Braille Monitor                                     January 2017

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Answering the Spelling Conundrum

by Gary Wunder

Back in June of 2016 we discussed problems some blind people have with spelling. A main cause of this problem is that the majority of our reading is done using audio, a wonderful way to get information and entertainment but a poor way to observe spelling, punctuation, and formatting to communicate headings, paragraphs, subordination in an outline, italicizing, bolding, underlining, and other attention-getting information. The question posed was how blind people deal with this deficit and what suggestions they offer to others.

The Monitor received about ten responses, for which we are grateful. Not surprisingly, the advice in many of these can be distilled into the recommendation to read all the Braille one can. Several observed that they have heard Braille used as an excuse for being a poor speller. Certainly there are some words for which Braille allows the use of a sign, a letter, or a letter preceded by prefixed dots. As far as we can determine there are 148 words one must learn for which contracted Braille would give no clue. One would think that in any instruction in Braille and spelling would place such words on a spelling list and test, the rule being that any answer is always written letter for letter. Certainly most words can be deconstructed by looking at the signs used to write them. Congratulations is written as the con sign, the letters g r a t u l a, and the sign for the letter combination tion, and s, but is easily understood to be the letters c o n g r a t u l a t i o n s. Most of us carry around a memory of what words feel like in the same way print readers say they often spell words by visualizing them.

All of this advice for readers of Braille is of no value to the person who doesn't know it, isn't proficient in it, or cannot read it because of physical problems. So, while Braille is a very helpful tool, lacking it does not condemn one to remaining a poor speller. The suggestions that did not rely on Braille were:

  1. If you use a word processor or an email client with a spell checker, use it as more than a tool to ensure your latest document has no misspellings. Don't just search for and accept the right word and move on. Write the words it corrects and practice them like you did when getting a spelling list on Monday and preparing for the test on Friday. Mrs. Smith won't be there to grade you, so your success won't mean a good grade or a treat. Instead, your vocabulary will grow with each new word you master, your confidence in writing a quality document will increase, and your reliance on there always being a high-tech device at hand will diminish.
  2. When reading with audio using a screen reader, concentrate not only on the content but do a mental check to see if you know how to spell the words being heard. If not, use your screen reader's review functions to spell the words you are unsure of and add them to your list. Note that not everyone who writes to you is a good speller, so before adding his or her word to your list, verify it is spelled correctly with a spell checker or a dictionary. This will increase the time it takes to read some of your email and other materials, but the benefit in what you learn is well worth it. Many blindness products have a built-in spell checker, and there are several dictionaries available to use online, including dictionary.com, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Cambridge Dictionary, the Oxford Dictionary, and more.
  3. For words encountered while reading a book from NLS, Learning Ally, and other audio sources, here are some strategies for learning the spelling and meaning of a word. Most online or electronic dictionaries allow the partial entry of words and special characters for those letters one doesn't know. Suppose one knows the meaning of miraculous but doesn't know the spelling. If only one letter is in doubt, most online dictionaries will allow the substitution of a question mark and will return the word. So, entering m i r ? c u l o u s will return the correctly spelled word and reveal the mystery letter to be an ‘a.’ If you only know that the word miraculous begins with an ‘m’ and ends with an ‘s,’ you could enter ‘m*s.’ The star indicates one or more letters which are found in the word being sought. Given the number of words which begin with ‘m’ and end with ‘s’ (819, in case you were wondering), the more letters you know, the better.
  4. For those with iPhones, when coming across a new word, tell Siri to spell the word you hear. If you are unsure about the definition, Siri can also be asked to define the word. If the word in question is catastrophe, say, "Spell catastrophe." If you want the definition, say, "Define catastrophe." This is a fantastic feature, but it is only a crutch unless you take the extra step of keeping a list and learning what you have heard.
  5. One person recommends using the web to improve spelling, and a simple Google search of “learn to spell” will turn up a number of sites to visit.

Another word of caution about learning words from emails from others: there are some spelling pitfalls that print and Braille readers struggle with together, so they are worth keeping in mind when reading emails or looking up words that your screen reader has told you: words that are spelled similarly regardless of how they are pronounced, and words that sound very similar but are spelled differently. Some common examples are loose and lose, accept and except, recent and resent, there/their/they’re, to/too/two, and your/you’re. When you use an online dictionary to check a spelling, glance at the definition of the word, and make sure that you have the correct word for the meaning you intend. Though these are common mistakes, they can have a dramatic impact in a professional setting.

Remember that learning anything challenging takes time. Becoming a better speller takes time, but that time is rewarded with new-found confidence, one less thing to be defensive about, and feeling good about exercising a part of one's mind that has been shown to forestall the onset of age-related brain problems. The goal is not to become the next champion at the spelling bee nationals but to feel more confident in what you write, to lessen the apprehension when you do, and to better represent the thoughts and experiences your intellect and drive have provided. With patience and perseverance, you can hear or quote Thomas Jefferson's quip: "I have nothing but contempt for anyone who can spell a word only one way" and can smile, remembering the day when you spelled words many different ways.

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