Take a moment to imagine that you are attending a baby shower. When you look around, what types of gifts do you see? What patterns are emblazoned on the toys, blankets, and tiny clothes?
I recently attended my own baby shower and, in my experience, there were lots of letters. I received towels covered with the alphabet, clothes with embroidered phrases, foam letters for the bathtub, puzzles that spell out the baby’s name, and LOADS of children’s books. I can read to this baby about farm animals, construction equipment, or letters climbing up a coconut tree every night and never make it through all the books. Honestly, I was thrilled!
As a Spelling to Communicate practitioner, I am often asked why I don’t start by teaching a nonspeaker to spell. My answer is that my students already know how to spell. They don’t need to be taught! The gifts I received at my baby shower are evidence that we are teaching our kids letters and words from their very first days on Earth. So why do nonspeakers have such difficulty demonstrating their understanding?
The answer is MOTOR! While we are exposing kids to language from day one, a reliable motor skill is required to demonstrate their cognitive understanding. If this motor skill is missing or unreliable, it may appear that the individual is struggling to learn. To explore this more, let’s take a look at the brain.
When we look into the language center of the brain, we’ll find Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area. Wernicke’s area is our receptive language area. You are using that part of your brain right now as you read and comprehend this blog post. This part of the brain is also engaged as you listen to a lecture or listen to a story told by a friend. You are taking in and processing written or spoken language using Wernicke’s area.
Broca’s area is our expressive language area. This area of the brain is also engaged as you read this blog. In the first few sentences, I asked several questions. Your brain likely came up with answers to those questions even though you never spoke them aloud. You are also creating thoughts, ideas, and opinions about the content of this blog post as you read. All of this is happening in your expressive language area. When we use Broca’s area in terms of spoken language, we cognitively create words that convey our thoughts and ideas. When we use Broca’s area for written language, we spell.
Language is 100 percent cognitive. Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area work together to process and create language internally, but a motor action must be used to get this language out into the world. Speech, typing, texting, writing, and spelling all require a reliable motor skill to demonstrate what is happening in the language center of the brain.
In our students, the language center of the brain is intact. They are using Wernicke’s area to process and understand what they are explicitly taught but also all the things that are happening around them at any given time. They are then using Broca’s area to create thoughts and ideas. They are also using Broca’s area to spell. As we support the development of a reliable motor skill, they are able to demonstrate their knowledge more effectively. Our students know how to spell! They just need the motor support to show what they know.
As with any important topic, we should hear from the experts themselves. Peyton Culver, a self-advocate from Knoxville, Tennessee shares his thoughts on the subject:
I have some experience with others being surprised by how much I know. They can’t understand how I read and spell without being taught explicitly to sound out letters and make words. In my life, it has been easier to learn because I take in everything in the world around me, and I always have. I may have less of an ability to show what I know, but I learned fast because there were letters and words around all the time. If I was never explicitly taught anything, I would still learn. You can learn anything if you immerse yourself in it. I hope that someday all nonspeakers have a chance to be taught age-appropriate, or higher, curriculum. If we never get there, they won’t stop us from learning. It’s impossible.
Peyton Culver is a nonspeaking autistic with a passion for advocacy. He has been spelling for almost 4 years and hopes to share Spelling to Communicate with the world. His love for educating others about nonspeakers is the driving force behind The Peyton Project, a non-profit serving spellers and their families.
Kelley Howe is a Registered Spelling to Communicate Practitioner, occupational therapist, and member of the I-ASC Leadership Cadre. She loves to engage the Wernicke’s area of her brain by reading and listening to podcasts.