As you can probably guess from the title up there, I can’t spell. Like, I can’t. I’m awful at it. If it weren’t for the wonders of spellcheck, this post would be riddled with various errors that I would never, ever notice.
You’d be amazed how many people have tried to call me a moron for this.
People, people, I’m telling you now: trouble spelling has nothing to do with intelligence. Period.
When I was a kid, every teacher from first grade on was baffled that I couldn’t spell. “She reads so much; why can’t she manage this?” they’d ask my parents at every conference. After all, I saw the words a thousand-billion times in context; why couldn’t I just spell the darn things?
Yet I couldn’t. My dad likes to recall the short story I wrote in third grade, where I spelled “raccoon” no less than three different ways, none of them correct–even though I’d gone through the trouble of looking up the word in the dictionary, just as the teacher told me to do. Looked it up, got it wrong, and never noticed. Not even once. Not even as I miss-copied my own error.
My teachers were concerned, my parents were confused, and even I didn’t get it. All through school, my spelling continued to be awful. Inconsistently awful. If asked to spell most common words, I could do it correctly if I didn’t think about it, but the second I thought, I got it wrong. If I had to write anything, I got it wrong. Consult a word and copy it out, wrong, wrong, wrong.
Readers, my gentle readers, I’m not dumb. If you’ve read my blog posts, you know this; if you’ve met me, you really know it. I’m 36-ACT-in-reading not dumb. And yet all my life my spelling has been used against me. I’ve tried to fix it–trust me, being called stupid because I can’t spell “intelligent” on the first try rubs pretty hard the wrong way–yet I’ve never been able to. And I couldn’t understand why.
And then I started studying Japanese. Turns out, I have a fifty-fifty chance of reversing most of my kanji (those are the characters). As in, writing them backwards.
In fact, once I started analyzing my spelling mistakes, they were all phonetic mistakes–places where Es and Is sound the same, where S can be Z and C can be K. Or where two Ls blended into one, or similar-looking vowels hang out together.
Looking back on my education, I went from not reading to smack, reading, in the space of a week or two. No phonics, ever. But once I started teaching phonics to kids learning English as a foreign language, focusing on intensive pronunciation work and plenty of repetition with a huge emphasis on correct formation of letters, my spelling improved. Not markedly, but some.
And remember those copying mistakes? Back in high school, I had a problem in math class one unit not with the math, but with an extremely long series of simple multiplication problems. I’d repeat the problem, repeat it and repeat it, only to come out with different answers every time because I was miss-copying the numbers.
And the clincher? I can’t tell left from right. I use my fingers, every. Single. Time.
I’m not asking for sympathy here; I’m making a statement, and with that, a request.
Inability to spell has no correlation with intelligence, just as a lack of small motor skills doesn’t mean someone isn’t creative, or an inability to play sports doesn’t indicate that they can’t cooperate with others. The two skills are not linked.
Therefore I’m asking you not to automatically call people who can’t spell “stupid.” We might be, we might not be, but a mix-up of vowels is not how you’ll know.
Though if you point our mistakes out enough, you might just learn how many of us have tempers.
Or how many of us have been spending a long time hiding our shameful weaknesses, our vulnerable points, the chinks in our armor that are so easy to target.
As an adult who writes all day long, I still can’t spell plenty of words on the first try, but I don’t sweat it anymore. Anything I write that gets seen by other people is done on a computer or phone; worst comes to worst, I blame auto-correct and move on, no harm done. And every once in a while, I see that little red line wiggle across my screen enough times that I go out of my way to memorize the spelling of a word.
Sometimes, it even works.
What does it all mean? Should I armchair diagnose myself and ask you to accept it? I could, but that’s probably not useful, especially since I’ve come to the point where these troubles don’t overly impact my life. My once-frantic dashes to memorize my spelling lists are long over, and I don’t do long arithmetic problems on paper these days. In short, I’ve learned to compensate.
Really, my problems only show up in force in other languages, and that’s where everyone’s small learning troubles are magnified five-fold. Now that I don’t have to use a second language every day, it’s fine. I’m fine.
In fact, you might never know I have this trouble so long as you don’t ask me to suddenly turn while driving. You’d be amazed how many times I’ve heeded a desperate cry of, “Left! Left!” by quickly and efficiently turning right. What can I say, I can’t make the little L signs with my fingers when they’re holding a steering wheel. Just point the way and we’ll get along fine.
Are any of you poor spellers? Have you dealt with others with similar struggles in a second language only to realize that’s something you had difficulty with as a child in your first language? Please share below!