by Dot Wordsworth Daily Telegraph
When my daughter Veronica was little she came home from school in a rage brandishing her exercise book, in which she had achieved nought out of 10 in a spelling test. She had spelled fate as “fata”, hate “hata”, mate “mata” and so on. Her contention was that she should have got nine out of 10 because she had only made one mistake: adding “a” instead of “e” to fat, hat, mat etc, to produce the “long” sounds.
Naturally I took the schoolmistress’s side against my own flesh and blood, as one did in those days, but I had a smidgeon of sympathy for Veronica, for she had mastered the principle, merely erred in a detail. I think the injustice rankles with her still.
Since then, to judge by results, pupils (or students as they are mysteriously called) are not taught such rules of spelling as may exist and certainly aren’t tested on them. As for adverbs, subjects, objects or clauses, let alone such fabulous monsters as subjunctives, children are left in sublime ignorance of them. So Michael Gove’s call for grammar to be taught in primary schools is sweet and catchy music to my ears.
It’s a grave deprivation not to let them have it. For a start, spelling does count. I know that some good writers have been lousy at spelling (Evelyn Waugh, for example). But when children leave school, employers will not give them jobs if they spell badly. Employers think it is because they are stupid.
More than that, the English language, with its violently unphonetic spelling system, erects social barriers to those who fail to master it. In 1912 Eliza Doolittle was a “squashed cabbage leaf” until she learnt to speak properly. That prejudice has been superseded, and instead we exile to Asboland teenagers who fail to spell properly.