Trouble Spelling After a Stroke? New Research Tells Us Why


Spellings ABCsFrom winning spelling bees in grammar school to my jobs as writer and editor, I’d always been a good speller. That ability vanished in the aftermath of my stroke. I worked hard on my “deficits”after the stroke,  and there were many. I grappled for words, stuttered as a struggled to pronounce them, battled to hit the right letters on the keyboard, and fought to spell even simple words.

Today, thirteen years later, I’ve recovered so much, and I am truly grateful. But I still have trouble spelling. Not just the hard words, either. Sometimes it’s a word as simple as “because” or “weather.” New research may help explain why.

A  study by Johns Hopkins neuroscientists is uncovering the source of the damage that causes spelling difficulties after stroke. Surprisingly, it’s not one source but several.

By studying stroke victims who have lost the ability to spell, researchers have pinpointed the parts of the brain that control how we write words.

“When something goes wrong with spelling, it’s not one thing that always happens — different things can happen and they come from different breakdowns in the brain’s machinery,” said lead author Brenda Rapp, a professor in the Johns Hopkins Department of Cognitive Sciences. “Depending on what part breaks, you’ll have different symptoms.

“With long-term memory difficulties, people can’t remember how to spell words they used to know and tend to make educated guesses,” she said. “With working memory issues, people know how to spell words but they have trouble choosing the correct letters or assembling the letters in the correct order.”

These two sources of difficulty come from damage to very different parts of the brain, the study shows.

“I was surprised to see how distant and distinct the brain regions are that support these two sub-components of the writing process,” Rapp said.

Spelling research

Left: A composite image showing the brain lesions of people with spelling difficulty after strokes. Right: An image of a healthy brain depicting the regions typically active during spelling.   Credit: Johns Hopkins University

These findings offer some of the first clear evidence of how the brain spells, an understanding that could lead to improved behavioral treatments after brain damage and more effective ways to teach spelling.

More information about the Johns Hopkins study can be found here: