I’ve come across a couple of different blog and email posts lately about how we can usually make sense of words that are misspelled because of the way our brains work. Here’s an example of the sort of thing I’m talking about, which is an email my father sent me (that was obviously sent to him from someone else):
Aoccdrnig to rscheearchr at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy , it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae . The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm.Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe .
So why did we waste all of that time in school learning how to spell?
I like what Scott Rosenberg said in his blog about all this: this demonstrates why it’s hard to catch typos and it suggests that reading slowly is a dying art.
But I guess there are two other things that I find interesting. First, all of this is kind of true and kind of not true. This entry from Uncle Jazzbeau’s Gallimaufrey blog suggests that the “original research” on this seems to have been actually about speech. Obviously, that’s different from the written word, though it makes sense that we are easily able to read these mixed-up words because we’re smart enough to make a reasonable guess. This is slightly different than trying to interpret truly bad spelling, though. I’ve had students who were such poor spellers that it was near impossible to make a reasonable guess about what they were trying to spell.
But perhaps more important to me as a teacher and as a chronically bad speller myself is I think that these folks are misinterpreting the impact of bad spelling. Being a bad speller doesn’t mean people can’t understand you; being a bad speller makes you “look” bad. It’s like most of the other details of writing, proof-reading, minor grammar issues, word choices, and the like. Doing it right makes you look like you know what you’re doing and it makes your writing more persuasive. Doing it wrong does the opposite.
Personally, I have always believed “good spelling” to be a genetic feature that some people have and some people don’t have, kind of like the ability to roll your tongue. Use a spell checker and keep a dictionary reasonably handy.