WHY BOTHER ANYWAY?

Some people think that bothering about spelling is out of date and unnecessary. As long as you get the meaning of a piece of writing, they say, what does it matter if it's unconventionally presented? It is true that, a long time ago, people wrote as they liked and no-one complained. But that was before the days of standardised spelling, when only a few people did much writing. Now we have mass printing, English is a world language and we all need to read and write, so there has to be a single system.

A lot of people complain about the English spelling system. They think it is a mess and want it reformed. It is not actually a mess, it is misunderstood and I am sure that people would be happier about learning it if they understood it a bit better. In any case, it is most unlikely to change much, however cross it makes us, so it seems that the choice is either to learn it or to spend hours chasing words round dictionaries or to stop writing altogether. If you want to blame anyone for the inconsistencies in our spelling system, you must blame the printers, but I'm afraid they won't care.

In the sixties educational thinking turned against insisting on standard spelling, seeing it as a hindrance to the free flow of creative writing and expecting children would gradually come to conform with the system. The opposite is true. People write more freely if they are confident about spelling. Naturally, that policy produced some teachers with unreliable spelling, another reason why many don't like teaching it or feel they can't.

There is no doubt that too much fuss about spelling can be just snobbery and can put people off learning to write. But it is easier to teach most people to spell than to stop others looking down on those who can't! And it isn't only snobbery. Reading a piece with a lot of spelling mistakes in it is very trying. The odd-looking words hold you up as you read and they do make it harder to follow the meaning. There is a pay-off between reader and writer; the more trouble the writer takes, the easier is the reader's task. If you want people to read what you write and attend to it, you really do need to make it as clear and attractive as you can.

Most people understand very well how important reading is. Sometimes they feel that reading is what matters and that those who find it hard should not be burdened with spelling as well. In fact, learning to spell is a big help in learning to read.

But the overwhelming reason why people need to learn to spell is because so many of them are so miserable when they can't. Many people hate writing badly so much that they won't risk it. They narrow their vocabulary, using only words they are sure of, then fewer and fewer words and then perhaps stopping altogether. It was these people who got me interested, in the first place, in spelling and in why it was the cause of so much distress and anxiety. As a teacher I could see that my shaky spellers were not naughty or lazy, they were unhappy and nervous when they had to write and worried stiff about themselves.

If you are one of those cheerful, outgoing types who spell like a drain but don't care and crash through life making yourself understood somehow, you are all right already and you won't be visiting this website anyway. It is for people who aren't like that, who do feel their insecurity with spelling holds them up and limits their opportunities for work and for fun. It is also for others who see those people's frustration and disappointment and who would like to help them.

It is rather like health and money. You never think about them if you've got them, but if you haven't, they loom large and are a huge drag on your life. Spelling is like that and that is why it really is important to us all.