Why is it that some of us just…can’t…spell???

This post is for all who are poor spellers as well as for those who parent and/or teach poor spellers.  My hope is that it brings some clarity to the spelling dilemma/mystery.

Last week I read an interesting writing sample from a second grade student that I don’t know personally, her teacher approached me with questions and concern.  The content of the writing was great; creative story line, full of interesting ideas and details but the spelling was about 90% phonetic and by that I mean almost every word was spelled the way it sounds phonetically rather than correctly, for example: trooth/truth, hapee/happy, woking/walking…

According to her teacher, this student is very bright, happy and a good reader who is comprehending what she reads.  So what’s going on here?  I was reluctant to say the “dyslexia” word because I don’t know this child and it tends to bring up a bunch of questions and oftentimes a lot of misunderstanding. Yes, I suspected dyslexia but more specifically, dysgraphia which is a condition whereby writing and spelling are hindered under the normal expectations we have for both.  I’ve written about dyslexia in other posts and made reference to the fact that dyslexia effects 10-20% of the population as a whole and is also like one big umbrella under which many challenges may occur: Math= dyscalculia, Writing and Spelling=dysgraphia, Reading= dyslexia, etc.  Simply put, this little girl is a right-brained, visual-spatial learner who most likely thrives in all of the visual aspects of learning and creating but when it comes to reading (in spite of her good comprehension I’m certain that she has made adaptations) and writing she’s challenged.

I feel uncomfortable with the labels we stick on students simply because they makes us feel better. They give us a certain “false” sense of perspective about kids and how to help them as we stamp a condition on their foreheads then step back to take a sigh of relief.  I’m not making light of the challenges so many children and adults face when it comes to academics but flip the coin for a moment.  Take any  left-brained learner and ask them to sketch a drawing of a timber wolf or a beach side landscape or a portrait of someone and you typically won’t get much!  Just yesterday I watched a right-brained student of mine; a first grader, sketch out the most amazing and detailed SCARY monster mask I’ve ever seen… Universal Studios would have been proud!  I was watching him and thinking, “This kid is AMAZING!”

So what’s going on here?  Is there a solution to poor spelling?

Maybe, but maybe not in some cases… Often times it’s recommended to throw more phonics and spelling rules at this problem but in all honestly it doesn’t solve the issue… I DO use phonics in my daily instruction with struggling kids but always and only as a secondary backup.  Whole-word learning is much easier and more beneficial to visual-spatial learners because THAT’S HOW THEY LEARN BEST. Right-brained people learn in pictures!

It’s all about the brain… when kids first begin the process of learning to read in Kindergarten there are two sections within the left side of the brain (one near the front and the other a bit further back, let’s call it mid-back) that are engaged and focused on hearing the separate sounds in words (phonemic awareness). But as we begin to mature and develop as readers we use a specific area in the back of the brain (occipito-temporal lobe) that allows for us to “store” perfect models of words…which include all of the the important parts; how to pronounce them, how to spell them and what they mean.  For most of us, after we’ve read a word 5 or 6 times correctly it gets stored in that “word form area”. Instead of constantly analyzing word parts (phonics) to identify a given word this area instantly recognizes words as a whole after seeing it several times.
Typically, a year or two after the learning to read process begins, kids’ are developmentally ready to engage this part of their brain and that’s when reading shifts from the robot-like, letter-by-letter struggle to the smooth word-by-word flow.
As I read the aforementioned writing sample I speculated that this little girl never showed any early signs of trouble when reading, so no red flags went up, but chances are good that she’s not reading in the “normal” way.  They say about 20% of readers have trouble bringing the back of the brain into use. For them, the left mid-back and back part of the brain stay quiet so most of the reading activity stays in the frontal area.  That’s major compensation in action and not “normal reading”.  Amazing, right?
And if that back part of the brain is never activated they will never be a good speller.  “Good spellers” are able to ‘see’ a complete word in their mind’s eye, whether they’re reading it or writing it. So if we can’t visualize it, we’re just winging it based on what it sounds like. In a language with as many irregularly spelled words as English, we’re going to be wrong a lot of the time.
So to all the poor spellers out there: take heart… it sucks and I DO get that, but there are many more things in life to worry about especially with the advent of spell-check technology at our finger tips.  Visualization techniques and strategies can be very helpful to aid with poor spelling but in the big scheme of things we’re better off focusing upon and developing the gifts we have to offer the world.