Orthography And Cambridge Exams

Word formation and spelling bee challenge

Truth be told, for a learner, and I still consider myself one, there is so much help at the push of a button that we are becoming less and less curious. As never before are learners busier but at the same time with a less inquiring mind. No time for that! We are just continuously absorbing tons of information most of our daytime. Let’s take, for example, our writing. When did we literally set pen to paper? I can’t remember the last time I’ve used a pen. If it weren’t for my learners’ exam essays, I could say that using a pen is old school. This takes me to the very point, do we remember when we last wondered how a word is spelt? Or used a dictionary to make sure we’ve written the word correctly? Not to mention our calligraphy. 

Below, I’ve got some food for thought:

“Just as writing can become calligraphy when it’s creatively, skillfully, and consciously performed, so can all other activities become art. In this case, we are reflecting upon life itself as an artistic statement—the art of living.”

H.E. Davey, ‘Japanese Yoga: The Way of Dynamic Meditation’

I fondly remember, back into my childhood, in my early years at primary school, when my mother would make me start a new page if my calligraphy wasn’t good enough. Not that I was reflecting upon life, as a kid, back then :). Looking back now, I do say, “Oh good old days!”

You might say, “Teacher, I’m going to take the computer-based  (CB) exam. So, I don’t need to worry about my calligraphy.” Perfect, I strongly suggest you take the CB exam unless your handwriting is clean and clear. However, this won’t save you from the spelling mistakes you could make throughout. Correct orthography is paramount.

Or this one:

“Always introduce a bit of imperfection, because calligraphy is made by the human hand, not a machine, and human imperfections will always be more appealing to humans than perfection.”

Ina Salts

Even with a bit of imperfection, that would still be utopian these days.

Our orthography is worsening. Learners are making too many spelling mistakes when writing on paper. What’s there to blame for?

We are typing these days far more than before. There are online spell checkers that, once installed, highlight any single spelling mistake. When clicking on the word, we are given the correct spelling. Et voilà! No need to proofread for the spelling, no need to spear any effort on questioning over how accurate our handwriting is. I believe this is what triggers our reluctance, or, I’d dare say, idleness to question and correct our spelling errors. 

Education-related, accurate orthography portrays a sound schooling during the very first years of our education. I am a strong believer of this, given the fact that almost all my family, immediate and distant, have worked in the field of education.

Cambridge assessment-related, this shows how prepared a candidate is and how much he/she has read in English. I don’t mean that spelling mistakes are not accepted in the Cambridge exams. Let us take the Writing paper, for instance.  No matter the exam, be it a Young Learners English (YLE) exam or a B2 First one, what counts the most and, besides, is well rewarded, it is bravery and ambition. Not being afraid to play with language chunks and show variety in vocabulary and grammar, this is what is valued and welcome the most. Of course, making too many spelling mistakes will affect the final score of the paper. But still, worries away, just proofread your essay before you move on. If not in the Writing part of the exam, where is then the correct spelling all-important? 

Given the Cambridge English: First (FCE), Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), candidates must check the spelling in all the first four parts of the Reading and Use of English paper. No marks are given for answers spelled incorrectly. In the Listening paper, minor spelling mistakes are not penalized on condition your intention is clear. However, if the word has been spelled out letter by letter, make sure you have written the word exactly how it’s been spelled. In the C2 Advanced exam, the situation is similar. We must check the spelling in the Reading and Use of English paper, parts 1-4.

From all these parts in the Reading and Use of English paper, the most challenging task in the exam is the one which assesses your word formation skills. You know which part this is, don’t you? Right, it’s part 3, similar in format and in the number of questions (8) in B2 First, C1 Advanced, and even C2 Proficiency exams. When changing the stem of the given word in order to form the missing word, there is one particular difficulty. It refers to those words with silent letters in. Do you know which one made me come up with the idea of today’s article? WEIGHT is the one. Its silent letters are G and H. Endlessly have I pointed out to my students how words like weight are written. Again and again have I used my red ink pen to highlight spelling mistakes in words where there are silent letters. I wonder whether there is any other language, apart from English, champion in setting the record in the number of words with silent letters. 

My dearest learners of English, may I invite you to an activity? Your accuracy in word formation will be tested. Pick up your lucky pencil or pen and roll up your sleeves. The PDF below has got two pages. On the first one, there is a table to be filled in with the missing parts of speech. Download and print it. Do the task. Use CAPITAL LETTERS. No cheating allowed. Just do your best. My students’ experience has helped me pick up the words. Once done, compare your answers with the already filled-in table from the second page. To go an extra mile, check out the online Cambridge Dictionary. I advise you to type in the word you need and listen to the way it is pronounced, and to say it aloud afterwards. Just click on the speaker symbol below the word, listen attentively, and repeat it. One last thing before you put your spelling skill to the test, have you ever paid attention to and read the word given its phonetic symbols? It’s unbelievable how useful this is since, in many cases, it will  unveil the mystery of hard-to-write words given that there is a close relation between the way a word is written and the way it is pronounced.

Clearly, it would be highly redundant to describe the orthography and pronunciation independently of each other.

From Cambridge English Corpus

Now, you must be ready for the challenge. Good luck!

How’s it been? Up to your expectations? Don’t give up in case you’ve made too many spelling mistakes, or left out some parts of speech. Everyone is learning, and there is always room for improvement. Mistakes are good, they keep us focused and curious up until the big day, the day you take the Cambridge exam. And on this very day you must be proud of and celebrate your sound preparation.

Stay tuned for more words of advice and handy material!

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