Is it a good idea to penalize spelling mistakes in university entrance tests?


Let’s imagine that an 18-year-old student writes the following sentence on his university entrance exam: “The text does not demonstrate an exhaustive analysis of the problem.”

How should having written those misspelled lines affect your final grade? Should we only measure the level of their knowledge, or their ability to transmit it in writing in a correct and understandable way?

This issue is being debated once again in Spain since [a draft Royal Decree] was presented to modify some issues related to the so-called selectivity test, EBAU or EvAU, which is taken by all students who finish the Baccalaureate and determines their access to University.

This project or draft Royal Decree was opened to public discussion for a few days to collect criticism and proposals from citizens and institutions such as, for example, universities or specialized associations, and it is expected that it will be applied for entrance tests to the university from 2025 onwards. One of the proposals is that spelling mistakes lower the grade by 10%.

The reactions have been generally positive: the people surveyed about it in different media (for example here ) have been mostly in favor of the measure. Some pointed out, for example, that spelling has worsened in recent decades or that in the past there was much more emphasis on spelling rules.

Why is correct spelling important?

Spelling has been highly valued socially since at least the mid-19th century. In 1844, a Royal Order given on April 25 forced primary schools to use the spelling of the RAE, prohibiting the use of other spellings that had begun to be used (for example that of the Literary and Scientific Academy of Teachers). of Primary Instruction, proposed in 1843).

Just after the publication of this Royal Order, the RAE published a small book for schools, the Spelling Handbook of the Spanish Language: provided by Royal Order for the use of public schools , which summarized the spelling standards approved by the RAE. . This book had many editions and was very important in the generalization of the spelling of the RAE in the Spanish of Spain.

Since then, as can be seen by consulting the newspapers of the time , spelling errors are very poorly valued socially and those who commit them are considered incapable, careless, uneducated and, sometimes, unworthy of holding a position or carrying out an activity.

Not just bov, but grammatical correctness and consistency

However, what appears among the criteria for evaluating the tests and deducting, where appropriate, up to 10% of the grade in exercises that include writing texts is not only spelling, but also “coherence, grammatical correctness, lexical and spelling of the texts.

That is to say, not only errors such as the use of b for v or the lack of h are included here , but also, for example, the misuse of the gerund, the lack of clarity of the texts, the misuse of textual connectors, the problems of using prepositions with verbs, or regency (for example the use of conl_ levar plus the preposition _a ) or the inappropriate use of vocabulary. Thus, not only would a score be deducted for writing “exhaustive”, but also for “we have experienced a pandemic”, “all this leads to many problems” or “in this text there are several pairings (grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles and aunts, dogs and cats.”

If you look at it this way, the striking thing is not that they want to deduct 10% of the grade. The striking thing is that we are not aware that a text with these errors will receive a low score. A text that is not well understood, that requires interpretation skills to be understood, that is full of inappropriate uses, will clearly receive a low score, even if its content is more or less correct.

So what is good writing?

Society requires secondary education to prepare its students to write different types of texts well. What does “write well” mean? Well, write texts that are correct, adequate and coherent, understandable, if possible interesting, that achieve what they propose: inform, convince, excite…

And what does “texts of different types” mean? Well, it means that whoever finishes secondary education must write well all the texts they need to write: a CV, a report, an exam, an email, a note to post on their portal…

But learning to write well, as well as to read well, is something very complex, to which it is necessary to dedicate many resources in different subjects, and certainly in language subjects. Knowing the spelling of a language (the use of letters, capital letters, accents) is much easier than learning to argue, to use paragraphs, to incorporate different connectors and master the different styles and registers and their specialized vocabulary. For this reason, teachers must, without a choice, dedicate a good part of their time in language subjects to developing these skills or competencies, and, of course, oral competencies (speaking, listening, conversing, debating).

A complex skill for life

In closing, it is worth remembering that writing is an enormously complex skill that we continue to develop throughout our lives. It is clear that the temptation is strong to consider that there are more and less serious errors, and that our own errors are always less serious than those we notice in other people. However, it must be taken into account that no one is free from errors or doubts, and that not all speakers have had the opportunity to have the same training.

But there is no doubt that good writing is a skill that is very positive to have. On a personal level, it is cultural capital of primary importance and enables us to communicate effectively, clearly and without fear. On a social level, maintaining uniform spelling is an element of cohesion between speakers.

Therefore, if having good writing is a desirable objective, does the measure of deducting marks for errors serve to achieve it? Without a doubt, it can contribute to this. If something “makes the exam,” more attention is automatically devoted to it. But teaching and learning to write well is much more than knowing the spelling rules, and this process should receive a lot of time and attention in Primary and Secondary classrooms.

Author Bio: Belén Almeida Cabrejas is Professor of Spanish Language at the University of Alcalá