Do We Still Need to Know How to Spell?

Well, we need to know how to spell enough to give the spell checkers something with which to work. But beyond that, do we really need to know how to spell? Can’t we rely upon transactive memory (technology)? We could, but there are reasons why we might not want to.

One of these reasons is for mental exercise. The neuroscientist Richard Restak provided these observations he made while watching a spelling bee.1 He noted the looks of effortful strain whenever they were asked words in which the pronunciation provides little information regarding their spelling. Words like that are difficult because the contestant must activate a different part of the brain in order to spell the word correctly. These words activate areas of the brain that process word meaning, such as the frontal and parietal lobes, which process printed text. Regular words preferentially activate part of the superior temporal lobe that is devoted toe spelling of words in which the sound corresponds closely with the letters.

You might think that you left these spelling bees behind when you left school. Be advised that there are spelling bees for adults. The National Adult Spelling Bee is held yearly in Long Beach, California ( Dr. Restak contacted the winner of the 2007 winner of the National Adult Spelling Bee, Hal Prince. He wasn’t especially interested in words or spelling until his early fifties. Here is the explanation Prince provided about his methods: “First, I went through the dictionary recommended by the Bee page by page. I made a database of words for drilling and also made tests of the words for listening while commuting or running. I borrowed or bought every book about words that I could find and went through them to find words that looked interesting.”

When Dr. Restak asked Prince if he attributed his success to a “gift” for spelling, Prince responded,”While I think that I do have a facility for words and spelling, I suspect that it’s more like a top10 percent rather that a top .01 percent. Mostly, it’s just a matter of being interested in words and taking the time to study them.”

So spelling can provide mental exercise and contribute to brain and memory health. Is there any other reason? It can contribute to your understanding of etymology (the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time). This, in turn, can increase your understanding of English (or whatever language you’re spelling in) and increase your communication skills.

Searching for “Spelling Test Online” in your browser will provide a variety of possible resources.

1Restak, R. (2009). Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance. New York: Riverhead Books., p. 132.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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One Response to “Do We Still Need to Know How to Spell?”

  1. A Word With You Says:

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