I have long believed that the ability to spell words correctly is a genetically inherited trait. Take the example of my own family: My dad is a good speller; in elementary school, he learned the general spelling rules as well as the fact that they are nearly useless due to the overwhelming number of irregular spellings in the English language. Ever since, he has rarely had any trouble spelling a word that he needed to use. My mom, on the other hand, was not able to spell when she was in school, and she still is unable to spell today, after teaching the fundamental rules of English spelling to six out of her seven children. I and one of my sisters have the gift of good spelling, while four of our siblings do not show any particular giftedness in this area. My youngest sister is but four years old and it will take some years before we can truly tell if she has the gift or not. All of us siblings have received the same spelling training from our mom. But Mom’s hours of spelling drills and attempting to pound the rules and exceptions of spelling into our heads didn’t seem to work very well with several of my siblings. My brother, a sophomore in high school who does quite well in all other subjects, invariably spells words such as where, which, and does incorrectly. One of my sisters, a high school graduate and a very conscientious student, asked for and received an electronic spelling helper for her ninth and again for her fifteenth birthdays (the first one got worn out).
For myself, I find it very difficult to sympathize with the struggles of those who cannot spell. I have taken far fewer spelling tests than most of my siblings, yet I have always found it easy to spell any word with which I have come into contact a few times before. I do not take any credit for this ability, I simply believe that the genetic trait of being able to spell has passed to me. My mom, in spite of spending years teaching her children to spell, still does not have the instinctive ability of spelling. She spells far better than my brother, but still, many a time as she is typing an email to a colleague, she will call me from the other end of the house to ask how to spell a word. Apparently she doesn’t always trust her computer’s spell-checking ability to give her the words she intends to use, which is a good idea. The spellchecker is not an omniscient being, though some prefer to believe so.
Growing up, I had some belief that my Mom’s lack of ability to spell as an adult was unique to her, but I have found that this is not so. I work as a tutor at my college, and I often get the opportunity to help students polish their papers. I enjoy editing, so I consider reading over their papers the fun part of my job, as compared to repeatedly explaining the documentary (JEPD) hypothesis for the formation of the Pentateuch. When I edit papers, I am usually horrified at the number of misspelled words. Often, they spell a word so creatively that the poor spellchecker doesn’t even know what to make of it. Most recently I saw tenaciously spelled tanaciousally on a student’s paper. It took me a minute to be able to tell what the word was. I was grateful then for my experience in editing papers for my own family members.
Doctors and geneticists could probably disprove my theory that the ability to spell is inherited rather than learned. However, in the end, the important lesson is that those of us who have the gift of spelling must use our gift in humility, and learn to have patience with those who do not have the predisposition to good spelling. Like Nathaniel Bowditch, when we “stumble on other people’s dumbness” we must learn not to kick them like we would kick a chair that we stumble over in the dark (The literary reference is from Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham—a recommended reading from Rachel). Let kindness and patience reign as we edit papers for our friends and family. After all, having the fruits of the Spirit evident in your life is much more important than knowing how to spell them all. And that, I learned from my Mom.