A top literacy expert says texting is undercutting the message that spelling still matters.

Professor Tom Nicholson, a professor of literacy education at Massey University, says spelling is more important than ever - yet it has become the "Cinderella" of teaching in many New Zealand schools, treated as a "low-status" subject.

"Students are receiving contradictory messages: at school, correct spelling is normal, and outside of school, texting, Snapchat, tweets are in abbreviated textspeak and as long as it sounds right then this is also normal," he says in an opinion article for the Herald.

Yet he warns: "A single spelling mistake can ruin the chance of a job when you send in an application. In the workplace, a text message or email sent with a spelling mistake puts the sender and the company in a bad light."


Nicholson, a longstanding advocate of teaching spelling by "phonic" rules, says spelling has been relegated to low status in NZ schools which now prize creative ideas instead.

"It's the Cinderella subject. It's sidelined, it's not seen as critical," he said.

Nicholson and Waikato University educationalist Dr Sue Dymock have just completed a study testing different methods of teaching spelling to Year 3 students at Knighton Normal School in Hamilton.

They found that children learned how to spell 10 words from a story that was read to them just as well by rote-learning as by learning spelling strategies or rules.

But the students who learned strategies, such as the "rabbit rule" of doubling letters after a short vowel sound in two-syllable words, did much better than the rote learners when tested on five new words that were not in the original story.

Despite this, Nicholson said many teachers did not know the phonic rules themselves and were not taught them in teachers' colleges.

"Teachers may not be familiar with many of the rules, but the English spelling is more regular than we think," he said.

"The scientific research is very clear that phonics is a very effective method. It's probably 10 times more effective than whole-language teaching."

However University of Auckland education professor Stuart McNaughton said there was no evidence that children's spelling had got worse because of texting, or that phonic rules by themselves would improve it.

He said "truncated spelling" was at least as old as telegrams.

"Certainly we need to think about better ways to teach this," he said.

"The evidence suggests to me that the best places to teach this are in the context of real writing. There is strong evidence to support that.

"As for teaching the rules, there is a point at which there are too many exceptions and the rules can, if you over-emphasise them and are explicit about them on their own, they actually get in the way because the kids spend too much time thinking about the rules rather than the actual writing."