Should spell-checkers be allowed in tests?

There has been recent debate about whether spell-checkers should be used in tests. Should they?

Well, for me it depends what the test is testing. If it is testing knowledge of specific spelling patterns, the spell-check would defeat the object of the test. But if the aim is to test a learner's general writing skills or content knowledge, I would say yes, let them use one. If learners are living a life where they will be doing most of their writing electronically, this is what they need to be able to do - write accurate and expressive text, using all resources (internal and external) available to them.

Those who object to the use of spell-checkers in tests are forgetting that you have to be a halfway decent speller anyway to be able to use a spell-checker. Your attempt has to be close enough to be recognised by the software and where there is an option, you have to be able to choose the right one. You also have to cope with homophones and other real-word errors on your own. See for more on spell-checkers and an activity to train learners to use them well.

Allowing spell-checkers in tests doesn't mean you don't need to teach or correct spelling in classwork and homework, of course.

Why not allow spell-checkers in tests but be more demanding about accurate spelling? After all they are getting more help.

To me, Autocorrect is much more worrying. This corrects your spelling automatically without you noticing it. So there is no opportunity to learn. I blame Autocorrect for the fact that I always spell 'the' as 'teh' because I got away with it for years and now the muscle memory is so established that I can't do anything about it (believe me I've tried!). Autocorrect was also a nightmare when I was writing my book (Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners) because every time I gave an example of an error Autocorrect kindly 'corrected' it for me! Yes, I know I could turn it off, but then what about all the 'teh's?

Anyway, back to the subject, should spell-checkers be allowed in tests? I would love to hear your comments.


ps Just ran a spell-check on this post in Blogger. I'd written 'anyting' instead of 'anything'. This is what the spell-check suggested: 'any ting', 'anting', 'anteing', 'Antin'! Thanks Blogger, really helpful - not! Luckily all spell-checkers are not equal!


  1. I think you have the correct principle here: assistance (whether human or mechanical) is acceptable on an assignment or test as long as it does not corrupt the process of evaluation, which depends on what is being evaluated. You might be interested in my comment to a Language Log posting and the last two paragraphs of my response to critics.

    I type with autocorrection off, but then do a global search and replace for my personal spelling/typo demons, notably "reutnr" for "return" (which has been plaguing me for forty years).

  2. teh is quicker from a motor skill perspective as is adn for 'and'. It's not that we spell it incorrectly - if you hand wrote it you wouldn't spell it teh then manually correct it. Basically we are using a code or shortcut to overcome some of the inefficiencies of the qwerty keyboard. BUT, I do believe customising your auto correct options and understanding the mechanics of auto correct are a useful exercise. Setting up your own shortcuts/auto corrects helps build awareness about the process and could be a useful language/spelling lesson in itself ie discussing why the default list exists, what you would change, why those errors occur.

  3. Thank you Inky_Ed both for the reply and making me feel beter about 'teh' (oops, I nearly wrote 'the'!)

    Nice idea to get students to look behind the autocorrect.


  4. I personally don't think spell checkers should be allowed. This is also training for students to be tested holistically and not only about the content. Spelling is also a testing skill. We want our students not to be dependent on technology.