Resources to improve spelling and grammar?
January 31, 2013 4:43 PM   Subscribe

What resources would you recommend for an adult who is a native English speaker who nonetheless struggles with grammar and spelling? I'm asking on the behalf of my boyfriend, who dropped out of middle school, and is also dyslexic. He asked if I had a book or website to recommend, but most of what I could find is geared towards kids or people learning English as a second language. He already feels insecure about all this, so recommending an ESL book seems really patronizing. He even acts sheepish asking me about grammar or how to spell something, so something he can pursue on his own would be ideal (even though I'm happy to help and don't judge him whatsoever).
posted by anonymous to Education (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
What about Purdue OWL's Online Writing Lab? There are practices for some of the most common English challenges: grammar, spelling, punctuation etc.

It's totally approachable, geared for adults, and not at all patronizing.
posted by divined by radio at 4:49 PM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

Perhaps he could look at Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss. You'll probably want to preview it for him, though, as it may come across as snarky to him. I'm not really sure.
posted by Capri at 4:53 PM on January 31, 2013

This company has a workbook for adults. Strunk and White ("The Elements of Style") also has concise explanations of grammar and punctuation. Good luck!
posted by Ollie at 5:03 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

He might like The Transitive Vampire, which is both fun and useful and won't feel like a text book.

I also had a high school English teacher who had us work from Word Power Made Easy as SAT prep and I still find that book useful
posted by brookeb at 5:05 PM on January 31, 2013

IAACE (I am a copy editor). The problem with some grammar books (like Eats, Shoots and Leaves) is that they devolve into holier-than-thou rants. Not only is this not instructive (whether to use the serial comma or not is a matter of preference; there is no universal rule), but it can make people who worry about grammar and spelling feel even more self-conscious. The problem with Strunk and White is that they are often just plain wrong, most famously about the passive voice, and E.B. White's writing violated his own "rules."

I would recommend that he read books and magazines that are meticulously copy-edited, like the New Yorker, and avoid unedited works like blogs and Facebook unless it's for purposes of testing himself. ("Is that really how that's spelled? Let me look that up...") This will improve his spidey sense.
posted by payoto at 5:15 PM on January 31, 2013 [8 favorites]

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. A great, classic book (sometimes unfairly maligned by people who don't know what they're talking about).

Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia O'Connor

The Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon

Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams and Gregory G. Colomb. There are various editions of this with slightly different titles; some are by Williams alone.
posted by John Cohen at 5:42 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

'Practical English Usage', by Michael Swan.

I taught ESL to adults for years, and this is the ESL bible for teachers - as in, it's aimed at adult native speakers. It is awesome. Nothing patronizing, just a kind of dictionary of correct grammar and vocab usage. I have a degree in English and I refer to mine regularly, even since I stopped teaching.
posted by Salamander at 5:42 PM on January 31, 2013

Asking a dyslexic to improve his grammar and spelling -- even if he wants to do so -- is setting this person down a long decline in self-worth (that he's probably already on). In my experience as a university lit instructor and researcher, I think the best adage is that there is no correct grammar, there is only corrected grammar. I'm not asking you to get involved in the descriptivist/prescriptivist debate, but considering your partner is dyslexic, it's especially important for you to consider that style guides might not be his best option. Dyslexia isn't simply a lack of linguistic knowledge, it means he thinks about the whole concept of language differently.

Instead, I would suggest you offer support for the shame he feels for not already "knowing" grammar (sic) (it sounds like you're already doing this) and begin to place less and less importance on improving his grammar. I would focus on coming to terms with his dyslexia, which is best considered not as a disability, but as a difference. Counselling would help. I think a disclaimer on emails or other writing pieces he does stating that your boyfriend is dyslexic and uses non-normative grammar and spelling would help his audience understand the context, and would help him accept his difference.
posted by Catchfire at 5:55 PM on January 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

Grammar Girl has a great podcast. Each one tackles one specific topic in about five minutes. The website seems a little busy but I love listening to the podcast when I have a few minutes to kill.
posted by Room 641-A at 6:32 PM on January 31, 2013

Has he thought about working with an adult literacy specialist with dyslexia experience and/or a psychologist who specializes in people with learning disabilities/differences? Such an expert may be able to recommend resources that could help him. I know he might be embarrassed to talk to someone outside of his immediate circle of family and friends about his issues with writing, but there are A LOT of dyslexic adults out there who never got appropriate help with school as children, which is why there are experts who specialize in helping them.

