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Spelling Matters - Confessions of the World's Worst Speller

Oct 31, 2007
This is a true story about my friend, Doug O'Brien. He is an accomplished musician and NLP trainer, personally trained and certified by Tony Robins and yet he had the following confession to share with me:

Confession number one: I was the world's worst speller.

Confession number two: I always hated my brother and sister.

Well, OK, not really. But I hated that they always got such good grades in school when it was such a struggle for me. I was really good at sports and really good at art and music. I was good at science too, but I couldn't spell my way out of a paper bag. Actually, when it came right down to it, I was only really bad at spelling and, fortunately, it only affected my grades in subjects that used words.

Now this was especially frustrating cause I started out thinking I was pretty clever. I was reading better than most kids in my grade early on. It was easy. You sounded out the letters and put them together to make words. E. Z.

But then something weird started happening. For some reason, the same sounding-it-out process that worked so perfectly for reading didn't work for spelling. When the teacher said a word on the spelling test, I'd repeat how it sounded in my head and figure out what letters made those sounds and write them down. I was wrong more than half the time and got no points for creativity.

I didn't get it. It was a complete mystery to me. My confidence plummeted. I felt stupid and silly. Moreover, I couldn't get any help. My Dad told me to look up the spellings in the dictionary. But he couldn't explain to me how to go about doing that when I didn't know how to spell the word I was looking up.

"Work harder," I was told. I spent hours memorizing the order of the letters by repeating them out loud over and over again. I think I remember only once ever getting a 100% on a spelling test.

So part of me began to believe I was stupid. My good grades in science and several other subjects weren't enough to convince me otherwise. Of course, it was logical to make that deduction. No matter how hard I tried it didn't get any better so I must be stupid, right?

No. The answer to that question is emphatically no. But, I didn't find that out for many years after graduating high school. Part of me still believed it even as a grownup, while running a successful seminar promotion company in New York. I joked about being "the world's worst speller." (Unfortunately, my secretary wasn't much better so we were awfully glad when word processors began to have spell check.)

Then it happened. I attended a seminar by a co-developer of NLP, Robert Dilts. This is the study of the structure of subjective experience. It holds out the promise that since any skill or ability is a result of that structure, that ability can be "modeled" and taught to another human being.

Astonishingly, to illustrate this, Robert used spelling as an example. It wasn't that poor spellers were stupid, Robert said, it was that they had been taught an ineffective strategy for spelling. This struck me as a radical idea.

He explained how human beings process our experience of the world with our five senses and that each sense had different advantages and disadvantages. He said, as an example, phonics (sounding out the words) works well for reading but that it doesn't work for spelling. He points out that you can't even spell the word "phonetics" phonetically! Instead, when you analyze the strategy that good spellers use, they visualize the word in their mind's eye and get a good feeling when it is spelled right.

He then demonstrated how this worked. He got a volunteer from the audience (He did not pick me even though my hand was high in the air) who was a self-proclaimed bad speller and asked them to spell the city, "Albuquerque." We all watched as the volunteer looked down at his feet, squirmed uncontrollably, and tried to talk his way through the mysterious word.

As you can imagine, that method didn't work. He wasn't even close. (Neither, by the way, was I, spelling at my seat.) So then Robert had him write the word out on a big piece of paper in small chunks of two or three letters, "Al - bu - quer - que." He had the volunteer write each word chunk in a different color and then practice visualizing those chunks with his eyes closed. Finally, he put them all together and spelled Albuquerque correctly for the first time in his life. Then, as if that wasn't impressive enough, he spelled it backwards!

I was sold! I wanted some of this! Over the next few days I practically filled a notebook with large, colorful, small-chunked spelling words and showed off how I could spell backwards and forwards.

Today I am content to spell forwards most of the time and I have to confess am happy to have relinquished the title of world's worst speller. My hope is that someday no one will have to wait until adulthood to learn to spell like a champ.
About the Author
Peter Woronoff is a Master Practitioner in NLP Neuro Linguistic Programming. With Doug O'Brien, personally designated by Tony Robbins as an NLP Master Trainer, and Rob Marton, he has designedto teach 3rd graders a fun and easy way to spell. All ages can benefit.
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