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Why Stevie Can't Spell

We orthographically afflicted love to cite luminaries who were famously rotten spellers, Thomas Jefferson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Herman Melville, Woodrow Wilson and John Irving among them. Some people, even geniuses, just can't spell.

"I see it all the time," says Salvesen, the reading specialist. "Some kids can just look at the word preposterous and spell it. Others can see it a thousand times and never get it right."


The author poses with third-graders, from left, Amalia Perez, Isabel Hendrix-Jenkins and Dillon Sebastian. (D.A. Peterson)

And why, I ask as someone in the latter camp, is that?

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.

You're on.

IT'S SNOWING IN NEW HAVEN when I slip on the headphones at the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention. Soothing voices recite words and sounds into my ears, part of the battery of tests I face before I get my head examined.

These modest rooms, in a low-rise building around the corner from the Yale Repertory Theater, are the epicenter of recent advances in the scientific understanding of reading and dyslexia. Shaywitz runs the National Institutes of Health-funded center with her husband, Bennett Shaywitz. A 2003 cover story in Time magazine about her work is framed on the wall of the lobby where hundreds of parents and students come each year -- drawn by her national reputation and her best-selling book Overcoming Dyslexia -- to solve the painful mystery of what went wrong with Johnny's reading.


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