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Learning to Spell - A Challenge for Elementary Students With LD

Get expert advice on common spelling problems in kids with learning disabilities and tips for conquering them.

By Linnea C. Ehri, Ph.D.

When a child struggles with spelling, his writing is much slower than his thinking. This makes it hard for him to clearly express his knowledge and ideas in written school assignments. Spelling is especially difficult for students with learning disabilities (LD), so it is important that schools provide explicit, systematic spelling instruction on a regular basis throughout elementary school for these students. In order to evaluate spelling instruction in your child's classroom or to consider how you might help your child improve spelling skills, it helps to have some understanding of the skills students need in order to become competent spellers, and the types of activities that promote these skills.

Fiction versus Fact

Unfortunately, some popular myths about spelling may discourage parents from trying to help their child improve in spelling.  These include:

Fiction:  Many people believe that good spellers simply memorize strings of letters to spell words correctly because English is too unsystematic.

Fact:  It's true that learning to spell in English is more difficult than in other languages where the correspondences between letters and sounds are more predictable and less complex. But, in fact, the regularities in English spelling outnumber the irregularities. When a student learns these regularities, he can improve his spelling skills and minimize his dependence on rote memorization.

Fiction:  Many people regard spelling as an isolated, outdated skill that students no longer need in a technologically advanced society with computers and spell checkers.

Fact: First, spelling is not an isolated skill; it's closely tied to other language skills. The relationship between spelling and reading is extremely strong, indicating that skilled spellers are most often skilled readers. Second, spell checkers catch only 63% of spelling errors, so for a student to write words accurately, he must know the correct spellings. When a student can write words correctly and automatically, this helps him to compose text more efficiently because it frees up his attention to focus on ideas rather than on how to spell words. 

Learning Foundational Spelling Skills

When a student begins to write a word, he first tries to locate its spelling in his memory. If this fails, he then applies his knowledge of sound-letter correspondences, spelling patterns, or spellings of other similar-sounding words, to devise a plausible spelling. In English, memorization plays a key role, because of the number of irregularities in English spelling. When the same letters and letter patterns are used to represent sounds consistently in different words - for example, "b" represents the sound /b/ in "bird," "ball," "baby," and many more words-this creates regularities. But when different letters or combinations of letters can represent the same sound - for example, the beginning sound in "farm" and "phone," or the vowel sound in "now" and "plough" - these irregularities can present reading and spelling challenges, especially for students with LD.

How are correct spellings stored in memory, and what skills does a student need to commit spellings to memory? A student remembers the spelling of a word when its letters become connected in his memory to its "phonemes." Phonemes are the smallest distinct sounds that we hear when a word is spoken. For example, s-t-o-p has four phonemes, and ch-e-ck has three phonemes. Each of these phonemes is represented in the written word by a single letter or by a two-letter "digraph," such as "ch" or "ck." A student who learns the most common letter-phoneme connections - and some common letter combinations such as prefixes and suffixes (for example, un-, dis-, -ful,  -able) - has acquired the foundation for learning to spell.

Comments from readers

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