Do texting and online chatting affect spelling?

Future texting
Nope! Research suggests that whether kids use text messaging or other types of shortened text for writing online doesn't make a blind bit of difference to their spelling.

Good spellers, weak spellers
Some small-scale research at the University of Alberta in Canada found that those who could spell well in academic contexts also spelled well on-line or on their mobiles and those that couldn't didn't.

The difference between girls and boys
They also found that girls used more short forms, like GR8, LOL, etc, whereas boys used more punctuation!!!!!!!! (like that). The article's at:

The most literate generation ever?
Interesting stuff but the study was tiny (only 40 kids). At the other end of the scale, but with similar results, some research from Stanford University was enormous, involving 14,672 bits of student writing (both academic and social). The researchers showed that young people are doing more writing than any previous generation have ever done. And significantly they are writing for a specific purpose - not just to hand in an essay because they have to. "Ah yes but...,"say the grumpy old women/men*, "...they may be writing a lot but they use so much of that dreadful texting language that they forget how to write properly." Not so, according to these researchers: in all the academic papers that they looked at they didn't find any examples at all of texting language. The research is here.

What do you think?
If you are a teacher or a parent, do you think SMS language affects your children's spelling? And do you think some shortened forms like u (for you) will eventually become accepted forms of English spelling?

*I don't know if grumpy old men and grumpy old women are an entirely British phenomenon or not. They are not necessarily particularly old (middle-aged) but they are certainly grumpy ... about everything - especially anything new or anyone young.

The reason for love? And dove, above, done, wonder, come and some.

Have you ever wondered why we spell love, some, done as we do rather than *luv, *sum and *dun? The reason may surprise you.

Middle English manuscript was less rounded than ours is medieval manuscriptnowadays and it was largely made up of vertical strokes, called 'minims'. Also 'u' and 'v' were often interchangeable - written as 'v' at the beginning of the word and 'u' in the middle. So you can imagine that that letter strings of 'uv', 'um', and 'un' were pretty hard to work out - just a row of minims. So to make it easier to read, scribes started to make the 'u' into a more rounded 'o' in several words: love, dove, glove, above, shove, cover, oven; done, one, wonder, money, son, monk; come, some, etc. They are all spelled with 'o' but make the short 'u' sound, as in cut. (This explanation from David Crystal in The Encyclopedia of the English Language, p40.)

That still leaves the question of the final 'e' in some of the words above. In Old English, if there was a final 'e', it was pronounced. Words ending with this sounded 'e' were later dropped and that meant that a final 'e' could be used for other orthographic purposes. We know that the most common of these is to make the preceding vowel long, as in huge as opposed to hug or rate instead of rat. But the 'e' is also used for several other purposes. And one of these seems to be to tell us that the preceding vowel has been messed with in some way. Another reason for the final 'e' in some of these words is that there's an orthographical rule that English words can't end in 'v'. So an 'e' is added to make the spelling 'legal' in such words as give and live (vb).

Going back to the medieval manuscripts, at that time the letter 'i' had no dot and so Frank Smith (Writing and the Writer) suggests that's why women is spelled as it is - an 'i' (without a dot) between the four minims of a 'w'** and the three minims of the 'm' would be really hard to work out. And just think what the word minim would look like!

**'w' was sometimes written with a completely different letter (sorry, Blogger doesn't have that font!) and sometimes with 'uu'.

Spelling bees - how do you spell...?

The spelling bee is a very North American concept. These spelling competitions have never really become popular in the UK, but in 2005 the BBC did run a series called Hard Spell. Children competed against each other to find the best speller - it went on for weeks and drew good audiences I think. But it seems once was enough for the British public.

The Times newspaper has an online spelling bee - compete against yourself or others. I'll give you the link but it comes with a warning: if you are quite a good speller - it's very addictive, if you are not a good speller - it's depressing. If you're really sure you've got time / self-esteem to spare: .

While I was playing with the Times spelling bee game (I told you it was addictive) I was trying to work out HOW I knew the spellings that I knew.

It was partly by sound, but certainly not exclusively. And sometimes I had to distort the real sound (like saying com-fort-able instead of comf-table to spell comfortable), not something we want to encourage in second language learners.

It was also partly visual - I could usually see the word in my head, at least the rough shape of it. If I took time to glance at the word on the screen, I could tell immediately if it was wrong, even if I didn't know the right spelling.

Sometimes I just followed orthographic patterns. I knew to write the suffix 'able' not 'abel', and of course I knew that I needed a 'u' after 'q' in acquaint. I knew that acknowledgement had to keep the 'e' before the suffix to keep the 'g' soft (in British English).

Other morphological rules really helped, as they are generally very regular. I knew prefixes had to be added to whole words and when I needed to double a letter before a suffix. I also had a bank of prefixes and suffixes in my head that I could select from. Sub and terra were useful for subterranean. Such chunks have become fairly automatic - I don't have to think about them letter-by-letter.

Lexical spelling
Sometimes I had to relate a word to another semantically linked word: for zealot I had to refer to zeal, I got the 'c' in vivacious because I thought of vivacity.

Some understanding of etymology can help too. Although the English word facile isn't one I write often, the French word facile is much more common, so I probably referred to that. There are also certain Greek letter strings that I needed such as 'ch' for /k/ in chronology, or the 'y' in dialysis (like the more common analysis).

Learning by doing
It was also quite a kinesthetic process. My fingers just typed many of the words, or at least parts of those words. The ones I got wrong (oh yes, there were certainly several of those!) tended to be words that I never normally write and that I couldn't relate to any other words or parts of words. And I think my spelling was worse than usual because the words were out of context. I believe that if I'd been writing them as part of a text they would have been more likely to flow out accurately - but perhaps I'm just making excuses!

Teaching and learning spelling
So what does all this tell us about teaching and learning spelling:
  • sound indicates spelling sometimes but is probably the least reliable route. And if your pronunciation isn't too good anyway, it could mislead you.
  • visual methods of spelling should be encouraged - it's what good spellers do, and weaker spellers can learn to 'see' words too.
  • it's worth learning, or at least noticing, some orthographic patterns - great to refer to when we are unsure.
  • for long words, breaking them up morphologically can really help. Learners need to know a range of affixes and rules for adding them to words.
  • semantic links between words need to be explored and spelling patterns will emerge that often explain a spelling that at first looks completely irregular
  • an acknowledgement that English is rather a mongrel of a language and an awareness of some common spellings handed down from different languages can be helpful
  • the more we write, the better our spelling gets as it becomes increasingly automatic - both in terms of words and letter strings, so learners need to write often and meaningfully. Writing for an audience will encourage them to aim for accuracy.
And all that, my friends, is what my book (soon to be published) is about - with plenty of activities to help learners discover and practise. For more about it click on the cover below: