Computers are marvelous tools - microchips helped put the words you're reading on this page, for instance.
But computers are lousy spelling teachers.
Which is why we disagree with the Oregon Department of Education's recent decision to allow seventh-graders and sophomores to use computer spell-checkers when they take state writing tests in January.
Our chief complaint is that spell-checkers entice students to bypass a crucial part of the writing process: proofreading.
And spell-checkers, though they'll spot the transposed letters in
"recieve" every time, will not rescue young writers (or old writers,
come to that) from other pitfalls in the vast swamp of common errors.
Mistakenly use "there" when "their" was called for? Both look right to
the computer. So do other common sets of homophones such as
"two-too-to" and "won-one."
Spell-checkers are equally useless in helping students deal with the vexing problem of where, or whether, to insert the comma.
We don't mean to imply that the state's spell-checker decision is a terrible scandal.
Spell-checkers are not evil. We use one every day (although, to our
utter dismay, misspelled words still infect the paper, like bacteria).
But we're not talking about people who write for a living. The issue is
what's the best strategy for teaching students the fundamentals of
expressing themselves well on paper.
And spell-checkers, rather than instill those fundamentals, subvert them.
Student writers will misspell words and make other mistakes, of course.
But we prefer students learn to recognize those mistakes while
carefully editing their own words, as opposed to relying on a computer.
The curious thing is that officials at the Department of Education agree with us.
Well, sort of.
Although the state will let seventh-graders and sophomores use computer
spell-check programs during their writing tests, fourth-graders, who
also take a writing test, are left out.
Those younger students have to rely on a dictionary or handheld
spell-checker - neither of which, unlike a computer program, will find
misspellings for you.
In other words, the state thinks fourth-graders will benefit from
learning spelling the old-fashioned way, but students who are three to
six years older won't, or at least not as much.
Having read the work of seventh-graders and sophomores - and taking into account our own frustrating foibles - we disagree.