When a child struggles with spelling, their writing is much slower than their thinking. This makes it hard for kids to clearly express their knowledge and ideas in written school assignments. Spelling is especially difficult for students with learning differences (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 when it comes to learning how to spell
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, they can improve their spelling skills and minimize 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Fiction: Many people regard spelling as an isolated, outdated skill that students no longer need in a technologically advanced society with computers and spell check.
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 check catches only 63 percent of spelling errors, so for students to write words accurately, they must know the correct spellings. When a student can write words correctly and automatically, this helps them to compose text more efficiently because it frees up their attention to focus on ideas rather than on how to spell words.
Learning foundational spelling skills
When students begins to write a word, they first try to locate its spelling in their memory. If this fails, they then apply their 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? Students remember the spelling of a word when its letters become connected in their 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.
At the phonemic level, memorizing correct spellings requires that:
- When kids hear a word, they can figure out how to segment it into the phonemes that comprise its pronunciation.
- When kids write a word, they know which letters might represent its phonemes.
- When kids look at a written word while saying the word, they can figure out how the letters represent each phoneme in its pronunciation and whether some letters are silent.
When students perform these steps at the phonemic level to learn the spellings of smaller words, they are 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 students hear a word spoken out loud, they doesn’t perceive any breaks between phonemes — the points where one sound in a word ends and the next begins.
Parents can help kids distinguish each phoneme in a word by helping them notice the activity in their mouth as they pronounce a word. For example, when kids says “spot,” first the air hisses over their tongue to say “s,” then their lips close to say “p,” then their mouth opens to say “o,” then the tip of their tongue taps the roof of their mouth to say “t.” Instructional programs such as Lindamood-Bell’s LiPS© program provide extra help with this by teaching students to monitor their own mouth movements by watching in a mirror as they pronounce 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 they 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, your child cannot name capital and small letters easily and cannot write these letters from memory.
Instructional programs such as Letterland©, created by Lyn 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 they 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 students experience this difficulty, it can be helpful for them to say the word out loud while looking at its spelling. Assuming they have some understanding of letter-phoneme correspondence, the letters can tell kids what sounds to listen for in speech and to feel in their mouth when they say 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 themself out loud about the word as they look at it and pronounce it. Using the example of the word “speech,” one student’s possible answers appear underlined.
Storing words in memory for reading and spelling
1. “The word is speech. It means talking.
2. I stretch the word and count the sounds (phonemes) on my fingers. I hear four sounds (s-p-ee-ch).
3. I see six letters.
4. There are/are not the same number of letters as sounds because it takes two letters to spell two of the sounds (phonemes) in the word.
5. I write the letters in sound boxes (a horizontal row of squares) to show how the 6 letters match up to the 4 sounds. s p ee ch
(If relevant) Some of the letters don’t fit because* _________________________
6. This is what I know about the vowel. The name of the letter E matches the vowel sound in the word. It is a long vowel so it is spelled with two letters.
7. Another word I know with the same vowel sound and spelling is see
8. (Student writes each word studied from memory.)
* In analyzing words in Step 5, students will encounter some words containing letters that don’t fit because they do not represent a phoneme by themselves or as part of a digraph, for example, the “e” in cake. Students are taught to explain this and to write the letter smaller in size in an adjacent sound box.
Adapted and reprinted from Beginning Word Detectives, ©1966 by Benchmark School Press. Used with permission.
Some common spelling difficulties
In order to help a student overcome spelling difficulties, a teacher must first understand exactly what the student’s particular problems are. One way to figure this out is simply to ask the student to spell words. The errors should provide the teacher valuable insights. For example:
- When students have trouble remembering some letters in a word that they can read easily, it may indicate that they “slight” those letters when they read the word, relying instead on the initial letter and the context in which the word appears, to “read” the word. Or it may be that the letters used to spell the word don’t conform to their knowledge of letter-sound correspondences, so they are hard for the child to remember.
- When students have trouble figuring out a plausible spelling of a word they can say, it may indicate that they have trouble hearing each separate phoneme, or that they lack sufficient knowledge of letters that represent those phonemes, particularly vowels.
When students have not mastered the system of letter-sound correspondences, they often try to compensate by using reading and spelling strategies that may make things worse. For example:
- When they read, they will tend to guess an unfamiliar word based on context cues and by reading just some of the letters in the word. As a result, they don’t notice or remember much about the other letters.
- When they write a word, they represent a few sounds correctly but overlook other sounds, and they sometimes add extra letters unrelated to any sounds in the word. If they repeat and remember their misspellings, it may be harder to learn the correct spellings.
These problems often characterize the spelling struggles of a student with LD. If the student persists in using these ineffective strategies as they move through the grades, it will severely limit their development as a reader and a speller. Even if the student is receiving remedial reading instruction, unless spelling instruction is emphasized as well, they may improve in reading but their spelling difficulties may still linger.
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 them 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 published in the Journal of Educational Psychology (“The Mnemonic Value of Orthography for Vocabulary Learning.” Rosenthal, J. & Ehri, L.) has shown that spellings help a student secure the pronunciation and meaning of a new vocabulary word in memory. 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 they need 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 they progress 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.