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Young people becoming experts on knowing when to switch from informal to formal spelling

Toni Hetherington, March 8, 2020 12:40PM Kids News

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Prime Minister's Spelling Bee logo for Kids News media_cameraPrime Minister's Spelling Bee logo for Kids News

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Australian adults are being urged to stop assuming young people who use informal language will grow up to be poor spellers and harder to employ.

Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation executive director Mary-Ruth Mendel said most young people were able to easily recognise when informal and formal spelling and language is required.

“Young people are extremely dextrous* and actively switch between text-speak and formal language depending on the context*,” Ms Mendel said.

“It is important to debunk* the myth that informal language is just poor formal language. When young people abbreviate words or incorporate* numbers into their texts or social media posts, they are participating in an evolving* culture of online language that is, by nature, separate from school or formal settings.

“The meaning of a text is not lost through use of informal language; if it is lost on you, then that suggests an issue of comprehension rather than an innate* lack of clarity* in the text itself,” Ms Mendel said.

Woman Typing Phone Message On Social Network At Night media_cameraYoung people form their own informal spellings and languages when communicating by text and on social media, but they can switch to formal spelling when required.

She said children are communicating effectively and organically with one another through informal text language, and have been doing so for decades.

“The challenge remains, as always, to continue to improve their formal language skills,” she said.

“I asked Neriah Chatterton, who is 13 years old and in her first year of high school, whether she thinks it is difficult to switch between formal and informal language in the modern world. She replied: ‘Imma keep it real! Kidz these dayz r v good @ text spellg n can switch from textg 2 spellg in formal settings. Howeva it is important 4 them 2 b able 2 pay attn to formal spellg bcos it takes a little longer 2 learn how 2. This will help them in the long term wen they r @ uni or work. Work n afta schl study is diff. We can do both!’”

YEAR 7 STUDENT WRITES FLOOD BOOK media_cameraPearl Lenahan, 7, who has written a picture book based on her experience of losing her home during the floods and believes being able to spell has helped her communicate her story. Picture: Evan Morgan

One young Australian author who already appreciates the need for formal spelling is Pearl Lenahan, 7, from Townsville who had her first book The Flood published last year.

The Grade 2 student said she really enjoyed spelling and writing and challenging herself to learn new words in her story about how she lost her home in the recent Townsville flood crisis.

“Spelling is important to communicate and tell people how you are feeling,” Pearl said.

She added that learning how to spell and write allows children and adults to communicate clearly with the messages they intend and without being misunderstood.

Ms Mendel urged adults and educators to continue expanding children’s formal vocabularies* and encouraging accurate spelling of formal English words.

She said programs such as the Prime Minister’s Spelling Bee were useful tools to improve formal spelling skills.

“By practicing for spelling bees, children will be encouraged to discover the patterns that make spelling predictable. With regular practice, children can gradually build those recognition skills – week by week, and year by year.

“For example, good spellers know that the four letters /ough/ represent six speech sounds – as in though, through, trough, cough, thought, drought. Regular spelling practice can help children to crack the code, working towards being strong learners and attractive employee candidates.”

Free event for students in Years 3-8. Entries now open.
School competition from March 16-26 with state/territory finals in April and National Finals in May.
Great prizes to be won.
Teachers can more details.


  • dextrous: skilful and nimble
  • context: the circumstances of something in which it can be understood
  • debunk: reveal the falseness of something
  • incorporate: absorb or include
  • evolving: developing
  • innate: natural or
  • clarity: the quality of being clear about something
  • vocabularies: the range of words used in a particular language


Entries for Prime Minister’s Spelling Bee now open


  1. Which organisation does Mary-Ruth Mendel work for?
  2. How are young people participating in an evolving* culture of online language?
  3. What is the name of Pearl Lenahan’s book?
  4. Why does Ms Mendel say spelling bees are helpful?
  5. How many speech sounds do the four letters “ough” represent?


1. Write it two ways
Think of something you have done outside of school in the last week. Write two different recounts of the same event, as follows:

Using informal language and spelling, as you would in a text message to a friend.

Using formal language and spelling, as though it were part of a statement to police.

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English

2. Extension
Rewrite Neriah Chatterton’s words using formal language and spelling. In order to make the language formal, some of her words and phrases will need to be altered significantly.

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English

After reading the article, with a partner, highlight as many wow words or ambitious pieces of vocabulary that you can find in yellow. Discuss the meanings of these words and see if you can use them orally in another sentence.

HAVE YOUR SAY: How do you use informal and formal spelling at different times in your daily life?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will show until approved by editors.

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