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Poor Spelling? It Could Be a Brain Problem

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.

Excerpts from the Washington Post Article

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…

Test Results

…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.

Read the the full  article here

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?

robin Sampson

Spelling Resources & Workbooks

Click to View More Spelling Resources & Workbooks

Any spelling  advise I mean advice errr advise or you know what I mean. Please add to the comments.


35 comments

  1. Oh I am right there with you – I rely on the FF spellcheck a lot of some times for words like receive because I ALWAYS put the i before e, even though I know it’s the other way! Hehe, it’s no wonder mom hasn’t gotten to edit my novel yet – it’s gonna take a few times around to help with the spelling and grammar – I have a knack for writing the tense, even though when I am writing it I think the right one!

    Good to know I’m not the only one and right up with some amazing people – including you!

  2. Until I was 14 and someone finally told me, I spelled “pretty” P R I T T Y! I am an author on communication skills so how “embarassing” is that! My editor always tells me that Spell Check won’t help you if you spell the wrong word the “write” way!

    I just think whoever decided the spelling of certain words were just WRONG. Pretty SHOULD be spelled P R I T T Y. In fact, why not spell it P R I T I? I think I’ll blog about that.

  3. Aha, so this is what it’s all about. From my early years, I’ve been a pretty good speller, though I do tend to make a lot of typing errors (hitting two keys at once, for instance). For the record, your spelling errors have been few enough that I always attributed them to typos, if that makes you feel any better. :)

    This does, however, explain my friend Michelle. Her spelling is AWFUL. I mean, so bad that sometimes I can’t, no matter how hard I try, figure out what she meant.

    And yet, she reads a lot! It was always a mystery to me how she could read even more than I do and never remember how to spell words that she probably read on a near-daily basis. Now I understand. I’m going to send her the link to this post. I’m sure she’ll appreciate knowing why her spelling is so terrible, as well.

    Thanks for the interesting article!

  4. I have always told parents to relax about spelling, that some people are just poor spellers and that’s all there is to it. Wow, now there’s research to back that theory up. I have also noticed that some of the smartest people are the worst spellers. The creative ones who have a lot of talent and a lot to say are sometimes the worst spellers. Maybe God lets them have that little thorn to keep them humble. I can spell every word correctly, but I can’t come up with the creative and interesting writing that some poor spellers can. Which skill is the most important?

  5. Shawntele

    I have a Masters Degree and can’t spell worth a darn. It has always been frustrating. Many of my friends admit to the same problem.

  6. lshelton

    Thank you, Penney. Now, I have a good explanation for my creative and talented third grade son. He is extremely bright in every way except spelling. God is keeping him humble for sure. Good thing spelling doesn’t count against us in Heaven!

  7. Felipe

    I can’t believe that someone will think that God would cause someone too not be able to spell properly as a way to humble them. That notion makes me even more frustrated over not being able to spell. Penney, if u knew what it felt like having a bad case of not being able to spell, u”ll probably want to jump off the next bridge. Just so u know I had trouble spelling the following:

    Believe
    Frustrated
    Bridge

  8. Iphigeneia Mariou

    It’s not a brain problem, it’s just poor proof-reading and lack of common sense… or plain poetic license!

  9. Scientific evidence shows it is a brain problem. I am offended. That was a rude comment. Like telling someone on crutches they are lasy.

  10. Anonymous

    A rude comment? That’s because when my comment was published, the website I was referring to was omitted. I should be the one who’s been offended.

  11. Iphigeneia Mariou

    Please make sure you publish the website links attached to the comments. This is when the comments make sense! I’m not going to be made responsible for information being omitted.

  12. I agree not being able to spell is the worst, it’s very very embarrassing, it shows your colleges your work is poor not efficient and it makes you not want to write anything. How do you over come this.. I would pay 1000 dollars to be able to spell correctly.

  13. Angela

    I’ll never forget when I misspelled “of.” It may have been nearly 25 yrs. ago, but it’s one of those memories that is ingrained in such detail. Try sounding that one out. Thanks English language; you’re the best.

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  20. Robert Johnson

    i am a 34 year old man that cant spell or read. my mother had a very difficult birth. i was born blue and an enlarged heart and there were some problems with my lungs. i have stuggled my whole life with a severe learning disability that still affects me to this day. the doctors allowed my mothe to go past her due date by over three and a half weeks. my ambelical cord was extremely thin when i was born and the doctors told her that i would most likely not live out the night. i have suffered mental problems but the worst is having to have my wife fill out papers for me or read me the label off something. i can’t fill out my own bills of write her a love letter or read my children cat in the hat or any other book. it is not my fault that i am this and i can still get no help. social security wont help they say that what happened during birth and my learning disability is not a disability. i’m for the most part ok and happy with my life but not only do i suffer because of someone elses mistakes but my loved ones suffer right along with me.

  21. mr edet

    My name is Mr Edet from Canada i want to give a testimony about Dr
    Izagha, I was working in an oil company in Canada when i meet Miss
    Jain we dated for 3yrs and got married after 2yrs of our marriage i
    lost my job and my wife, she was still working with the oil company later i
    found out that she always come home late and normally say she was in a
    meeting trying to convince the board of directors to call me back this
    lasted for more than 6 weeks. One day we had a misunderstanding she
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  22. Norm Beaulieu

    Hello, my name is Norm. I am 35 years old I was born 3 months before my do date. I can read and my math skills are good the only thing is I can’t spell. I have been picked on my hole life. I have been looked at as pathetic and stupid because of this fact all my life. I have lost friends and girl friends and I have been looked at as a joke. I have an I.Q. Of 137 and I’m proud of that but with the fact that I can’t spell I often are not taken Seiressly by my friends and others at work. I was actually picked on my my superior officer in the Navy for it. To be honest I thought I was alone. With social media so intergraded in everyday life it’s hard to hide like I use to and it’s depressing.

    Now that I know there are others out there like me I feel better so thank you for sharing this.

    Is there a name for this disorder at pressing??

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  30. I'm glad I'm not by myself

    I found this article to be very helpful I have for a long time been trying to figure out why I am such a bad speller now that I know it has something to do with the brain and I’m in that 20 percent population. I thought I was going to have to carry a dictionary around for the rest of my life.

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