Don’t Computers Make Spelling Instruction Unnecessary?

February 25, 2010 at 10:22 pm Leave a comment

Sometimes, spelling instruction ends up on the back burner because of the existence of computer spell checkers. Isn’t mastery of correct spelling within the reach of every computer user? Not really. Spell checkers do not eliminate the need to learn to spell accurately. When we used a computer spell checker for the sentence The bevers bild tunls to get to their loj, the spell checker gave correct spellings for bevers (beavers) and bild (build). However, the spell checker did not come up with the words needed to replace tunls (tunnels) or loj (lodge). Instead, for tunls it provided tuns, tunas, tunes, tongs, tens, tans, tons, tins, tense, teens, and towns. And for loj, it provided log, lot, lox, loge, look, lost, lorid, load, lock, lode, lout, lo, lob, lose, low, and logs. The fact is, computer spell checkers are mainly a tool for correcting typos. They are helpful for those who are reasonably good spellers, but they cannot compensate for poor spelling. Further, computer spell checkers cannot be relied on with homophones. For instance, a spell checker cannot correct the errors in the sentence Your sure glad to no for You’re sure glad to know. It also misses errors such as meet for meat and week for weak.

A study with two fourth-grade boys with learning disabilities reported that spell checkers provided the correct spellings of misspelled words 51–86 percent of the time.1 Other studies reported a wider range of performance in identifying correct spellings, between about 25 percent and 80 percent of the time.2 If a word was misspelled phonetically, the spell checker was able to identify it about 80 percent of the time. If a word was not spelled phonetically— something that commonly occurs among young children—the spell checker was able to identify it only about 25 percent of the time. Additional problems involving spell checkers include words spelled correctly but used inappropriately (e.g., then for them) and the fact that some children cannot pick the correct word from the list of suggested words.3 Thus, although computer spell checkers are useful, they do not substitute for explicit spelling instruction.

– R.M.J., R.T., S.C., and L.C.M.

1. Bridget Dalton, N. E. Winbury, and Catherine Cobb Morocco, “‘If You Could Just Push a Button’: Two Fourth Grade Boys with Learning Disabilities Learn to Use a Computer Spelling Checker,” Journal of Special Education Technology 10 (1990): 177–91.

2. Charles A. MacArthur, Steve Graham, J. B. Haynes, and S. DeLaPaz, “Spell Checkers and Students with Learning Disabilities: Performance Comparisons and Impact on Spelling,” Journal of Special Education 30 (1996): 35–57; and Donna J. Montgomery, George R. Karlan, and Martha Coutinho, “The Effectiveness of Word Processor Spell Checker Programs to Produce Target Words for Misspellings Generated by Students with Learning Disabilities,” Journal of Special Education Technology 16 (2001): 27–41.

3. Charles A. MacArthur, “Using Technology to Enhance the Writing Processes of Students with Learning Disabilities,” Journal of Learning Disabilities 29 (1996): 344–54.


Entry filed under: Spelling. Tags: , .

Meet the Experts: Dr. Louisa Moats (Teachers) How Should Spelling Be Assessed?

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