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Learning to Spell - A Challenge for Elementary Students With LD

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By Linnea C. Ehri, Ph.D.

At the phonemic level, memorizing correct spellings requires that:

  • When a student hears a word, he can figure out how to segment it into the phonemes that comprise its pronunciation.
  • When a student writes a word, he knows which letters might represent its phonemes.
  • When he looks at a written word while saying the word, he can figure out how the letters represent each phoneme in its pronunciation and whether some letters are silent.

When a student performs these steps at the phonemic level to learn the spellings of smaller words, he is building a foundation for learning the spellings of longer and more complex words.

Segmenting Words into Phonemes

The first step in this process, segmenting words into phonemes, is not so easy because when a student hears a word spoken out loud, he doesn't perceive any breaks between phonemes - the points where one sound in a word ends and the next begins.

Parents can help a student distinguish each phoneme in a word by helping him notice the activity in his mouth as he pronounces a word. For example, when a student says "spot," first the air hisses over his tongue to say "s," then his lips close to say "p," then his mouth opens to say "o," then the tip of his tongue taps the roof of his mouth to say "t." Instructional programs such as Lindamood-Bell's LiPS© program provide extra help with this by teaching a student to monitor his own mouth movements by watching in a mirror as he pronounces a word.

Knowing Which Letters Might Symbolize the Phonemes

A young child at risk for LD may be slow in mastering the alphabet, including the shapes, names, and sounds of letters, so he will need to be provided more opportunities to practice. You can tell whether your child needs more practice if, by about age six or the end of kindergarten, he cannot name capital and small letters easily and cannot write these letters from memory.

Instructional programs such as Letterland©, published by Wendon, offer help by providing special "mnemonics," or memorization aids. In this type of program, the student is shown a picture of a familiar object that he can name, such as a snake. The snake is drawn in the form of a letter "s," and is shown making a "Ssssss" sound.  Another example might be a "Kicking King," drawn in the shape of "k." The mnemonics are effective because children can look at the letter's shape and be reminded of the picture whose name begins with the sound of that letter.

Linking Letters with Phonemes in Specific Words

A student with LD may have trouble figuring out how letters are linked to phonemes, in the pronunciation of a specific word.  This is because students with LD have more than average difficulty distinguishing each phoneme in a word when they hear it spoken. When a student is experiencing this difficulty, it can be helpful for him to say the word out loud while looking at its spelling. Assuming he has some understanding of letter-phoneme correspondence, the letters can tell him what sounds to listen for in speech and to feel in his mouth when he says the word.  For example, the two separate phonemes in consonant clusters such as the "s-k" and "n-k" in "skunk" are hard to hear. However, looking at the spelling draws the student's attention to their presence.

Instructional programs such as Benchmark School Press's Word Detectives© program provide extra help with this skill by teaching beginning spellers to fully analyze letter-phoneme correspondence as they learn to read and spell words. The steps that students follow to perform this analysis are illustrated in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. These are scripted steps a student uses to fully analyze the spelling of a word, by talking to himself out loud about the word as he looks at it and pronounces it. Using the example of the word "speech," one student's possible answers appear underlined.

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