The irrelevance of spelling & other dyslexic trivia.

this is the canonical original for an essay hosted on Medium

What is dyslexia like? Well, I am so glad you asked.

A self-portrait at the moment it all went wrong.

So imagine you are six. You are in a classroom and today is “writing day”. The teacher strolls in, smiles, and unrolls the periodic table of elements that represent the atoms of everything you could possibly say, or think, or think to say. Everything is a compound of these elements. It is, as you know all too well, the alphabet. Words being lexical compounds of letters.

Sheets of paper are distributed. Waxy crayons peeled at the cuff. The lesson begins with “So this is an ‘a’, does anyone know a word that starts with ‘a’”? A giggling hush descends. The teacher continues, “apple, yes that’s right a-ppil. I want you to write ‘a’ on your page”.

The teacher pulls her chalk into a huge arc, the trajectory curls back around to close a circular bowl, then up into vertical stem and straight down to finish with a playful tail. You copy her movements diligently, and that takes care of the letter “a”. In a single lesson, you cover a, b and c, lining the page with columns of letters.

In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was God!

Well, if that is true, then this lesson was the prequel to God, the building blocks of God, the foundation for Genesis, the compost of your literary career.

Easy peasy lemon squeezy!

Afterwards, all the pages are collected and returned to the teacher and then for no apparent reason, the teacher calls your name: just your name, nobody else’s. A bad thing has happened. And bad things happen to little boys who make bad things happen. But it gets worse! The other bad thing will only occur at the end of the period when everyone has gone, and you are alone with the teacher, who by the way, is gigantic! She is well over one meter tall.

The bell rings.

The eyewitnesses leave.

The giant closes the door and approaches your desk, with an unnaturally neat stack of papers. She smiles. You do not smile. Your page is on the top, she holds it up.

“Did you do this?” she asks. You nod. She nods, then puts it back and looks at you. She smiles. Her eyes make your cheek feel very hot. Despite the burning laser eyes, you stare down, at the desk, eye contact would be a grave mistake.

The teacher hands you a fresh sheet of paper and a crayon. She smiles (again) and asks you to write “abc”. A cunning trick, nevertheless you take the page, and before you have finished the first letter she says “ahhhhh … I seeeeeee”, and bares her teeth.

She’s a serial smiler.

Then she says “we will need to talk to your mom about this”. Now the only thing that will make a normal bad thing into a super bad thing is a talk with your mom about this.

“W-w-what did I do?” you ask.

It turns out that the badness comes out of your left hand. At this juncture in life, you are not entirely sure which left she means when she says “left”. Is that the arm with the red ribbon tied to it? Or the one with the blue ribbon? Frankly the whole left hand, right hand, red-ribbon, blue-ribbon business is … well, it is a work-in-progress. Her prognosis, however, is definitive. You are left-handed.

The teacher shows you a different page, one written by another sixer, she places it side by side with yours. They are the same, as far as you can tell. No. The giant insists that they are not. Your writing is, in fact, mirrored. The letters are correctly formed but written back to front.


All you know is that you did exactly as you were told. You put the crayon down and pulled it away from the margin, described the letters, just as she did.

What difference did it make that your margin was on the right edge of the page? What difference did it make that when you pull the crayon, it travels from right to left? Why is that wrong? Turns out that some things are just wrong. And that is that. Right is right, wrong is left. That is that. Decades later I discovered the Latin word for left-handed is “sinister”. Wrong is left. That is that.

That doesn’t make you dyslexic, it makes you left-handed?

Yes, you are absolutely correct, not all left-handed people are dyslexic or began by writing mirrored letters. The data does, however, illustrate that about 17.8% of lefties are on the dyslexic spectrum. So that’s almost (but not quite)1-in-5 left-handed individuals are dyslexic to some degree, and if they are a boy, the percentage tends to be a little higher.

(See footnotes for references)

I hated English, and yet wrote in secret.

Which by proxy meant that I hated school, high school and college. Mostly because our evaluation, or competence is essentially a measure of the ability to convey written English. With some obvious exceptions; other languages, the sciences and the practical arts.

