This week marks the 88th edition of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, with the championship final to be held in Maryland, tonight, May 28th. The goal of the high profile spelling bee is educational, not only to encourage children to perfect the art of spelling, but also to enlarge their vocabularies and widen their knowledge of the English language. To recognise Spelling Bee Week, at JL headquarters we want to focus our thoughts on spelling, and how our brain learns to spell. What’s going on inside the brains of those spelling bee champions? We’ve previously talked about the reading brain, and the speaking brain, but we realized it was timely to finally talk about the very important spelling brain too!

Spelling is the process of transcribing language into the correct alphabetic letters in the correct order for spoken words. There are a number of spelling patterns in the English language that are standardized and must be learnt. Learning these patterns will definitely help the spelling bee contestants! Spelling involves recognizing common patterns, generalizations and some common rules.

Scientifically speaking though, spelling is a skill that involves both the upper and lower circuits of the left-brain. While reading is processed from the back brain to the front brain (visual to sound), spelling operates from the front brain to the back brain (sound to visual). More simply, spelling begins with a word pronunciation in the front of the brain and accesses a visual word form in the back of the brain. The upper dorsal spelling circuit involves working from a word pronunciation, to it’s sounds, to the corresponding letters. The lower ventral circuit involves direct recall from a word’s pronunciation to it’s visual form from the brain’s letter box.

Acquiring spelling patterns of high frequency words saves learners time and energy as these words make up over half the words that are read and spelt. Direct recall provides perfect spellings when words have been memorized, then it is considered a whole word form, not just a group of letters that needs to be sounded out. But in the case of spelling new words the brain needs to rely on the dorsal circuit to ‘encode’ in order to produce the letter/sound relationships that make up words. With encoding, sounds are segmented from the word’s pronunciation in the front of the brain and mapped onto individual letter patterns with the help of the dorsal circuit. Encoding is useful when a whole word’s shape cannot be accessed, but a ‘best guess’ spelling is required.

But why does encoding sometimes fail to produce the correct spelling? The English spelling system has some individual letters that can be pronounced in multiple ways and there are number of exception words. And this is why sometimes words in English need to be learnt by rote so that they are freely available for the ‘direct recall’ circuit. So sometimes the spelling bees will need to rote learn a lot of unusual words!

Tune in next week to continue on with our spelling blog series, when we focus on which techniques are best to teach children when learning to spell.

Extracts taken from Dr Duncan Milne’s book – Teaching the Brain: The New Science of Education.

Dr Duncan holds a Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience and Education from the University of Auckland, New Zealand; and is alumni of Harvard University. He is the author of 3 books on brain-based learning. His most recent publication: Teaching the Brain – The New Science of Education was released in 2014. He also volunteers his time as director of Tools for Literacy at Dyslexia International, and gave the keynote address at UNESCO’s World Dyslexia Forum in Paris.

spelling brain