I am a creative speller. I can think of so many ways to spell a word, I can include three or four ways to spell one word differently within one article.
Most of our children are very good spellers. Three of my adult children have done professional proofreading work. I know how to teach spelling I just can’t remember how to spell the words.
Unfortunately two of my children were blessed with my poor spelling genes. We are not alone. William Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Herman Melville, Woodrow Wilson, and John Irving were also poor spellers. Some people just can’t spell.
All through school and college all my papers came back covered in red circles marked “Good content, work on your spelling.” Imagine how thrilled I was to find an article in the Washington Post by a journalist that admitted to being a lousy speller! All his school papers came back with red circles too. The article is “Why Stevie Can’t Spell,” by Steve Hendrix.
In his 14-year professional life as a writer Steve Hendrix has to rely on editors to correct his horrific spelling. A teacher convinced him the problem could be from his schooling and had him try a remedial program. He performed poorly on a pre-test, diligently studied form many weeks, and then did even poorer on a post-test.
Steve ended up getting several brain scans. He found out that the recent ability to scan brains demonstrates how poor spellers can usually use the front reading part of their brains, but have a problem accessing the back spelling part.
I AM THE WORLD’S WORST SPELLER. I have been all my life. My homework — from Miss Pedrow’s third-grade language arts class to Dr. Gurevitch’s doctoral seminar in persuasion and attitude change — all came back with the measles, solid red marks from top to bottom. “Good writing, atrocious spelling” was the verdict of just about every essay contest I ever entered (even those I won).
I don’t misspell just hard words (diaphanous, anyone? soliloquy?); I misspell words like “maybe” and “because” and “famous.” I misspell my own mother’s name, Elfreida. My misspelling is epic. It’s rich and vibrant and ever changing. It can even be fun.
“I think of them as little puzzles,” my Post editor K.C. Summers once said of the find-the-funny-word challenge inherent in proofing my raw efforts.
But mostly it’s just hugely embarrassing to be a professional writer who is routinely laughed out of Scrabble games. Not to mention perilous. I was put on probation at an Atlanta newspaper for causing excessive spelling trauma on deadline (a kindly copy editor began covering for me). And I’ve watched every editor I’ve ever worked for go through a sort of five-step process of realization (disbelief, anger, anger, resignation, anger) before finally assigning some beleaguered proofreader to shadow my every keystroke.
At this paper, when one of my howlers (partician when I meant partition) made it into print and drew a rebuke from the ombudsman, I reminded K.C. — ha-ha! — of her “little puzzle” comment from happier days.
“I really think of them more like little land mines,” she said this time.
Let’s take one example: itinerary.
Iteneriary is one of the dozens of words that bring me to a complete standstill. I can be typing along at a brisk pace when my brain feeds a word like itenirary down to my flying fingers, and they freeze over the keyboard like mummified buzzard claws.
Itinerary. I-T . . . E? . . . I? Pretty sure it’s I. N is easy. Another E? or is it A? . . . R . . . Two Rs? A? A-R-Y. Itinerrary.
I once spell-checked a 2,000-word article I had written for the Post’s Travel section and found I had spelled itinerary four ways, none of them correctly. It was a pitiful tally, made worse by the fact that it blinked at me in the middle of a newsroom filled with some of the best writers — and spellers — in the country. I could hear them all around me, blithely tapping out the 100,000-plus words that go into the paper every morning, most spelled correctly on the first go. People who write for big-city newspapers are supposed to be able to spell. The island of misfit toys, this is not.
Being humiliated by spell-check is pretty much a daily occurrence for me, but something about seeing four errant itineraries spurred me to action. I sat and repeated the word over and over and over, out loud, the way you memorize a phone number: I-T-I-N-E-R-A-R-Y. I was going to screw that simple nine-letter pattern into my brain if I had to repeat it 10,000 times. Hey, I can do it with an ATM number. Surely I could do it with the language I use every day to make my living.
The chance to test myself came up within a day or two, as I worked on a story about backpacking through Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “But as the weather soured again, the evening meal became more than an item on the . . .”
And I nailed it. Itinerary. I believe it was the first time — in either my 14-year professional life as a writer or my 39-year personal life as, um, a person — that I ever spelled itinerary correctly without any kind of assist from a dictionary, computer, copy editor or wife.
The next week, I got it wrong again. Itenerry. The other day, I spelled it itenirary…
Twenty percent of the population has trouble accessing the spelling part of the brain.
Mapping the Brain
…Richard Gentry thinks the research is now clear — it’s in the brain. Recent studies using functional MRI analysis have not only begun to map the areas of the brain we use in reading and writing, they’ve shown how a neurological glitch in about 20 percent of people may make them chronically poor spellers.
