J-school spelling and grammar test revised to better measure language skills

The UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication has revised its spelling and grammar exam, which will feature a word usage section in place of the spelling section beginning fall 2012.

“Spelling, of course, still matters to the J-school,” said Andy Bechtel, an associate professor who teaches courses in copyediting. “Students who misspell words on assignments will still be penalized.” For example, a misspelled name in a newswriting assignment results in a 50-point penalty. In editing courses, headlines and captions with misspelled words receive no credit.

Bechtel originally suggested the change because be believes memorizing a spelling list isn’t the best measure of competence in communication. While incorporating word usage — a measure of language expertise that tests elements of spelling and homophone choice, among others — the test retains its emphasis on grammar.

The usage section will draw from a list of frequently confused words and includes sentences like the following:

• Its/It’s too late to add a class this semester. (The correct answer is It’s.)

• I brush my teeth every day/everyday. (The correct answer is every day.)

• She pored/poured over the stylebook to prepare for the exam. (The correct answer is pored.)

Senior associate dean Chris Roush said the update to the test is a natural extension to the school’s recently updated curriculum. “Word usage is a much more important skill to have given the widespread use of spell check on most computers,” he said. “And the change reflects that we expect our students to know how to spell by the time they get to college.”

“Spell check can tell you whether ‘their’ is spelled correctly but not if it’s the right word,” associate professor Rhonda Gibson said in an interview with The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper.

“The goal of the revised exam is to better test the students’ knowledge of journalistic writing and editing,” Bechtel said. “The new test is also more similar to those that some employers use in making decisions on jobs and internships.”

The time to take the 100-question test will expand to 50 minutes from the current 40 minutes. Faculty and staff members believe the longer time is warranted because it takes more time to review a sentence for correct word usage than it takes to review a list of four words to determine which one is misspelled.

Since 1975, the school has required students to pass the test with a grade of 70 or better. The passing grade remains at 70.