Gabby's Wordspeller™ - Phonetic Dictionary

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Gabby's Wordspeller™ & Phonetic Dictionary


The literal meaning of the word dyslexia – from its Greek roots – is "difficulty with words."

Dr. Maryanne Wolfe, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, explains, "the more you know about a word, the faster you can read it." Dr. Virginia Berninger, of the University of Washington, has demonstrated that reading fluency is enhanced for dyslexic students through instruction that focuses on the interrelation between the three "forms" shared by each word: the meaning of the word, its visual appearance, and its sound.

Ronald Davis, author of The Gift of Dyslexia, builds his program for dyslexia correction upon the insight that word mastery is essential to reading development, using only two essential materials: clay and a dictionary. Students use clay to create three-dimensional models of the meaning of each word, as well as the letters that spell the word. The dictionary is the key to independence: it provides the correct spelling, a key to accurate pronunciation, and all possible definitions and use of each word. The modeling is needed because dyslexic individuals think mostly in pictures, unable to think with words unless they have mental pictures to go along with them. By tapping into the creative process, the Davis program empowers each student with the ability to learn and discover on their own.

But here is where dyslexics encounter their biggest barrier: spelling. The most persistent and pervasive symptom of dyslexia is an orthographic barrier; they have difficulty remembering the conventional spelling of phonetically irregular words. Many educators focus on intensive teaching of phonics, as this provides one avenue for decoding many of the simpler words encountered by beginning readers. English is not a phonetic language, but rather a polyglot and amalgam of words drawn from different languages, often retaining spellings that reflect histories and pronunciations long forgotten.

If you can't spell a word, you cannot find it in a dictionary.

Through brain scans, Dr. Sally Shaywitz of Yale University has shown that dyslexic readers typically underutilize the "visual word form area" of the brain – the part of the visual cortex believed to be involved in instantaneous recognition of whole words. This is the part of the brain that probably stores a picture of the right letters arranged in the right order, the part that is engaged when you choose the correct spelling because it just looks right to you.

It isn't that dyslexic writers are unable to spell a word; with their creative problem-solving strengths, they can easily spell the same word half a dozen different ways. As Andrew Jackson once said, "it's a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word."

The problem is in figuring out which spelling is the one that everyone else will use and understand.

And here is where the most powerful tool – the dictionary – is also the most inaccessible. Because if we err in guessing the first 2 or 3 letters of the word, we will never find it.

And here is where Gabby's Wordspeller becomes indispensible – it provides the key to the door that opens the dictionary. It is where all those phonetic decoding skills emphasized by well-meaning primary school teachers can finally be brought to fruition: krecher may not be a word, but it is a spelling, albeit an incorrect one. In a regular dictionary, it leads us to the Kremlin, which is not where we wanted to go. But Gabby's phonetic dictionary gives us the answer in exactly the place we have gone to find it: "creature."

Suname leads to tsunami. Fanomanen takes us to phenomenon. Ekselerate turns into accelerate. And pretty soon, the world of words is ours for the taking. If we already know the meaning of the word, that is all that is needed. The correct spelling is there, in a form that we can copy and use.

If our trip to the dictionary is also a search for meaning, or etymology, or information as to usage, or a set of synonyms, then Gabby's has opened the door for us. By providing the spelling we need, we can access the larger dictionary or thesaurus which can provide us with whatever information we seek.

This reference book should be in every school library, in every classroom, and at home on every student's desk. It is the key to independence for every learner.

– Abigail Marshall, April 7, 2009

Abigail Marshall is the author of the books The Everything Parent's Guide to Children with Dyslexia and When Your Child Has... Dyslexia, published by Adams Media. She also manages the Dyslexia the Gift web site at and other educational sites for Davis Dyslexia Association International.