary to what some prognosticators forecasted with the advent of email, texting, and social media, we’re not writing less than before; we’re writing more than ever. Consequently, writing may be different than earlier iterations, but it may be more important. We communicate in writing for a variety of reasons, including socially and professionally, and we are judged by how well we do.
For a long time, people have argued that writing generates thought as much as it reflects thinking. Many years ago, I heard someone say, “I don’t know what I think since I have written it yet.” A major component of the journaling process is that it enables students to process what’s going on in their heads, and formulate and refine their ideas. The actual art of writing, whether it is by hand or on a computer, stimulates and focuses one’s thoughts. As a former English teacher colleague once said, “sloppy writing reflects sloppy thinking.
In a February 15 article called “The Importance of Writing Well” from the online newsletter Business Matters, the author states, “It seems that we no longer know how to write well and we forget that our letter of introduction is often an email written by us or our curriculum vitae. We can’t even write a letter correctly, because we have lost the techniques and skills for it. We must know how to read to know how to write, how to write so we can know how to think in order to express ourselves and connect with the rest. If we can unite all this knowledge, we can relate properly. There is an important difference between those who write well or badly.”
Over the last two weeks as we spoke with alumni, they stressed how well the writing program at Keystone prepared them for college, particularly in comparison to their new classmates. Professors told our Cobra graduates that they write more articulately than their peers; our former students explained that the assignments that cause their college friends to lose sleep seem like no big deal after their time at Keystone. Listening to these alumni reaffirmed the excellent teaching at Keystone and would make any of us proud. We have sent them on to the next step in their educational journey equipped with one of the most important skills-writing well.
We also know that one of the best ways to learn how to write fluently, in addition to practice, practice, practice, is to read. The author Stephen King says in his excellent book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, ‘“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” I love at morning drop off when students jump out of a car with a book in their hands. Often, the children will regale me with a description of what they are reading; at the moment, I can vicariously experience the thrill of reading and rest assured that they are on the way to becoming strong writers.
As an aside, I want to recommend a book. This week, I finished listening to Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer. In this humorous instructional manual, Dreyer provides guidance and rules for strong writing. If you enjoy learning about style, grammar, and mechanics, you will appreciate Dreyer’s English.