Is Spelling Truly Important?

As I was scrolling through Facebook a couple weeks ago, I came across this post.

This has tired me out

Posted by Awesome Inventions on Tuesday, February 6, 2018

I found this post intriguing since we were learning about word recognition in class. How was my brain able to sift through this mess relatively quickly? I’m going to be honest- I’m still not completely sure. Our brains are so incredibly complicated and amazing that it’s impossible to fully understand them.

I believe that this phenomenon has lots of different mechanisms at work. Since the post said that it was created by research at Cambridge University, I started looking for the original post since we all know Facebook isn’t exactly 100% reliable. What I found was an article by Matt Davis, who works at Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK. Read his research on this subject here. He was able to break down the brain processes behind this phenomenon a bit more with lots of relevant studies. The main effect that came to mind when I first saw the Facebook post was the Word Superiority Effect that we discussed in class. It is because of this effect that we recognize letters more easily when they are in words than on their own. Davis generalized this effect to this exercise, saying “Following brief presentations of written words, people are often better at guessing what word they saw, rather than guessing individual letters in that word.” If we were to spend an excess amount of time with one of these words we may second guess ourselves or see other words that could be made by these letters.

This is not the only mechanism at work here. Obviously the context comes into play. You are less likely to decipher “mtaetr” by itself than in the post where it says “it dseno’t mtaetr…” Although the word superiority effect comes in to play, it works better when paired with meaningful context. You may not have caught it while reading the post- but the function words are still in tact. Words such as “the,” “a,” and “not” cannot be jumbled while keeping the first and last letter the same. This helps us to read the passage easier since some words are still the same. Similarly, short words such as “what” are barely jumbled and quite easy to decipher.

So is the post correct? Do we only read words as a whole? Does spelling matter? According to the research, this is true to an extent. It is easier for us to read words as a whole, but we are still able to distinguish between “salt” and “slat.” According to the Facebook post, our minds would not know the difference between these words. Obviously there is more happening here than just looking at the first and last letter. Spelling matters to an extent.

I thought this was so cool to try for myself and really dig into. The research behind exercises like this is incredible and so intriguing (to me at least.) We will never truly know every aspect and mechanism of cognition, but the more we know about how we learn and read the better we can shape our learning. Since I am studying to teach elementary kids this was completely relevant to me. There is a lot of debate on spelling tests now and I was interested to see how this study would be relevant. I think I’d rather have my kids free write and correct them as they go rather than doing spelling tests. As we saw earlier- context is important! If you’d like to learn more about the word superiority effect or see it in action yourself, try out this lab!




4 thoughts on “Is Spelling Truly Important?

  1. ldanby

    I found this post extremely interesting! I’ve always been fascinated by our ability to read texts that are all jumbled up like this one. For me, it’s weird how easily I felt I was able to read through this flyer! But thinking about the Word Superiority Effect and the context does make sense as for while it is easy to do. Although I do wonder, it says only certain people can read texts like this one, so who are the people that can’t? And why exactly can’t they?

  2. pcrickma

    I have never really realized the extent to which our brains can create order from ambiguity so seamlessly until I started learning in this class. The word jumble challenge you talked about in your post is perhaps the most salient example of how quickly our brains are capable of making sense out of chaos. It stands to reason that humans who possessed the ability to make quick generalizations about a confusing visual world fared better than those who couldn’t and were thus selected for in our evolutionary history. The cognitive models proposed in class do a good job of explaining how these generalizations and shortcuts may work in our brains, and are applicable across many contexts, like reading comprehension for this example. That being said, I wonder if those who can’t breeze through a reading like this one are using the same sorts of models of cognition that the rest of us are. If they are, why are they not able to make sense out of the nonsense? I would venture a guess that their brains are operating similarly, but might have a tendency to engage in bottom-up processing more often than those who can read it. Anyway, your post was very thought-provoking and I really enjoyed the thought experiment that it elicited. Thank you for providing your insight into such an intriguing aspect of our psychology.

  3. ktbug

    I found this to be very interesting and exciting how it ties into our discussions in class about reading comprehension. Though I am curious to know what operation is occurring to those who don’t do as well reading through the paragraph as easily. I had imagine this being difficult for those with dyslexia. Although as I was skimming through some articles regarding the topic, I noticed that there didn’t seem to be a huge gap between accuracy of the superiority effects, only response times. I have seen this post on Facebook as well and it’s awesome how it relates to what we’ve learned and how it can open up new questions about the topic!

  4. mbap

    I was immediately drawn to the title “not everyone can read this” because who doesn’t like a challenge. I found, like the rest of you, that it was pretty easy to read the message. It was fascinating to see how the brain can use context clues and the first and last letters to so easily understand the meaning of jumbled letters. I wonder how big of words this could work on. For example words with a lot of letters jumbled up don’t seem very easy to understand even with context clues. It would be cool to see a study done to see how big the words could get while still being readable.


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