Quick, quick! – spell “yacht”
New research on spelling and the brain
English spelling and pronunciation are renowned for complexity and quirks.
Spelling still matters and we all know how computer spell checkers can mislead**.
So what goes on in our brains when we spell a word or try to?
New research about exactly what happens in our brain when we are asked to spell a word has just been published in the journal Mind, Brain and Education *. It provides insight into what happens in our brains when we are asked to spell certain types of words and just where in the brain the activity occurs. The findings have implications for the teaching of spelling.
Here’s how the researchers at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire describe their goal:
… we took a first-time look into the human brain while
people processed the spelling of words in an attempt to
understand how humans accomplish the remarkable feat of
spelling. We sought to determine the neuralbasis of spelling
spelling in healthy adults using the novel lens of contemporary neuroimaging technology.
Our goal was to provide new
insights into the decades-old debate between single- and
dual-route models of spelling hitherto impossible to resolve
with behavioral evidence alone. Beyond our fascination
with spelling was another deeper goal: to understand
how humans’ capacity to spell relates to the overall ability to read
They asked 12 young adults to spell a total of 90 words while lying in a brain scanning machine. They were then asked to assess whether the same word presented on a screen was correctly spelt.
A third of the words had regular phonetic spelling. Another third were irregular words where the letters did not match the sound of the word heard on headphones. The last third were invented nonsense words.
The scans showed that that more brain regions were active when the words were irregular the greater activity was in the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) which is where it is believed we store word meaning information and in the supramarginal gyrus (SMG) which helps with reading. and processing printed text..
Spelling difficult words – like “yacht” – taxes the brain. Brain-scan images show how our brains struggle when the way the word sounds is not aligned with the spelling. Trying to spell “yacht” requires more brain power that a simple word like “blink”. The scan shows that the effort to spell the more difficult word generates mental activity.
This evidence about how the brain processes different types of words is an insight into what is involved in word memory. It helps resolve the debate between the importance of memorizing a word as a whole or breaking it into sound components. This research suggests that both functions are important. Breaking words into phonetic segments is helpful as well as sight recognition of the whole word.
The findings may help to resolve a debate over whether children should be taught to read by memorizing whole words or sounding them out. They may prompt changes in language teaching.
*Norton, E.S., Kovelman, I., Petitto. L.A. (2007). Are there separate neural systems for spelling? New insights into the role of rules and memory in spelling from functional magnetic resonance imaging. Mind, Brain and Education , Volume 1, Number 1, pp.48-59
**Eye have a spelling chequer
I disk covered four my pea see.
It plane lea marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.
Eye ran this poem threw it.
Your sure real glad two no.
Its very polished in its weigh,
My checker tolled me sew