British academic Ken Smith has a solution for that pesky problem of students' spelling woes: "accept as variant spelling those words our students commonly misspell". I am more than slightly aghast. In an age with internet dictionaries and spell check, there really should be no need for students to spell many words incorrectly. And on handwritten papers, I can't help but feel spelling "their" as "thier" is more a question of speed in a timed setting and laziness in an untimed setting than it is a question of a student not knowing the correct spelling of the word.
As many know, I am an absolutely horrible speller. I -at certain points in my life- have had to forego using the word I wanted, the absolute perfect word for the sentence I was constructing, because spell check had no idea what I was trying to get across. My spelling is so bad I break the spell check. I blame Catholic kindergarden; I blame Catholic kindergarden for a lot, but in this case I'm certain it really is responsible. One of the best things about college was the fact that my roomie and best friend is actually a very good speller, and so I could just annoy the crap out of her whenever I needed a specific word spelled. And I did that a lot. But in no way do I think that my problems would have been helped had my professors and teachers accepted things like "otrocheous" for "atrocious". In fact, I'm willing to bet that my spelling would have devolved further.
Words are tricky things. Phonetic spelling doesn't always work in the English language, partially because English is one of those languages that appropriates words from other languages, and partially because the English are a strange folk and apparently decided that adding in extra -and silent- letters was good for a laugh. You really can't hold much about a language against a people who have a town spelled "Leicester" and pronounce it "Lester". And maybe poor spelling isn't the mark of a nation falling into a pit of ruination, but I can't help but think that we should continue to complain about the state of the education system if teachers and professors are correcting the same mistakes every year. And I can't help but think that a coherent system of spelling is a great help.
Anyone who has read the letters of people like John Adams or Thomas Jefferson, people who wrote before American-English was standardized (and also when f's and s's were interchangeable), could tell you that deciphering what the author was saying -even if he spelled the word phonetically- is sometimes (oftentimes) a challenge. The meaning of the document loses some of its panache when you cannot cheerfully go along with a rhythm to your reading, but instead have to stop every few words. One of the beauties of having a native tongue is the ability to not have to constantly translate said tongue in order to achieve maximum understanding. Misspelled words trip us up, for good reason. And so I can't help but feel as if Ken Smith's suggestion is to accept mediocrity in the face of the more difficult and time consuming effort involved in figuring out where the break down comes in education and why students cannot -or will not- spell correctly.