My Child’s Spelling is Atrocious. What Does it Mean?

I have some avid game players in my extended family, so when we get together for the holidays, we play all kinds of games, particularly word games, of which my mom is a wizard!

For a dyslexic child or adult, word games can be an absolute nightmare.

I met a neurosurgeon once who shared with me his story of discovering his dyslexia as a result of playing Scrabble. This successful, brilliant physician had gone through medical school by sheer willingness to put in twice as many hours studying as anyone else. He never knew why he had to work so hard; he just knew that’s the way it was. Until one Thanksgiving, when attempting to play Scrabble with family friends, one of whom happened to be a researcher in the field of dyslexia. She recognized the dyslexic patterns in his attempts at spelling and got him on the road to correcting his reading and spelling challenges.

What do Dyslexic Spelling Challenges Look Like?

When parents of dyslexic students describe their child’s spelling, they often use words like horrible and atrocious! Spelling can be even trickier for dyslexic students than reading, because they cannot rely on context and comprehension to help them figure out the words.

Spelling challenges will vary depending upon the type of dyslexic challenges the student has:

Dysnemkinesia (difficulty remembering and writing letter symbols without reversals)

Dysphonesia (difficulty connecting sound and symbol in order to use phonics for reading and spelling)

Dyseidesia (difficulty visually recognizing whole words for reading and recalling the visual image for spelling)

Most often, students have some combination of these dyslexic types.

Here are some common symptoms of spelling challenges that we see with our dyslexic students:

  • Memorize words for the test but cannot retain them later
  • Miss words they knew in order on the list when given in a different order on the test
  • Write words that are completely undecipherable because the sounds and letters make no sense to them
  • Transpose letters or write letters in a generic way because they aren’t really sure what the letter looks like or what letter actually goes in there
  • Add, omit, repeat, shift, or substitute sounds in words (phonemic awareness errors)
  • Write a continuous stream of letters with no or erratic spacing when writing
  • Draw the letters
  • Spell phonetically
  • Leave out vowels
  • Remember some of the important letters in sight words but put them in the wrong place or sequence in the word
  • Omit endings

How do You Spell…?

Dyslexic students may become very dependent upon others for spelling, constantly asking their parent or teacher, “How do you spell_______?”

If the word is a sight word, it may help the student retrieve it if you have him look up and orally spell the word fast. Both looking up and speaking quickly help trigger visual memory.

If the word is phonetic, have the student say each sound as he writes it. This keeps him from guessing and being impulsive. It helps him think about all of the sounds in the word.

The vowel + e pattern is particularly tricky for many students, even if they can verbally explain the rule. Try having the student write the vowel + e as a single code as he says the sound and then insert the consonant. This way he won’t forget the silent e and the pattern becomes more ingrained in his mind.

Example: For the work make, the student would say and write:

/m/ m

/ae/ ma e

/k/ make

Proofreading for Spelling

Spelling requires both the ability to process the number, order, and identity of sounds in words as well as the visual sequential memory capacity to retain what words look like. When checking their spelling, students should check to see if the word “sounds right” and “looks right.”

Checking spelling starting at the end of the sentence or paragraph and working forward takes the words out of context, making it easier to focus on each word.

Classroom Tips: Supporting your Dyslexic Speller

  • Don’t penalize for spelling errors on content area assignments or tests.

Students should always be expected to put out their best effort on spelling and proofreading their work, but dyslexic students often know and understand so much more than their written work would indicate.

  • For severely dyslexic students, give them a greatly reduced list, but require them to get as many letters as they can in the remaining words, at minimum, the first sound. This keeps them engaged for the whole spelling test and makes them less “different” while working on appropriate skills.

Homework Tip: Visualize! Strategy for Practicing Spelling Words

To be a good speller, you must be able to think about the sounds in the word and have a mental picture of what the word looks like.

Here is a fun strategy for visualizing how words look. Use this to practice difficult spelling words. Break the word into parts if needed and then put it back together and practice the whole word.

  1. Look at the word.
  2. Look up and visualize the word on a large imaginary screen slightly above eye level. The letters should be large.
  3. Point to each letter in the air and say the letter. Repeat 3 times to get a clear image of the letters. (Draw the letters with two fingers if needed in order to get a good image).
  4. Now point to and say the letters in random order as fast as you can. (If the student can do this rapidly, he is getting a good image of the word).
  5. If there are tricky letters that the student tends to miss or make mistakes on, have him make those letters especially large, bright, or colorful in his image.
  6. Spell the word forward and say the word.

Why Do Smart Kids Struggle?

Reading, writing, spelling, math, social, and school skills are supported by numerous underlying learning skills. If one or more of these underlying skills is weak, it will cause the student to have to work harder, longer, and less effectively than expected.

But the brain is amazing! Brain research over the last 25 years and the decades of clinical work in the trenches actually working with children and adults with learning challenges, have shown that these underlying learning skills can be developed. The brain can change. New, more efficient neuropathways, or connections in the brain, can be made so that learning can be easier. Once the brain is getting the information it needs, it can do the job it is meant to do – to learn!

“Helping smart but struggling students dramatically improve or completely correct their learning and attention challenges by developing the underlying learning skills that are not supporting the learner well enough.”

We serve children and adults with diagnosed or undiagnosed learning and attention challenges including learning disabilities, dyslexia, ADHD, auditory processing disorders, and autism spectrum disorders.

Jill Stowell, M.S.

Author: At Wit’s End A Parent’s Guide to Ending the Struggle Tears, and Turmoil of Learning Disabilities

Founder and Executive Director – Stowell Learning Centers

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