The following is a series of responses to two position statements on faculty options for handling spelling errors in student papers. One position argued for a rigorous insistence on correct spelling, the other for a flexible approach.
What is more imporant in writing--the development of ideas or spelling and grammar? In my opinion, both are equally important, but they need to be taught in succession. First students must learn to develop and explain their ideas before they focus on the spelling and grammar skills to polish off their papers. It is harder to develop ideas when the writer is already concerned about her usage of grammar. Some professors grade on ideas while others look for grammar and spelling. This can be confusing because students may not know on which area to concentrate. It's difficult for freshmen who may not have one or either of these writing skills perfected. I agree that "In giving tests or assignments, faculty should provide students a specific context and audience."
Spelling is important; no matter what something says, regardless of the quality in what is being said, spelling errors detract from the piece. These misspellings create the image of the writer as less intelligent and less careful, even when such is not the case. While subtracting points for spelling errors on a test is not perfectly fair, it is sensible because it combats spelling problems. For students today, such problems should not exist--especially in papers. Many resources are available to overcome spelling errors. Almost every word processor is equipped with a spell checker; dictionaries are readily available anywhere. Because of these resources, and the awkwardness of spelling errors, they simply should be eliminated.
It is important to be grammatically correct, but grammar should not be the main focus of attention. The ideas expressed are of more value, and from personal experience, if I am worried about getting marked down for grammar errors, I tend to focus on my grammar rather than think and create freely. I might choose to use a simpler word instead of a difficult-to-spell word that would fit better, just because I was afraid to lose points on grammar. Worrying about grammar inhibits creativity.
Spelling incorrectly is just as bad as having a run-on sentence, punctuating incorrectly, or forgetting to capitalize. When attention is not paid to these things, they tend to get lost. This is just another symptom of a decline in the writing ability of society.
It seems to be a lot to ask a student writing a first draft under pressure of time and general test anxiety to get spelling right too. But of course, students are dead wrong if they think that spelling doesn't really matter at work. I would agree that it is crucial to supply student writers with a variety of rhetorical situations, some of which require perfection in the mastery of conventions. In my courses, the appropriate rhetorical situation has recently come to be the final portfolio, the set of final revisions of a selection of writings from different situations, chosen by the students as their best work and presented as polished and complete, to me--and in some cases to outside readers. I don't worry about spelling until I read the final portfolio, except to warn students whose work contains lots of errors that they will have to be especially careful with their final polishing.
How do we define excellence in mechanics? Is it adherence, come hwat may, to a set of predefined principles? Or is it rather the skillful adaptation of such criteria to achieve an original, perhaps striking, result? Georgia O'Keefe and Henry Ford did not simply work within a set of posted rules; they creatively expanded such concepts. We devalue writing marred by spelling errors, but does not say what we do: anything one does in mechanics that calls attention to itself (whether right or wrong) detracts from the essential task of communication. One wonders what purpose is served by giving grades in negative numbers, even with the supposed palliative of "apmple opportunity for rewriting." If insistence on perfection (whatever that means) is the current practice in journalism instruction, it has produced scant useful result in terms of "good writing" (and spelling) in today's press.