20 February 2008

English is too controversial to promote in schools

Spelling is "morally ambiguous", says Institute of Re-education

Recent calls by political leaders for the promotion of correct spelling in schools should be resisted, says a new report from the Institute of Re-education.

The study, by Hamish Michaels and Patricia Jones, proposes that the teaching of spelling should be treated as a controversial issue. It says students must decide for themselves how they feel about the correct use of language.

"Gordon Brown and David Cameron have both called for an English curriculum that fosters attachment and loyalty to the language as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, but the case for promoting ‘correct’ spelling in schools is weak," says Dr Michaels.

"Supporters of the approach refer to 'linguophilia', i.e. love of one’s language, but is a language really an appropriate object of love? Loving things can be bad for us, as for example when the things we love are bourgeois or otherwise morally corrupt. Since all languages were established by ruling elites, they are at best morally ambiguous, and it's therefore an open question whether citizens should love their native vocabularies."

The report finds overwhelming support among teachers and students for regarding the teaching of spelling as controversial. Over 300 teachers and students in 20 London secondary schools were asked how spelling should be handled in schools. 94 per cent of the teachers and 77 per cent of the students replied that schools should use a balanced approach, by presenting the full range of possible alternative spellings for each word or expression covered by the syllabus.

Fewer than one in ten felt that schools should actively promote correct spelling or grammar. Almost half said that schools should remain "strictly neutral" on the issue. "Students tend to feel strongly that their views about spelling are their own business and that schools have no right to try to influence them," says Dr Michaels.

There was relatively little support for the idea that schools’ overall stance towards authorised spellings should be discouraging or challenging. However, 74 per cent of teachers agreed that they had an obligation to point out to students the danger of spelling with an elitist overemphasis on ‘accuracy’, or using a biased version of ‘correctness’ that does not give adequate weight to alternative cultural norms.

Interviews with citizenship and history teachers revealed that the favoured strategy for dealing with ideas about ‘correctness’ is group discussion, combined with exposure of the bourgeois assumptions underlying linguistic elitism.

The Institute of Re-education is a department of the University of London, specialising in teaching, research and statist propaganda in education and related areas of social science.

Apologies to: The Institute of Education