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nikipedia's avatar

Should spelling count?

Asked by nikipedia (27531points) April 13th, 2010

I’m teaching a neurobiology lab section to juniors and seniors in college. They had their first exam today and asked me if spelling counted.

My first reaction was that of course it does. Part of learning about neurobiology includes learning the correct vocabulary and knowing how to use it.

But now that I’m grading the exams I feel like I’m just unfairly penalizing people for whom English isn’t a first language and who are already struggling.

What do you guys think?

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60 Answers

Dog's avatar

Am I correct in thinking that at least some of these students will be aiming to be Doctors? If so you are doing them and their future patients a disservice by not enforcing proper spelling.

Writing prescriptions may be hazardous to the health of the patient.
Writing reports for other medical personnel could be at issue.

Spelling counts in any profession.

Oh and if they are not going to be doctors they will still look uneducated if they cannot properly spell topics related to their field.

Also at issue is client or employer confidence. It could be harder for them to find employment.

zophu's avatar

Maybe some stiff warnings before actual penalties?

PupnTaco's avatar

Absolutely. Two very different words may be spelled similarly and the mixup in the lab or in medicine could be fatal!

Blackberry's avatar

I agree with Dog.

PacificToast's avatar

English isn’t a first language? Spelling counts in life, so could you arrange for tutoring focused entirely on spelling if they’re having too much trouble?

shpadoinkle_sue's avatar

A lot of different prescriptions are seperated by one or two letters. Spelling counts. I understand what you mean though about English as a second language, but they gotta know.

nikipedia's avatar

Yeah, but this isn’t medical school, so why should I hold them to that standard? I’m also not going to fail them for not being able to name all the thalamic nuclei… since that’s not what they’re being tested on.

Sure spelling matters… but should it really affect your final grade in a neurobiology class?

jazmina88's avatar

If they are not wise enough to spellcheck, we are in big trouble. You are a professor. please teach them. I’m surprised they can spell the body parts, and that is important too.

jaytkay's avatar

Doesn’t that question mean, “Should I look up words I can’t spell, or should I just half-ass it?”

DarkScribe's avatar

Spelling should always count – first language or not. A person who misspells common words is unobservant and careless. If they misspell an unusual or more difficult word – perhaps some leeway is called for.

nikipedia's avatar

@jazmina88 and @jaytkay: They cannot spellcheck during an in class exam.

And I am just a teaching assistant, not a professor.

The words I’m talking about are technical terms related to the class (e.g., “decussation”).

PacificToast's avatar

Maybe spelling should count for a small percentage maybe 3% of their grade. If you’re in a nation that writes a language, write it correctly.

anartist's avatar

Spelling should count. Poor spelling will undermine any presentation they might make in the future. That said, spelling has little to do with the grasp these students have of this subject or their potential for future contributions in the field. I for one know of a distinguished clinical scientist whose writings without the aid of a secretary or at least spell check are disastrously misspelt but whose contributions are of great value and have been for many years. This person is dyslexic and tends to reverse letter positions, but has fought to overcome it. [and reads science fiction for relaxation]
Besides, Thomas Jefferson couldn’t spell either [although English spelling was more fluid then]

jlm11f's avatar

I would take off half a point or some part of the point for poor spelling. You told them spelling counts, it wouldn’t be fair to not uphold that now. Even if you hadn’t said anything, I would still think that spelling does count, it’s part of knowing the material. And part of your role as their TA is to help them prepare for even more specialized levels of education so the standard is worth maintaining.

tinyfaery's avatar

Part of me wants to say yes. You are in an academic setting and proper spelling is a fundamental part of education. But you are right. The students shouldn’t fail based on spelling. It’s not an English class. The curricula isn’t even language based. If these students expect to be involved in certain areas of academia and/or the job market their spelling will need to improve. The careless will learn and those incapable will be weeded out. No need for a science class to be the sticking point.

dpworkin's avatar

There’s no excuse for informal or bad orthography in a college level paper. Even people who speak a different language have access to references, spellcheckers, etc., etc. Letting it slide can only hurt them. What periodical will accept a submission with spelling errors?

nikipedia's avatar




You sticklers for spelling should probably work on your reading skills.

Just sayin’.

zophu's avatar

People like being harsh. Makes them feel more secure.

Buttonstc's avatar

If they have a previously diagnosed learning disability, then you can cut them some slack.

