“How I Trained My Brain to Unleash Wonders My Fingers Couldn’t”
I’m a 58-year-old college professor and I frequently misspell my own name. My handwriting is sloppy and I often can’t find the right word. Despite what I was told as a child, my poor spelling and sloppiness are not a reflection of inferior intelligence or laziness. Indeed, quite the opposite may be true.
I am a professor of art and a department chair at a university in Texas. Few people who know me today would say I am not smart. But I have a hard time finding the vocabulary I need to express myself as I speak, and I frequently misspell my own name. My most interesting ideas often seem too difficult to express with speech. It can take me years to figure out how to say something just right.
This disconnect between my knowledge and ability to express it has existed since I was a child, when I was frequently laughed at and discounted. Even now, I sometimes stumble when explaining my troubles because the neurology responsible for them is so abstract and complex and difficult to put into words. That said, let’s start with this simple fact: I have dysgraphia. Dysgraphia is a transcription disorder — that is, it makes it tough for the brain to transcribe thoughts into writing or speaking.
Students with dysgraphia often have illegible handwriting and a difficult time printing. The problem has nothing to do with gross motor skills — it has to do with the fact that printing, handwriting, or even typing takes up so much of the brain’s processing power that other thinking cannot happen at the same time.
Now 58 years old, I still find myself filling out a simple form five times in order to answer basic questions without spelling mistakes or other errors. In order to succeed, I require a quiet space, a lot of motivation, and a clear head. Any distractions will result in my address being listed in the “city” line or my signature in the “print name here” space.
Lack of Intelligence or Dysgraphia?
Clearly, terrible printing is not the same thing as composing a terrible paper, but if you are 8 years old and you have undiagnosed dysgraphia, chances are good that teachers and your own parents will conflate the two problems. That’s what happened to me.
As a child, writing was physically painful — but not from finger calluses. My hand hurt from me trying to force it to make neat words and letters. Often, I ended up with many more errors on a simple “copy without the spelling errors” rewrite than existed in the original version.
Even the typing class I took in 8th grade was a failure. Trying to type without error slowed my speed way down. Even today, to get an error-free copy, 20 words per minute is the best I can do. Moving at a faster speed permits my ideas and my fingers to flow more freely; I get more done, but with more mistakes to clean up later. I work at it constantly, and my ability to record my thoughts grows steadily.
More recently, my writing ability has improved, but only because I have taught my fingers to type as I speak. They run nearly on auto pilot. I speak quietly to myself and let my fingers mimic with the keys. It’s what I’m doing right now as I write this. More accurately, I’ve learned that the best way for me to compose a sentence is to first store it as sound — as speech — and then to repeat it audibly, which allows my fingers to keep up with my mouth.
When Poor Spelling Hides Brilliance
I am convinced that constant criticism about spelling, grammar, and neatness prevents many people from ever discovering that they are good writers — and, more critically, that they do have something significant to say. Spelling and grammar are important — even I find myself correcting it in students’ papers — but content commentary and criticism are far more important.
Some people argue that an idea expressed sloppily is not worth considering. At best, this is lazy thinking. At worst, it is discriminatory. Ideas often exist without the ability to express them. Expression is a skill and ability. Expression is separate from ideation. One would never think that Helen Keller had “nothing to say” until she learned to sign, yet we say things like this in our society all the time. I am fed up with this mistaken idea.
My students have taught me this: Sometimes, the people who have the most trouble getting ideas down on paper are the ones who have the most profound things to say. And at least some of this makes sense.
If you have to think long and hard before you speak, it makes sense that what you say will be new and original and well thought out. I’ve noticed that sometimes, when I encourage a student to tell me about a complex idea, the idea flows out of his in well-constructed paragraphs with a thesis, argument, discussion, and conclusion. Sometimes by freeing a mind from the constraints and expectations of a perfectly-written product, we stumble upon brilliance waiting to shine. Sadly, this happens far too infrequently in schools today.
Dysgraphia is largely unrecognized and misunderstood, and this does us great harm. We lose meaningful input from many people of high intelligence who simply communicate a little differently. And if you have read this far, think about the fact that it’s taken me roughly 55 years of practice to get to this point. Dysgraphia is real. It has a big impact on people’s lives that can sadly result in negative outcomes, and it’s so easy to lift that burden by merely accommodating — and encouraging — diverse voices. Let’s stop equating sloppy handwriting and poor spelling with inability.