Poor Spelling Isn’t Fatal

Eye death

Image by doug88888 via Flickr

The child brought her first term report card home today. Nothing surprised me save the A equivalent she got in math.

She did not inherit that from me.

But she is blessed with my slightly dyslexic view of all things written – letters, numbers, whole words, sentences, paragraphs – what I see and hear doesn’t always translate properly. I never thought this was abnormal growing up. I thought I was just selectively stupid.

It wasn’t until a tutor at the U of I’s math lab suggested that my inability to perform simple Algebra, despite the fact that I appeared to be of normal intelligence, was due to a learning disability.

The guy’s girlfriend was an education major and she’d suggested this to him after he’d described the difficulty he was having in getting me to recognize formulas.

Regardless, this light bulb moment did me no good in the reality of needing a math credit, but it stuck with me. Years later, I team taught with a number of special ed teachers and managed to glean enough information to semi-pinpoint my particular issues. Again, a barn door after the horse is long gone kind of thing but good to know at any rate.

Anyway, the same brain hiccup that makes it difficult for me to recognize number patterns without some kind of external cue (like the tones on the phone keypad and the pattern my finger makes helps me remember phone numbers for example) makes spelling … challenging.

Yes. Yes. There are spelling “rules”. I taught middle school English for 17 years. I am well aware. But the English language evolved haphazardly in its written form.  Spellings were all over the place in the early days of the printed language and it was printers – not linguists or grammarians – who invented spellings. They were not always well-educated, or schooled at all, and they pulled words together from the recesses of their assholes at times.

English is a mongrel language, which is why those who learn it as a second language in the various grammar school systems around the globe always sound like automatons to native speakers. It’s also why even those who grow up with it as their mother tongue can’t necessarily communicate with each other if they grew up in different parts of the same country.

But that was a digression. I couldn’t spell. Couldn’t even learn to spell with all that much success in grade school.

Do you remember those leveled spelling lists of the 70’s? They were grouped together using the alphabet. Every year we took a pretest at the beginning of the year using the level the teacher assumed we should be at given our age and every year, I had to start at J or K.

Never once made it to M. Grade 3, 4, 5 and 6. Never passed L. It was so demoralizing that I eventually didn’t bother to try at all.

I was the kid who couldn’t punctuate, spell or use capitals all that consistently, but I was the best reader in my class and passed out of all my grammar without so much as glance in the direction of my teachers for assistance.

Spelling, I decided early, was not a very good indicator of who was smart and who was retarded.

But for some reason, it mattered a lot and I suffered the frowney faces of teachers all the way through university for my haphazard spelling.

And then came Word. And spell check. And it was awesome. God rested. The seventh day.

Spell check changed everything. Computers freed me.

Doomed all of you though.

So, Dee can’t spell. Her punctuation is “creative” though she has an ear for structure.

Her reading issues caused me anguish. Her dad lost the ability to read and write as his illness progressed. Whenever she can’t do something or master something where letters and words are concerned, my heart catches.

Is she getting sick? Theoretically she shouldn’t. She’s a girl. Her double X protects her from the disease that killed her dad, but I still fly there. Don’t ask me why.

But not with spelling. I couldn’t spell and but for spell check (which doesn’t catch everything – for that I have Rob), I would be mute still or at the very least making you wonder if I wasn’t “special”.

In my early years of teaching, I did as little with spelling formally as I could get away with. I knew from experience that it was better to teach kids how to spot errors and tricks to get around any shortcomings than it was to force them to memorize a random list of words. Later on, all spelling was based on relevancy. I cribbed spelling lists from their subject area teachers. My students never had a spelling list that wasn’t related to another class they were taking and I always allowed points for using the word correctly somehow. They defined or used them in sentences. They could write synonyms instead of the spelling word. When they had math terms, I let them draw and diagram. Spelling a word is useless if one can’t use it properly in the first place.

Dee’s only mediocre mark was spelling and picky grammar. She’s just eight. A year younger than I was in the same grade. Her teacher isn’t worried. I’m not either. This is something I know she gets from me, and I turned out alright.

I never won a spelling bee. They are overrated anyway.

Tonight, I helped her create a blog. Showed her the spell check. Lights began to flicker like fireflies across her freckled brow. She clearly never imagined such a thing.

It’s like finding out there really is magic.

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