But, even tho you are still a TA, you are still part of the teaching team. SOMEONE has to be responsible for maintaining standards and you are one of them.

However, if the Prof. to whom you are the assistant feels the direct opposite, that really leaves you in quite a quandary. Have you spoken to her/him about this.

If the two of you are in agreement about spelling standards, then perhaps putting the students on notice that spelling does count, will result in a less lazy and cavalier attitude about it.

For those for whom English is not their first language, just remember that it was THEIR OWN CHOICE to study in this country rather than their own. Part of that choice involves learning how to spell pertinent words in their required courses. It comes with the territory, so to speak.

There is far too much laxity of standards in education today. Please resist the urge to be caught in the slide.

aprilsimnel's avatar

I feel that a tertiary-level class is as much as the real world as a job. These are adults who can be held to adult standards in their work. Get them in the habit of doing their best now. Proper spelling should probably count for something, even if it’s only 5%. If one is bothering to learn a subject, one should have the vocab as well as the method down.

Zaku's avatar

Perhaps you can count it, but make sure it is the correct proportion and has appropriate limits. What should be the grade of someone who has mastered the subject but has all the spellings wrong? How about A- (90%) – just make your grading formula limit the maximum impact from misspelling to 10%. What should be the grade difference between someone who manages to spell everything right, versus the same test with one spelling error? With two? With ten? You’re a science teacher, so you probably feel comfortable, say, plotting those points and deducing the equation of the curve that describes the way you feel about how spelling should be graded.

There’s no right answer, of course.

Personally, I’d probably do -1% per spelling error, to a maximum of -5%. Maybe something more esoteric like zero errors is +1%, one to three is circled but no effect, four or above is -1% per 3 errors, max -10%. But if the spelling is really bad, figure out something constructive to acknowledge and/or do something about it.

SeventhSense's avatar

Only in horseshoes and bowling.

nikipedia's avatar

@Buttonstc: The professor associated with the class is an administrator only. Their grades are at my discretion.

Blondesjon's avatar

If thay our submiting a papur thay shuld spell write.

Cupcake's avatar

Tough call @nikipedia. I guess I wouldn’t be so harsh about the spelling as long as they seemed to get the gist of what was important to learn, especially for an in-class exam. I agree with @tinyfaery.

SeventhSense's avatar

Not on a test. If it was a paper that would be different or if it changes the meaning completely through error: Molly Cool… Sells… Jeans. :)

YARNLADY's avatar

My suggestion: No, do not count spelling against their grade – rather; give them an opportunity to earn extra credit by looking up each misspelled word and presenting the corrections.

Haleth's avatar

@nikipedia I have a parallel situation in my Chinese class. There are so many lines in each character and most of us aren’t native speakers, so it can be hard to remember it all. Changing just one line can change the meaning of the character, but most of the time you can tell what it’s supposed to be in context. She circles our mistakes and takes away partial credit for a “misspelling.” Depending on the size of the test, five mistakes might be one or two points off the total.

Buttonstc's avatar

I just read your response and also some of the previous replies made while I was typing.

I like the idea of proportionality. I think it overly harsh to fail someone due to spelling alone (assuming their grasp of the scientific principles is sound).

But IMHO, since the responsibility for this decision is basically yours, I would suggest putting them on notice that spelling does count EVEN on in class exams.

You can then decide upon exactly how much it counts. Even tho I was teaching on a different level, I based my grades upon effort as well as just pure numbers.

If I had a child with clear cut issues such as dyslexia or similar but was trying as hard as he could, I acknowledged the effort.

Likewise, if I had a really really smart kid who was “coasting” and being lazy or careless, I took any opportunity to hold them accountable.

I don’t know whether the volume of your classes or workload allows for as much differentiation as I had at a lower level, one room class. But I think there is an essential difference between a foreign student trying their hardest and a lazy privileged American kid who can’t be bothered to make the effort to pay any attention to spelling at all ( and any permutation between those two extremes).

But, my basic point would be that spelling should count. It shouldn’t just be a free-for-all just because it’s an in class test. Let them study how to properly spell the pertinent subject terminology as well as everything else. It won’t kill them.

You can decide how much it counts on a case by case basis if you wish. Or you can develop a rough percentage formula for determination if that suits your philosophy better.

