Spelling has nothing to do with intelligence, so why do we keep acting like it does?

Spelling has nothing to do with intelligence, so why do we keep acting like it does? thumbnail

“She’s never going to be successful in life.” It wasn’t the most promising of starts to high school.

My grade eight teacher had discovered that I was terrible at spelling and thought he best raise the matter with my parents – both school teachers – so they could manage my expectations. I was never going to get the Secretary General of the United Nations job when I grew up because I couldn’t spell.

My teacher was right about my spelling. Despite spending hours on spelling drills and memorising every spelling rule, it was still woeful.

Still, it came as shock to my 12-year-old self that my entire future would be decided by whether or not I could remember all the exceptions to the rule “i before e except after c”.

But as it turns out, my teacher isn’t the only one who thinks spelling is an accurate indicator of a person’s aptitude and abilities. An article published in the Business and Professional Communication Quarterly shows that recruiters can be just as narrow minded.

Researchers from the University of Grenoble Alpes asked 536 professional recruiters to evaluate different job application forms and shortlist candidates. They found that poor spelling skills were just as detrimental to a candidate’s chances of being shortlisted as having insufficient work experience.

A job applicant can meet every selection criteria for the job and have the perfect education and work experience, but if they make a couple of typos in their application their CV could end up in the same place as people who do not have the requisite skills and experience: the rubbish bin.

This isn’t just bad news for applicants. It’s a disaster for companies to be missing out on the best talent because of a fixation on spelling.

We have a long history of linking spelling skills to intelligence. We think people who can’t spell are ignorant, illiterate, or stupid, despite having research dating back to the 1970s that shows that there is no significant association between spelling ability and intelligence.

It is widely reported that Albert Einstein was initially considered to be intellectually impaired because he couldn’t spell. Lucky he didn’t lower his expectations in the way that my high school teacher suggested.

I recently heard of a school teacher who struggles with spelling. She tells her students this – and then uses her limitation as a way to teach students about using dictionaries. And I’d bet that, having struggled with spelling, she’s better able to empathise with her students than someone who’s aced every spelling bee since they started school.

My high school teacher believed people who couldn’t spell can’t communicate. Which is, of course, rubbish. An inability to communicate means that you cannot convey your meaning.

While spelling is one part of effective communication, it’s not the whole story. Nor is it even the most important part of the communication process.

If I were to write the world “finish” with two “n”s because I followed the spelling rule of “short vowel double consonant” my spelling would be incorrect, but it’s unlikely you’d think I was talking about a person from Finland. Communication, like most things in life, is a matter of context.

And given that I still cannot spell but have managed to pump out five books (with four more under contract, while writing a weekly column); of all my shortcomings, an ability to communicate is not one of them.

It’s often assumed that people who can’t spell are lazy and don’t care enough. I have been shamed by everyone from my teachers, bosses, friends, and ex-boyfriends for my spelling errors. Believe me, the social punishment for not being able to spell is so great that if this was a problem I could fix, I would have.

I suspect that much of the concern about spelling is one-upmanship for the insecure and unsure. The prime example is the social media troll who picks on a typo in an attempt to discredit — or distract — from the substance of the ideas.

Over the years, I’ve developed strategies that minimise my spelling errors. I use spell checker for everything. The dictionary app is always open on my computer. I also have a trusted and non-judgemental group of people who can spell that I rely on for proof-reading services.

I may never get to be Secretary General of the United Nations, but I do know that perpetuating the idea that spelling is a marker for intelligence or competence limits individuals’ potential and wastes our collective talent.

Daily Life

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