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Learning to Spell - A Challenge for Elementary Students With LD

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By Linnea C. Ehri, Ph.D.

Memorizing the Spellings of Irregular and Long Words

In languages with a higher degree of spelling regularity, such as Spanish, it is much easier for a student to figure out the correct spelling of an unfamiliar word. But in English, a speller must encounter, notice, and pronounce specific words to remember how to spell them. As noted earlier in this article, the same phoneme may be spelled one way in some words and another way in other words, for example, the long /a/ sound in "mail" versus "male," or the /s/ sound in "sit" versus "city."

It is especially hard for a student to guess the spellings of longer words correctly. One reason is that a long word may contain letters that are not heard in its pronunciation. A common example is the "schwa" vowel in unstressed syllables, which is pronounced like the sound "uh," for example, the last two syllables in med-i-cine. It is harder to remember these letters when they do not represent their proper, distinctive sounds. Other cases of letters that are not heard in pronunciations are doubled consonants, for example, those in "difficult" or "dessert"; and vowels that precede "r" within a syllable, for example "ar" in "collar" and "or" in "color."

There are strategies a teacher or parent can use to help students remember the spellings of some longer words, for example by:

  •  Creating special ways of saying the words by pronouncing each syllable as it is spelled. This allows a student to hear more of the letters and gives him a better match between letter and sound for connecting the spelling to a pronunciation in memory. For example, the normal pronunciation of chocolate is "choc-lut," but a spelling pronunciation might be "choc - o - late."
  • Helping a student to "flag" unexpected letters in memory, that is, to add a footnote in memory signaling that a particular letter is silent, for example, the "t" in "listen," the "w' in "sword," the "l" in "talk." One way to do such flagging is to single out and discuss the strange letter, as would be done in Step 5 of the "Storing Words in Memory" exercise above.
  • Pointing out to the student other words that have the same silent letters or letter patterns in words that the student already knows, for example, "talk," "walk," and "chalk"; or "should," "would," and "could." Finding groups of words with the same pattern and even the same silent letter across patterns helps the student identify a source of spelling regularity, which aids memorization.

Finally, spelling should always be included as part of vocabulary learning because research has shown that spellings help a student secure the pronunciation and meaning of a new vocabulary word in memory1. To take advantage of this, a teacher or parent should not only provide a definition but also should show and analyze the spellings of a new vocabulary word when a student asks about its meaning.

How Parents Can Help

To summarize, in the primary grades, spelling instruction should provide a foundation for remembering spellings that includes:

  • knowing how to divide a word into its phonemes
  • knowing the  basics about how a letter or pair of letters corresponds to a phoneme-the "letter-sound system"
  • learning about regularities in spelling

Young students with LD need these foundational skills to remember spellings of simpler words that predominate in their reading and writing lessons. As a student advances through the grades, the words he needs to spell become more complex.  Without a solid foundation and without continued instruction in word spellings and regularities, a student will have difficulty sustaining strong spelling skills as he progresses through school.

Parents can help their children become better spellers. Of course, how much help you can provide depends on your own spelling skills.  It is not unusual for the parent of a child with spelling problems to have those problems as well. If this is your situation, you may want to encourage the school to increase efforts to help your child build spelling skills or you may request that the teacher provide spelling exercises for your child to practice at home. Or you might seek help for your child from a private tutor with expertise in spelling instruction.

If your child's school does not teach spelling as part of comprehensive literacy instruction, you might join with other interested parents to persuade the school or school district to include explicit, systematic instruction in spelling in its literacy curriculum throughout the elementary grades.

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