But please make it count for SOMETHING before our entire educational system goes to Hell in a handbasket :)

Trillian's avatar

What @Buttonstc said. I don’t consider it being harsh or “stickler-ish”. These are College students, which means that at some point they were in grade school and learned the basic rules for spelling. I also agree with whoever said that it is the choice of those who come to this country to study. Do you really want to lower the bar?
Since this is the first test, you have some time to see who needs help and how much. Are you averse to suggesting tutoring for those who fall short? They will have to be writing papers at some point, so it won’t hurt to get in the habit of learning how to use a dictionary or spell check. I mean, how much trouble would it be? It’s early days yet so it shouldn’t be too difficult to implement some plan of action for people who are going to be “professionals” right? I can tell you from personal experience that I have met Nurses who couldn’t spell or put a sentence together properly and Ii did not want them near me with a needle or medications…..

bright_eyes00's avatar

Welcome to America where proper English is now optional. sigh.

nimarka1's avatar

I think spelling does matter and is very important but I know that if I get points taken off for not spelling something correctly (even though I got the correct answer) I would be mad, and so would other students. Of course they should know how to spell certain words but its not like they don’t know how to write at all. If there is one word here or there i think its ok, maybe just circle it and make note of it on their exam to get it right next time. This is not english class, your testing them on the knowledge of what they recently studied in your class. When i was a junior in high school a few years ago I had spelling tests in my english class. It was super easy but some words are tricky, and even though we think we know how to spell them we really don’t. The problem is because of technology. I know at least for me, everything I ever had to do in high school and what i do in college has to be typed. If i don’t spell something correctly the spell check lets me know and it changes it for me, and i don’t even think twice about it. Even my cell phone corrects things automatically for me. I’m just saying (as a student) I don’t think it’s such a big deal. So you either do or you don’t take points off, it doesn’t have to be that way, after the tests are graded you could have these kids fix it to earn full credit, so its kind of both. If some kids are too lazy then take the points off, and for those who did fix it, get full credit for that question.

jlm11f's avatar

@nikipedia said




You sticklers for spelling should probably work on your reading skills.

Just sayin’.

Just to be clear, I was talking about the exam. I’m not sure who that quip was addressed to.

Also, based on personal experience, since I have taken (and still do take) classes in the science field, we always lost points for poor spelling.

Trance24's avatar

In this course spelling should definitely count, but students should be informed before hand. That way they can better prepare. Also the points you take off do not have to be major ones, maybe half a point for every one or two misspelled words, along with a mark next to each word misspelled.

nikipedia's avatar

@PnL: I was mostly directing it at @dpworkin, since I had specified both in the question and in a clarifying quip that it was an exam.

I also have taken lots of tests in the science field. I know this will sound nuts but I don’t think I’ve ever misspelled anything on an exam or in a paper. I’m sure I’ve never lost points for it.

rahm_sahriv's avatar

I find it scary that this question even needs to be asked. Of course it counts.

SeventhSense's avatar

neurobiology….come on.

phillis's avatar

Nobody can read a doctor’s penmanship anyway. Who the hell can tell if they misspell something? I have to take thier word for it that my name is spelled correctly. Don’t penalize as harshly for non-English speaking students unless it’s a spelling test. Or give them all spelling tests along with the course syllabus. English is a ridiculously unnecessary difficult language. Most English speakers can’t even spell the stuff. If the rest of thier work shows attention to detail, doesn’t that denote effort?

jeanmay's avatar

I think those who have said that spelling counts, unequivocally, are being a little harsh. I don’t think there is a cut and dry answer here. If what you’re testing is their knowledge of neurobiology, and not their knowledge of English, then I think you can afford some leniency. They may have worked very hard to study for the test, and if it shows, their efforts should be rewarded. However, if the tests are hopelessly poor in terms of language level and spelling, then that is not acceptable and they should be penalised accordingly. You do, as others have said, have a responsibility for their learning.

If there are just one or two students who have had trouble with spelling, but the majority of the class has managed ok, then take off a small percentage for those who struggled. It may seem unfair to them, but they will certainly endeavour to work harder on their spelling next time.

