The other day I talked with an 11 year-old who wishes he were better at spelling. He told me (as many do) that when he writes a word he can tell if it’s not the right spelling but he often can’t figure out how to fix what’s not right. We talked about how this is a funny thing about the brain – if you know something when you see it, and you know not something when you see that, how could you be unable to generate the something itself? The answer, of course, is some version of this fact: receptive language (what you hear and process) and productive language (what you say) are not one process. We don’t have the same access to brain files when it comes to receiving and producing.
Later the same day I was reading more of Dan Roam and trying a drawing exercise in which I had to represent, in simple sketches, a few different popular cities. For Paris, of course, I attempted to draw the Eiffel Tower. I realized I was having the same trouble with the drawing as my young friend has with spelling. I know the Eiffel Tower when I see it, and I can draw all the shapes it would require to represent it adequately for someone else to be able to recognize it, but I couldn’t quite manage to pull together well enough the knowledge that makes it recognizable to me and my ability to assemble shapes into drawings to get it right enough.
Dan Roam has me convinced that it’s not too late for me to learn to do it, and my young spelling friend and I have been talking about how to use his extensive lexicon of recognized words when he’s trying to spell one. It, like the drawing, seems to benefit from involving the eye. The teaching of spelling has traditionally relied heavily upon the ear – “sounding out” – but for many young people who have become competent readers (and thus have an extensive collection of recognized words in their brains), the eye and the visual memory offer a steadier more reliable sensory assist.