Back in the nineties, when I was teaching college freshmen composition classes, I had a student who was by far the worst speller I ever encountered. In that first assignment, I directed my students to write about something they knew a lot about. This student’s topic was the grooming of horses. Spell-checking software had been incorporated into virtually all personal computers by then, but spell-checking programs don’t catch everything, and misspellings were everywhere. In a cringe-worthy moment unique in my decade of teaching college writing, one of my female students wrote about grooming horses. At one point in her essay, she intended to use the phrase “gently stroking,” in connection with her horse. Instead the spell-checker offered several choices, and the adverb that she selected was “genitally” stroking.
Two decades later, I find my own spelling skills weakening. Certain words, particular those derived from French, such as denouement, strike me as especially challenging. This comes as no great surprise. After all, my short-term memory has been declining for almost five years. My most recent neuropsychological exam indicated that I was in the lowest 1 percentile in short-term memory. Why did I walk into this room? Oh, yes, I was looking for my cellphone. Google can be helpful in landing me in the right lexicon neighborhood. But spelling remains challenging, and is likely to get worse.
A few days ago I came across an academic paper, written about a decade ago. The paper’s title, written by Sara J. Margolin and Lise Abrams, both at the time at the University of Florida, is Individual Differences in Young and Older Adults: Do Good Spellers Age Better Than Poor Spellers? The paper confirms that yes, people with Alzheimer’s are likely to spell poorly. “Although these declines in spelling are useful for understanding cognitive changes following brain damage [by Alzheimer’s], they do not further our knowledge about patients’ age-matched counterparts, healthy older adults.”
But does skill at spelling, which is dependent on short-term memory, really matter in the age of Google? Yes, it does. My former student demonstrated that. My deteriorating short-term memory is an example of why Alzheimer’s is such a maddening disease. Everything rolls downhill.