If the spelling is generally very bad across the board, perhaps you could ignore it for now but then advocate for a separate spelling test some time in the near future. That way you can drive home to them the point that spelling is extremely important without undermining their efforts in the neurobiology test. If it is consistently horrendous across the board, you shouldn’t feel bad about bringing out the big guns. You could tell them that they all failed due to their spelling, give them more time to prepare, and make them repeat the test. Maybe you don’t have the time or the power do those things, but that’s how I would approach it if it were my class.

talljasperman's avatar

What about handwriting? I’ve had an number of broken hands and wrists in my life and my handwriting is poor at best. If you have a disability you should have another way to do things… that’s good because I type on Fluther…I’ve had some mean teachers give me 0% and F even when I was visibly in an hand-cast… Spelling should count but there should be leeway for those who Have a Learning or physical disability… If they become doctors these problems can be solved by a spell checker or other basic accomidations… even a president can spell something wrong. potatoe potato… Idea, Idea’r…and yes I used a spell checker for this answer….but mistaakes hpen

Ludy's avatar

by encouraging a good spelling you’re helping them, that’s how I learned english, i stl\ill struggle, but a thank all the people that kindly have corrected me, actually including fluther mods whe I’ve asked a question and spell it wrong

Alana2009's avatar

English is my second language and I always make an effort to use proper grammar. This shouldn’t be an excuse! If I don’t know a spelling, I look it up online. I’m often very surprised at how many American natives make simple spelling mistakes!

Judi's avatar

Spelling counts in most professions. I had an Apartment Manager working for me who filled out a maintenance work order that said, “Cock around the tub.”
The maintenance man was smart enough not to leave a copy in the apartment after he did the work!

wundayatta's avatar

I propose a different standard. Are they able to make themselves understood?

If they make it clear that they are communicating the correct answer, then it seems to me that spelling doesn’t count. Communication is what counts. Of course, poor spelling can lead to miscommunication, but if they spell badly, yet clearly communicate the correct answers, then it seems to me that spelling is irrelevant.

Another question occurs to me. Is most of this stuff communicated orally or in written form in real life?

Anyway, I think communication is what counts. “Proper” spelling can be helpful to good communication, but it isn’t necessary.

SeventhSense's avatar

by By encouraging a good spelling you’re helping them. That’s how I learned english English. i I stl\ill still struggle, but a I thank all the people that kindly have have kindly corrected me, actually including fluther mods whe when I’ve asked a question and spell spelled it wrong.

Ludy's avatar

Thank you! @nikipedia: See? It works :)

JeanPaulSartre's avatar

Shood speling count?

I’m teeching a nero biology lab secsion to junyors and seenyors in coledge. They had there first exam today and asked me if speling counted.

My first reakshon was that of corse it does. Part of lerning about nero biology incloods lerning the korect vokabularey and noing how to use it.

But now that I’m grading the ecksams I feel like I’m just unfarely peenalizing people for whoom English isn’t a first language and who are already struggling.

What do you guys think?

Spelling should always count.

JeanPaulSartre's avatar

[Migraine Simone says] Only when you’re trying to describe a lake of ducks, and end up saying something NSFW instead.

thriftymaid's avatar

SPELLING COUNTS in every college course. Don’t dumb it down for anyone or any reason.

jlm11f's avatar

@nikipedia Nor have I. But I’ve never had trouble with spelling either. I do recall our TAs/profs telling us that points would be deducted though.

Buttonstc's avatar


GA for you. I know that all that purposeful misspelling took a great deal of concentrated effort (as well as grating on the nerves.)


tranquilsea's avatar

I’ll freely admit that I am a stickler for correct spelling and grammar. If you are studying at a university level then proper spelling is a must (in my mind). I know that times have really changed and many people are very poor spellers.

If they routinely misspell a critical technical word, then I would mark against it but, as other people of stated, to a maximum limit. For the worst spelling offenders, I would talk to them and steer them to a person, programme, dictionary, website that would help them improve their spelling. You would really be doing them a favour.

SeventhSense's avatar

You’re all wrong. Even the ones who are right.

Ludy's avatar

wow man you’re deep, Are you high?

SeventhSense's avatar

No but I should be.

Ludy's avatar

hahahahahahah, genius

JeanPaulSartre's avatar

@Buttonstc haha – thank you – it did indeed!

mattbrowne's avatar

Yes, if it leads to ambiguity and potential misunderstandings. Otherwise, no, other than a friendly remark.

In an exam a sentence like ‘The bran is the censer of the nervous steam in all verge and most inverse animals’ should be penalized.

Judi's avatar

but please forgive my iPhone and fat fingers for fluther spelling errors!

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