Friday, March 9, 2007

On a positive pedagogy

Shaughnessy, in her book Errors and Expectations, tells her readers that, “Every word is a potential misspelling” (162). This quote, as did many others, threw me for a moment. I was hit with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. I despaired for a few minutes, got depressed, fretted and even considered ending my teaching career because, after all it was hopeless (I exaggerate, but I did have a moment of panic).

Shaughnessy, on previous pages, pointed out that writers in the academic world are often forgiven for misspellings, but that writers in the professional world are judged for their mishaps spellings up to an including people doubting their intelligence and or education.
Within the world of academia spelling is “viewed by teachers and students alike as the most arbitrary, the most resistant to instruction, and the least related to intelligence” (161). If this is so why is such a great importance placed on spelling outside the academic area, where spoken language is as widely varied as the number of people that speak it? While Shaughnessy gives no answers to that question, she does review some of the misspelling patterns she has encountered.

To me, however, it seems to be a problem of mathematics, in a sense. Perhaps a student has written a paper in which they include 600 words, of those 540 are spelled correctly and 60 are spelled correctly. Mathematically, the student had spelled 90% of the words in the paper correctly. However, as teachers, the marred 60 words are what irritate us and keep the paper from being as good as it could be ( I am strictly speaking of spelling, ignoring grammar and punctuation problems that are present as well and which can make a paper problematic in its self, but are unimportant in the point).

While the non academic world might see the paper riddled with spelling errors and condemn the writer, I think it is important as teachers of basic writing to commend the writer for spelling 90% of the words correctly and encourage them to look at the patterns they recognize in their correct spellings to see if any fit in their misspellings.
We are encouraging and rewarding the student for correctness, not punishing them for incorrectness. While this might seem as though I am looking through rose colored glasses, I can see where encouraging attitudes such as this could help a writer to let go of anxiety. While the problem will remain and should be addressed throughout the semester or term, there is an advantage to looking at the positive. Besides, 90% anywhere else will earn an A.