In brief, according to Gentry’s summary in his book The Science of Spelling, when a kindergartner is learning to read, two areas of the left side of her brain are principally engaged, one in the left inferior frontal gyrus and the other back in the left parieto-temporal system. These two areas are where the constituent sounds, or phonemes, of a word are recognized, the /k/, /a/ and /t/ sounds of cat, for example, and then where they are broken up and put together to make a complete word: /k/+ /a/+ /t/= cat.
Both of these areas of the brain are relatively slow and analytical, methodically dissecting words into bits to understand what they mean. Think of how a 5-year-old sounds out words. But at some point, usually a year or two after the learning process begins, she crosses a cognitive threshold and shifts from being a beginning reader to a fluent reader, a skill that relies on a third area of the brain, the left occipito-temporal. Instead of analyzing parts to identify the word, this area instantly recognizes the entire word. Reading goes from a halting letter-by-letter toil to a lovely word-by-word glide.
“It’s like sailing on a nice breezy day,” says Sally Shaywitz, the Yale neuroscientist who conducted most of the research cited by Gentry. “Reading becomes a pleasure.”
That third zone — the “word form area” — is your personal dictionary. Once you have read a word five or six times correctly, your brain has stored a model of it that includes all the word’s important features: how to pronounce it, how to spell it and what it means.
That is, unless you’re one of about 20 percent of readers who have trouble bringing the areas in the back of the brain on line. For them, according to functional MRI scans, the left parieto-temporal and occipito-temporal stay relatively quiet, with most of the reading activity remaining in the frontal area. They may build up compensatory pathways, but they’re not reading the normal way.
What researchers think they are seeing in those scans is dyslexia in action. And some of them think it’s also the neurological core of bad spelling.
“If you don’t activate Area C, you’ll never be a good speller,” Gentry argues. “That’s where you ‘see’ a complete word in your mind’s eye, whether you’re reading it or writing it. And if you can’t visualize it, you’re just winging it based on what it sounds like. In a language with as many irregularly spelled words as English, you’re going to be wrong a lot of the time.”
Researchers have long known that spelling and reading are tightly linked. Shaywitz says spelling is probably the more difficult of the two processes. “Reading is transforming letters into sound,” she says. “Spelling is just the reverse, but you don’t start with something you can see on a page.”
The dyslexia Shaywitz sees in her lab may explain why some people can never learn to spell. “Poor spelling may well be the last remnant of dyslexia that a person has otherwise compensated for,” she says. “But it’s something we haven’t looked at directly.”
And what would she hypothesize about a person — a good-hearted, mid-career journalist, say — who writes tens of thousands of words a year, reads millions more, and still can’t pass a grade-school spelling quiz?
“I’d like to study that person,” she says…
…The MRI confirms it. The Shaywitzes see the lights go on in the usual reading areas of the left hemisphere. But they also find an unusual level of action on the right side of my brain, in the areas where dyslexics tend to build new pathways to make up for misfires in the normal ones.
“It all fits together, our clinical exams and our neurobiological exams,” Shaywitz says. “You had the underlying threads of dyslexia, but you’ve compensated for it really, really well. When you have time, you do well. But when you have to do things very quickly, it’s not automatic. Your autopilot, for spelling and for reading, just isn’t there.”
As a youngster, Shaywitz says, I was probably getting just enough information and pleasure from reading to push through some amount of dyslexic drag. And the more I read, the more compensatory tricks my brain wired into itself until I became fluent, at least under relaxed conditions. It’s only when the heat is on that my reading goes a little wobbly and, even more often, my spelling collapses in a heap.
The Science of Spelling
J. Richard Gentry, mentioned in the article, is an expert in spelling instruction he wrote The Science of Spelling. His site is JRichardGentry.com. If you or your children have trouble with spelling, check out Gentry’s book My Kid Can’t Spell!. In this book Gentry offers timely and practical solutions to many of the problems parents face. It’s packed with tools, guidelines, and strategies that parents can use immediately.
Good Spellers, Please Give Us Struggling Spellers a Break
Good spellers, please give us struggling spellers a break. Just becasue we can’t spell doesn’t mean we don’t have something meaningful to say. Bear with an occasional creative spelled word. It isn’t becasue we are too lazy or undisciplined to take the time to learn to spell well or to look it up. Some of us are just brain damaged. 🙂
If you find a spelling mistake on my blogs (and you will) don’t be disappointed. Use the article in your homeschool assignments. Have you child(ren) find the misspelled words. I’ll be happy generously provide several.
And hey, what about those doctor’s lousy handwriting skills?
Spelling Resources & Workbooks
Any spelling advise I mean advice errr advise or you know what I mean. Please add to the comments.
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