Spelling: Nature vs Nurture by
(149 Stories)

Prompted By Spelling

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Is spelling skill genetically determined? If so, where do the spelling genes reside in our DNA? Despite practice and whatever the cause, some people are just better spellers than others. My partner Dick, who has a PhD in computer science and bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT, is a terrible speller. He just is. One of his daughters also struggles with spelling, although the other two don’t seem to have a problem. My mother is a bad speller and a superior artist. My dad was an excellent speller and writer. I am a good speller and writer and a mediocre artist. I lean toward a partial genetic explanation here.

Is spelling skill genetically determined? If so, where do the spelling genes reside in our DNA?

Between spell checkers and texting, my spelling isn’t what it used to be. That said, it’s still pretty good. Having some natural spelling ability, I can tell when a word “looks funny” and needs to be checked. And, of course spell checkers can’t identify homonyms that could be completely wrong in context. (Confession: it took me three tries to get the spelling of homonyms right.) Being an editor also forces me to stay sharp, although I really appreciate spell checkers for that extra sense of security.

And what about people who speak languages that don’t have many spelling complexities? Do their spelling genes activate or lie dormant? I feel for professional folks whose first language isn’t English. It’s amazing how well they do given the challenges of English. The scientists I have worked with are familiar with English scientific terms, which really helps. And, native speakers aren’t immune to mangling difficult terms, either. My favorite tricky spelling word, when doing scientific editing, is hematopoiesis. As I explain to authors, the trick is to remember that the Hawaiian word “poi” is in it.

So, practice probably does help and contributes to our spelling skills. Are kids subjected to regular spelling tests these days to force them to practice? Do they make a big difference? I don’t recall being anxious about spelling tests in grade school because I was a decent speller, but I know they terrorized some classmates.

Maybe spelling is like athleticism. Each of us is born with a certain amount, and practice can improve our performance, with spell checkers somewhat leveling the playing field.


Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Very interesting read, Marian. I always practiced for those spelling tests and got good grades on them, worked hard on my papers, proof read, but might still miss a typo. I am not a naturally good speller and have gotten worse as the years go on. I have learned little tricks to help with some words, but am hopeless with others. Yes, spell check and auto correct help to some extent, but can’t correct everything and puts in wild stuff if I’m not paying close attention (on my iPad or while texting, for example). I am more artistic than analytical, so your observations within your own household ring true for me as well.

    Thank you for this. It has given me something to think about.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Betsy. It’s always fascinated me how spelling ability is or isn’t linked to a person’s other attributes. Each person is unique in that regard, and it would be interesting to figure out the exact skills used in spelling.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Marian, I have to agree with Betsy. Spelling tests are about memorization, which I was able to do easily. But I could not retain the correct spellings for very long after those tests. In my story, I mention teaching phonics, which has fallen out of fashion in favor of the whole language approach. To be a good speller, I think you need a bit of both approaches as well as a brain wired correctly for spelling.

    • Marian says:

      That’s really interesting, Laurie, that you could memorize to pass the tests but not retain the spellings. I remember phonics but don’t recall if they helped me, hindered, or were neutral. Seems as if whole language would involve memorization as well.

  3. Suzy says:

    Glad to get the scientific viewpoint from you, Marian. I never thought about it possibly being genetic, although maybe I did unconsciously, because I said something in my story about passing the spelling gene on to my kids. I was just using that figuratively, but maybe it is literally true.

    You are such a fabulous editor (and one of the few people from whom I accept editorial changes), that I’m sure you must still be a good speller, even though you say your spelling isn’t what it used to be.

    • Marian says:

      It would be really fascinating to try to tease out what capabilities are really involved in being a good speller, and how they relate to inheritance, Suzy. I wish I got the “handy” gene that both my parents have so I could fix things better. My guess is that it’s a very complex set of characteristics that are involved, and there literally wouldn’t be a single spelling gene, but it is fun to speculate.

  4. John Shutkin says:

    A really good, thoughtful story, Marian. Is it nature or nurture? Or, as more and more neuroscientists, anthropologists and linguists seem to agree with regard to many cognitive traits, is it not mutually exclusive, but some combination of both?

    Unfortunately, this dilettante in all such fields — majoring in anthropology really doesn’t count — has absolutely no idea. (And had to check on the proper spelling of “dilettante.”)

    • Marian says:

      Well, John, getting at the spelling gene is going to be low priority, but I agree it’s going to be a combination of nature, nurture, and culture. Fascinating how talents are or aren’t inherited. My paternal grandfather was an excellent writer, and this talent got passed on to his sons and then to me and all of my first cousins. In contrast, the “handy” and artistic genes on both sides skipped my entire generation. My parents had them, but my brother and I missed out. However, my niece got them. Go figure!

  5. Interesting question indeed Marian.
    I’ve never thought about spelling as a genetic trait but I think writing is, I see it in my family.

    As Laurie says, at least spell check has made our writing lives easier!

  6. Joe Lowry says:

    I agree with you that some of the spelling talent is in the genes. My Dad and brothers were good at spelling, my Mom and I always were looking up words in the dictionary.
    I liked the reference to people in America who can from a country where English is not their first language, but have professional success. I have tutored a student from Vietnam in English, not chemistry as I had been my original assignment. He has a 3.8 GPA in chemistry at San Jose State, and a 3.0 in English. Maybe I was part of his English success.

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