I consistently failed spelling tests late into my high school years, even now, decades later, a request like; “hey how do you spell …” makes me anxious. My dyslexia was never formally diagnosed, so I was just a bad student — a slow learner. I never received a smiley face or a star for good work, and as a child, I yearned for that.

These days the schools have changed dramatically, thankfully, because not knowing I was “dyslexic” had a massive impact on my life. It hammered my confidence, social development and ultimately affected my choice of profession; I chose a career of “not writing”, I chose graphic design, and later software development.

I have spent the majority of my career as an imposter, harbouring this insatiable lust to write, plus the shame of being incompetence at that, and of course, a secret closet where dozens of stagnant stories fester.

It is ironic really because I loved everything about English; except for reading and writing.


a WhatsApp meme that hits the nail on the tail

Dyslexia is a learning disorder that stems from the difficulty of splitting a word into its component sounds (phonological processing) and accurately mapping those sounds to symbols. Usually, the mapping is taken for granted, because the sound breakdown happens effortlessly. This process is not effortless, for me, it’s taxing and constant interruption. It’s most noticeable when reading or when taking down notes.

Handwriting is challenging too because, in addition to the word decoding stuff, my brain will sometimes flip individual letters. For example, I write a “d”. Later on that “d” is actually written as “b” on the page or sometimes “g”. Very annoying. Somewhere between my brain and the page, individual letters are sometimes hijacked.

Typing cures that almost entirely. A keyboard has physical, three-dimensional geography. The brain impulse, to type a letter, maps a specific finger to a particular coordinate on the keyboard. That position is recorded in muscle memory. The letter can’t be hijacked because each letter is associated with the muscular reflex of a specific finger to a set coordinate. And just like that, the letter flipping problem is solved.

The ordering of letters is not, but at least to b is not to d.

Now I will attempt to cause, in you, the cognitive overload of that occurs while reading. Consider that /dɪs ˌɪntɪˈ ɡreɪʃ(ə)n/ are the sounds that constitute the word “disintegration”. Notice how your eyes jumped around the pronunciation. Notice the rapid rewind, play, rewind, play, until your mind “gave up” and let your eyes continue reading, with a (placeholder) for the meaning, which became defined later. However, with a second reading, your eyes will jump over the pronunciation completely, simply because the cognitive demand is too high, and also because the meaning is known. That “thing” makes your brain work hard. That is what dyslexia is like, except in reverse.

First, you hear the whole word, then break it apart so that your untrustworthy hand can write down the pieces.

Now if we take the same word and divide it into syllables, and separate those with “-” like so; dis-in-te-gra-tion, it is much easier to figure it out. Even if the word was unfamiliar, you shouldn’t have a problem to pronounce it correctly. That is the sound-to-word mapping we spoke about earlier.

It should be mentioned that dyslexia is not about the language per se, a conversation is easy, vocabulary is easy, but reading and writing ain’t! And mathematics … horrific! (at least for little me it was).

Having to stop and process a word, bit by bit, drew my attention to the “-”, the silent delimiters which exist in words. They lead me to etymology and a long standing fascination with the origin and meaning of words.

I am grateful to dyslexia for that.

Etymology is that that makes a word whole.

Language is the vehicle that allows us to transplant dreams into each other. So despite the hatred for English, I became obsessed with words. Not the construction of a word, in terms of the specific order of letters, that is the job of spelling, no, rather the smaller words that make a whole word.

A word is essentially a tiny sentence, welded together, each part offers it’s own sound to participate in a new whole, which will ultimately have its own intrinsic meaning. You could say: a word is a recipe for meaning, who’s ingredients are other words.

Etymology is the study of the origin of words and the way that meanings change throughout history.

“Nice” is an insult behaving as a compliment.

This is my favourite example, for various reasons. Firstly, it’s a fascinating evolution from thesis to antithesis. Secondly, it’s a common word for which we presume a permanent meaning. Lastly, it demonstrates how deceitful a meaning can be and how the original meaning may still persist.

Nice (adj.) late 13c., “foolish, ignorant, frivolous, senseless,” from Old French nice (12c.) “careless, clumsy; weak; poor, needy; simple, stupid, silly, foolish,” from Latin nescius “ignorant, unaware,” literally “not-knowing,” from ne- “not” (from PIE root *ne- “not”) + stem of scire “to know” (see science).

