Parent to Parent
Children and Spell Checkers
Many parents have asked me whether they should allow their children to use spell checkers when their children create work on the computer. I have not read a lot of educational theory on the topic, but have relied on my instincts as a writer and a mother. I am interested in what others have to say on this topic also, so please send me comments.
Spell checkers are modules built into many word processors which analyze a document word by word. You can turn on a spell checker to flag words as you type, (this feature drives me crazy because I always make typos), or you can open it when you finish and check the whole document at once. Each word is compared to a known word in a dictionary. (Every word processor comes with a dictionary that is installed onto your hard drive.) When the spell checker finds an unknown word, it flags the word in a dialog box or pop-up box and lets you know that it is unknown. Most spell checkers also give you alternate spellings or suggestions, and they let you add or subtract words that it does not recognize. Grammar checkers perform in a similar way. Often you can customize how a grammar checker or spell checker analyzes your document through a "Preferences" option.
My advice is: While your child is still actively engaged in spelling tests at school, plus learning word definitions and how to compose sentences, use a spell or grammar checker sparingly. I think kids should always print out their materials and do a manual edit, i.e., spell check and grammar check their material by hand. Only after s/he completes a manual check of the paper would I allow him or her to use a spell or grammar checker. This way s/he learns to find mistakes, pay attention to detail, and make corrections manually. I also find that my child will discover more spelling errors and grammatical problems if he reads his papers out loud. Omitted words and poor sentence structure often leap out when you read out loud. When my son is satisfied that his paper is OK, then the spell checker can take him to new heights by pointing out the problems he missed, but I find that going over the misspelled words with him is a better learning experience.
Remember also, that spell checkers are wonderful if you are a lousy typist, but it will not find real-word typos. For example, a spell checker cannot tell you that "four" should be "for" or that "cite" should be "site." A grammar checker might locate some of these kinds of mistakes, but not often, and not reliably.
Grammar checkers can help with sentence structure, but should be used carefully. I knew someone who sent out a job query letter after he had put it through a grammar checker multiple times, until it found no more errors. The letter was sent and the writer felt secure in the knowledge that it was grammatically perfect. I happened upon the letter and asked him if it was his first draft, amid a burst of giggles and smirks. I fell over when he proudly told me that it was the final copy. When asked if he had read the final product, he said no. Well, the letter was completely unintelligible! I politely suggested that next time he skip the grammar checker and just read the darn thing before it was signed, sealed and delivered. Grammar checkers are an aid, but they are fallible and should be used as a guide, not the law.
Email received May 2, 1996
I'll add my two cents worth to your article. I am the parent of a gifted child with ADD and moderate/mild learning disabilites. (How is that for a load of lables?) He particularly struggles in the areas of written language and written expression. We began working with him using adult word processing software in the third grade because the children's programs (Children's Publishing Center primarily) do no offer spell check. My son was frustrated because he knew when a word was spelled wrong but not how to correct it. Neither of us liked it when he continually resorted to "Mom, how do you spell...?" He is finishing 6th grade now, is performing at grade level in language arts (a minor miracle in and of itself) and is thrilled because his reports look nice, are spelled correctly, and he has taught himself tricks such as formatting columns and adding graphics. He no longer groans when a written assignment or report is given because the computer, particularly spell check, has minimized a major obstacle to learning. Spell checkers, even the Franklin Speller, are very useful to children and enable them to self correct.
Email received Feb. 5, 1998
I have two kids who talk well, write with expression and liveliness, but they cannot spell worth a hoot. No phonics, no word mastery skills. Both kids are in highschool now, and my advice to them has been to use the spell checker all the time. I feel that modern technology is both a useful addition to out life, and saves time that we all need more of.. I see my kids learning to spell words with the spell checker, and that was something their teachers did not teach them. Some people go through their entire life not spelling well and I know some pretty intelligent people who are very wealthy that cannot spell - so when my kids opted to use the computer, that in itself was a giant step towards better life-long skills, so I say, encouage them to take advantage of all technology in front of them. I remember when hand held calculators first came out - I encouraged my kids to use them when ever possible, I bought watches for them with calculators on them, small ones for their bookbags ect., because it is the use of and familiarity with learning aids that make the students think - the how and when comes in time. Thanks for letting me give my two cents worth. Keep up your good work on the internet.
Glenna Hastings firstname.lastname@example.org
(posted with permission)
© 1996, Ilene M. Hoffman, MSW.
Permission to redistribute must be obtained in writing, please send email. Updated 5/4/96 with new feedback and email address change. Updated 2/5/98. Moved to new site 12/3/00