In an article in The Washington Post on 21 February, Steve Hendrix, a staff writer who has a wonderful way with words, writes honestly and humorously about his severe spelling problems: ‘Being humiliated by my spell-check is pretty much a daily occurrence for me’. The advice to consult a dictionary ‘whenever you are in the slightest doubt’ is no help to him: ‘Ah, the pitiless doctrine of Just Look It Up. It’s hard to explain to my colleagues... that I am “in the slightest doubt” with about every 20th word I write, or that I’m sometimes too far at sea to even find it in the dictionary. (I once spent 20 minutes rewriting “mosquito” because I couldn’t even get close enough for spell-check to take over.)’
He quotes Richard Gentry: ‘We’ve been short-changing spelling for about the last 30 years... Most whole-language approaches ignore the individual phonemes that are the building blocks of words’. There are certainly indications in what Steve Hendrix tells us that he would have had fewer problems if he had started reading by sounding and blending at primary school. One of his spelling bugbears is the word ‘itinerary’, which he reports spelling in several different ways: iteniriary, itenirary, itinerrary, itenerry. Most phonics-taught children would sound this word out slowly and carefully when they first encounter it in reading and this would then help them to remember its spelling.
MRI scans carried out by Dr Sally Shaywitz confirmed that Hendrix was at the top of the ability-range in vocabulary and reasoning but that there was ‘an unusual level of action on the right side of my brain, in the area where dyslexics tend to build new pathways to make up for misfires in their normal ones’. But are these ‘misfires’ there from birth, or are they result of ‘dysteachia’? This is an important question