Roger VanHaren b

In my 37 years of teaching English, I spent many hours with a red pen in my hand, circling misspelled words or writing “sp” above them. All of this was done because of my firmly-held conviction that spelling was important to good communication.

And then a few weeks ago, a friend forwarded an e-mail to me which surprised me a lot. The gist of the article was that spelling was not so important after all. Here’s a paragraph from that email. Get ready to surprise yourself.

“I cdnuolt blveiee that I colud aulaclty uesdnatnrd what I was rdanieg. The hmuan mnid has phaonmneal pweor. Aoccdrnig to rsceearch dnoe at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in what oerdr the ltteres in a word are; the olny iproamtnt tihng is that the frsit and last ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can still raed it whotuit a pboerlm. This is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the word as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? Yaeh, and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!”

There. Were you able to read that? And if you were able to read it, do you agree with the assertion that “it doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are…”?

I don’t agree.

Yes, I could read the paragraph with very little difficulty, but it wasn’t fun, and it really slowed me down. I had to read it twice to be sure of its message. For me, comprehension comes when I move a little faster. When I have to slow down too much, it causes me to question if I missed something. And besides, my spell-checker was going nuts and I could feel my red pencil just twitching to get at it.

Later, I ran across this paragraph, which was attempting to prove the same idea:

“7H15 M3554G3 53RV35 7O PR0V3 H0W 0UR M1ND5 C4N D0 4M4Z1NG 7H1NG5! 1MPR3551V3 7H1NG5! 1N 7H3 B3G1NN1NG 17 WA5 H4RD, BU7 N0W, 0N 7H15 LIN3, Y0UR M1ND 1S R34D1NG 17 4U70M471C4LLY W17H0U7 3V3N 7H1NK1NG 4B0U7 17. B3 PROUD! 0NLY C3R741N P30PL3 C4N R3AD 7H15.”

Well, that was different, right? Oddly, my spell-checker didn’t mark even one word in that paragraph. My poor machine must have had a nervous breakdown.

But what do you think? Do you agree with the statement that “...your mind is reading it automatically without even thinking about it...”?

I was reading it, but it wasn’t automatic, and I had to think about it. But it’s still sort an amazing thing.

I’ve always contended that once you’ve learned to read, it’s almost impossible not to read something you see printed. We read milk cartons, cereal boxes, billboards. If it’s printed, we read it. We may not be consciously reading it for the content, but those words are being imprinted on some part of our brains.

I read a lot, mostly for enjoyment, now that I’m retired. I don’t often read non-fiction (except for the news) because I’m reading for entertainment, not to increase my meager knowledge of the world and its history. I don’t have to read student papers or the literature I’m going to have to teach tomorrow. Those days are gone, and while I miss the interaction of students and fellow faculty members, I relish the freedom I have now to read whatever I want.

And “whatever I want” doesn’t include stuff that’s misspelled or codified by the use of numbers interspersed with letters. I don’t want to have to pass a reading test. I want my reading materials spelled right. Spelling counts.

Contact Roger VanHaren at