I have worked as a volunteer with children with dyslexia, so I do know a few tricks that may help. Frequent reading improves both grammar and spelling -- but reading frequently is of course the last thing most people with dyslexia want to do, because reading can be incredibly frustrating when the letters refuse to make sense! He may want to try reprinting short texts that interest him (that are also examples of good grammar and spelling) in a layout designed specifically to aid readers with dyslexia. He might want to try one of the many fonts recommended for people with dyslexia (Yes, Comic Sans is one of them. It's the only redeeming quality of the font.)

He may find this Spelling Rules game, designed specifically for people with dyslexia, to be helpful for spelling practice.

Wish him luck for me! My stepfather, who grew up on a rural reservation with poor access to special needs services, is dyslexic and is, shall we say, a very creative speller. He used to be very embarrassed about it. But my mother, a former English professor, married him anyway ;)
posted by BlueJae at 7:05 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

IAACE too.

Does he know he's making mistakes while he's writing (or realizing he's not sure and making a best guess), or does he only become aware of his errors when someone else points them out?

If the former, he might do well just by referring to the Chicago Manual of Style when he has a question. (It is my go-to reference.) It may not be the best choice if he's so far at sea that he doesn't know what he's looking for, but if he is comfortable identifying parts of speech and punctuation, I think it could be helpful. The only other downside is that it's huge, contains a lot of information he will probably never use, and might be intimidating. One thing to make it easier is to spend a couple hours going through it to find the sections covering the problems he counters most often (how to use a comma, etc.) and marking them with a paperclip or something so he can flip right to what he needs.

If, however, he doesn't realize his mistakes until they are pointed out, he probably needs something more remedial. I had never heard of the Purdue writing lab resource before but it looks like a perfect solution.
posted by elizeh at 8:00 PM on January 31, 2013

I am not an expert in working with learners with dyslexia, but I do research and teaching in adult literacy and have worked with several adult students with dyslexia.

From my research and speaking to our disability services office, and asking my students what works for them:

1. Increasing the amount they read. As BlueJae pointed out, though, often people with dyslexia don't enjoy reading and find it frustrating. However, reading copious amounts of writing in different forms and genres can help enormously.

2. Many people with dyslexia read slowly. This makes it harder for them to make sense of what they're reading. There is research to suggest (and one of my own students told me this worked for her) that reading a text while listening to an audio version at the same time can help with reading speed and comprehension. I suggest your boyfriend get in the habit of picking out books that interest him and reading the print version while listening to the audio version at the same time.

3. Our DS office told us that print on bright white paper is more difficult to read, and they recommended printing things on pink paper. One of my students had a transparent pink sheet that she would put over whatever she was reading. I don't know why this works or if it works for every person with dyslexia, but it worked for her. I see in one of BlueJae's links that they recommend using a "soft pastel" of the person's own preference, so maybe it doesn't need to be pink--that's just what was recommended to me.

4. I really recommend that he look into adult basic education courses at either your local community college or through the school district. Adult basic educators are trained to work with people like your boyfriend and do it without patronizing. One of my most memorable students came to me with a Grade Seven reading and writing level and a diagnosis of dyslexia, and a couple of years later she finished her Grade Twelve English and was an A student. She went from hating reading to loving it. Her spelling was still problematic, but she learned how to proofread her work and use tools like spellcheck to mitigate the issues. I'd say more importantly her self-esteem went way up as she saw that she was actually very smart and capable; she just learned differently than other people and things didn't come as easily.

Very best of luck to your boyfriend, and warm thoughts for you, for wanting to be a support for him.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:18 PM on January 31, 2013 [5 favorites]

I am dyslexic, and as mentioned above, view it as a difference, not a disability. My son is also diagnosed as dyslexic and a coping strategy for both of us is the use of assistive technology. For many people with dyslexia the use of a keyboard instead of writing, or the use of voice recognition software like Dragon Diction takes away some of the challenges. Requesting help with spelling or grammar from a piece of good software also takes away a lot of the shame aspect he feels.
posted by saucysault at 11:55 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

> The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. A great, classic book (sometimes unfairly maligned by people who don't know what they're talking about).

I guess "people who don't know what they're talking about" includes all linguists, because I don't know a single one who would approve of that book being used for this purpose. Please do not use that, or Eats, Shoots and Leaves, or anything else in the "good language is language used by superior people in the style of a century ago" camp. Get something by people who actually study language and don't just have strong ideas about it. As a reference, I recommend (as always) Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, which clearly explains the history of both the usage in question and the objections to it, with useful suggestions.
posted by languagehat at 11:32 AM on February 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

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