Or at least that’s what people think.
My third year of teaching, I worked with a boy who would not write anything. Ever. Jon wouldn’t pick up a pencil in Language Arts class. He had major holes in his learning, which was why he was in my remedial English class in the first place. He sat in the front row, and was a generally pleasant young man if not sometimes a little surly. He would draw, talk, participate, but refused, flat refused to write one word. Questions only made him angry, and since I could see he was a natural leader, the other boys following his lead on just about everything, it would have been a major mistake to push it.
For the first week of school, he dictated to me what he wanted to say. There came a point when this was untenable. My class started out with 24 students, but was quickly expanding. When I just couldn’t do this anymore, I asked the boy to sitting next to him to write for him. This went on for a while until it was time to take the first test. The boy next to him could not write his test for him, and so I finally sat him down and asked him why he wouldn’t write anything. By that time I had proved to him that I cared, and that he could trust me. He hemmed and hawed, but it finally emerged that he was embarrassed by his spelling. He had understood an earlier teacher to equate his spelling ability with his intelligence, and he simply could not bear to have people think of him as stupid.
I was amazed that something like that could have such a profound effect on a young person. I explained to him that spelling could not be a measure of intelligence. I knew by working with him over the past few weeks that he was smart. Hell, I could see it in his eyes. I told him that I am dyslexic and if spelling were a criterion for intelligence, I never would have gotten into grad school. He agreed to take the test, and I agreed not to grade him on his spelling, at least not for a while. He took the test. He aced it. As his confidence grew, he learned how to use a dictionary and how to spell-check his work. He grew by leaps and bounds.
Today, I worked with a student who went to a school where spelling didn’t matter at all. He writes phonetically, and sometimes it is a mystery as to what he is trying to say. The other day, when he was typing out a test, he became discouraged because almost every word he typed had a little red line under it. He started to look for ways to get out of it. When I saw his sentences completely underlined in red, I took his computer away from him, found the spell-check function, and turned it off. When I handed it back to him, I said, “I’m dyslexic. Those little red lines make me feel bad about myself. They stop the flow of my writing. I’ve turned them off. When you are done, we’ll spell check it. But not until then.”
Fortunately, nobody has ever told him that he is stupid because he doesn’t spell, but because of the nature of the work students were doing today, he was truly anxious about pairing up with another writer. Students are revising their first drafts by having a classmate read their essays back to them. I call this a Clang Session. He knows that his spelling would keep another student from understanding his writing. So I worked with him myself while the other students paired up to do revisions. I read his essay back to him from his grubby and crumpled binder paper, reading it as it sounded. We spent the entire period finessing the language and making the essay clearer without once referring to the spelling. Jon’s experience haunted me. It was as if he was there with me, hovering over my shoulder and reminding me of the damage that I could so easily do.
When my current student and I had finished with his paper, he was all aglow. He loved the way it sounded, and how clear his ideas were. His eyes sparkled. He didn’t know he could write so well. I was so proud of him.
We will have to deal with his spelling. That can wait until the third draft. But at least we won’t start from an emotional deficit. He knows he’s smart. He knows that with work he can spell just as well as anybody else. But he also knows that bad spelling is keeping him from communicating his ideas to his peers. Because it isolates him, he can see why spelling counts.