“The sense development has been extraordinary, even for an adj.” [Weekley] — from “timid, faint-hearted” (pre-1300); to “fussy, fastidious” (late 14c.); to “dainty, delicate” (c. 1400); to “precise, careful” (1500s, preserved in such terms as a nice distinction and nice and early); to “agreeable, delightful” (1769); to “kind, thoughtful” (1830).

When someone tells you how “nice” something is, too often, you suspect that it is not-nice, which is curiously the original meaning.

One thing is for sure when Geoffrey Chaucer and Jane Austin wrote that word, the meaning would be as different to them, reading it in their lifetime, as it is for us now. Nice is just not a very nice word, please use a nicer one.

Does spelling really matter? No, not really.

I am an expert spelling mistake maker, an overqualified expert, and self-appointed authority. I declare that it is practically impossible to remember a spelling mistake. Occasionally you’ll encounter them while reading, but by the time you have finished, I bet you could not write the broken word accurately. You might be able to write the corrected word, but not the typo itself.

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

The brain does not transact in words, and it doesn’t store narrative in words either. Words are a very awkward and inefficient mechanism for transporting the ephemeral phenomena of thought.

The parts of the brain used for retrieving a memory, curiously are the same parts of the brain that become active when a subject is dreaming. Memory is no different from a story, with the difference being that most times we know when the story was experienced or manufactured. We distinguish them as fact or fiction. And often it’s a mixture of both. Memories are unreliable as proof of truth, but they are very reliable as proof of narrative.

To move a dream sequence from one mind to another, you zip it with words, because words can be converted into symbols or sounds, and transmitted. On receipt, the package gets unzipped, and hopefully, re-constructed faithfully. This is where it all goes wrong. Nice becomes not nice, gay no longer means gay, it means gay, and a shop can easily be close to close.

As a writer, you know when a phrase is “not quite right”. You swap and shuffle the legions of lexical ants scribbled on the page until the marching order best conveys the essence of your thought. But it is never really done, is it? Every time you read your work, you know it “could” be better, even though the underlying thought has not changed, and the story is fundamentally the same.

I have bad news for you. Shakespeare’s work is finished, only because he’s dead.

Bloody words. Can’t write with them, and can’t write without them.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

Great writers are the people who expertly fit words to emotions, where each thought is tightly dressed. During the process of tailoring, emotion gets sown into the yarn.

All Languages have one fundamental flaw

Perhaps it is an intrinsic irony, you decide, but I think the most important messages, the really urgent messages, can NOT be expressed by words at all. They can be described with words but not expressed with words. I consider them to be the ancient common language, shared between race and most species. These are the existential murmurings of life itself.

When a lover climaxes with pleasure; orgasm is the word that describes the release, but we have no way to describe a moan that can convey the depth of the pleasure or the intensity of its anticipation, and the same stands true for pain. In the same way, you can’t convey someone else pain. You can experience the depth of its impact as a witness, but to tell a third party of that pain, your description would be of the phantom pain you experienced, and each telling would dilute it. Take a moment to kick your small toe against the corner of a door, and then try to write your experience as a comment to this article. You’ll thank me later.

I am often heavily criticised for spelling and grammar mistakes, and in this article I have spent a lot of effort to tell you this. I have even been reprimanded for spelling mistakes that aren’t mistakes, rather a dogmatic reader insisting that between colour and color only one is correct. And in conclusion I’d like to posit this thought. If you where to copy Macbeth, and paste it into a word processor, the majority of the words would be wrong. But no matter how wrong it was, it would still be Macbeth.

The story is all that matters.

In closing, please let me assure you it is a hard word being dyslexic, at a guess, I would say we do twice the mental work than an average person would. And that just slows you down, and you feel foolish that you can’t do such a simple thing, and then you tell yourself that you are dumb and after years of telling yourself that, you become stupid forever. Even if you graduate Cumme Laude with a Masters degree, even if you are invited to do a doctorate, even if you win prizes for writing, even if your short story gets published and printed for free, you are still stupid.

If you have a child with dyslexia, please, I ask you from my heart; do not allow them to draw that conclusion.

(See footnotes for additional material)

Here are the data references and other sources regarding dyslexia: