Weak Spelling Skills Can Be Improved With the Right Instruction Method

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Dyslexia Impacts Spelling as Well as Reading

Dyslexia is widely associated with reading difficulties. While dyslexia does impact reading proficiency, nearly all dyslexic children also experience profound challenges with spelling.

Dyslexics typically exhibit poor phonemic awareness, an inability to segment words or syllables into individual sounds. Lack of phonemic awareness is known to be the most reliable predictor of reading failure. Phonemic processing skills, which are vital for reading, are equally essential for effective spelling.

The Connection Between Poor Reading and Poor Spelling

Spelling ability is enhanced through frequent reading. Repeated exposure to words in print provides more opportunities to visually observe how words are spelled. Dyslexic students who struggle with reading are rarely enthusiastic readers. Their limited exposure to printed words may further weaken their spelling skills.

Spelling difficulties for many dyslexics linger long after reading skills have been remediated. This is partially because spelling is a more complex task than reading. When a child reads, he/she is presented with a visual image of a word which helps trigger recall of the phonetic rules governing pronunciation. With spelling, there is no visual image to facilitate this process. Consequently, a child deficient in the core processing skills required for effective reading often experiences far greater difficulty mastering spelling.

What Works?

Educators have had great success using the Orton-Gillingham approach to improve the spelling skills of dyslexic children. This teaching method is centered around a systematic, structured approach to language with a focus on multi-sensory instruction. It differs from conventional spelling instruction in two key ways: what is taught and how it is taught. There are numerous Orton-Gillingham influenced spelling curricula. While programs may vary in minor respects, they share key elements in common.

What Is Taught

Sound-Symbol Association involves instruction in the relationship between individual letters, their distinct sounds, and how to blend those sounds into words.

Phonemic Awareness training involves teaching students to segment words or syllables into their individual phonemes, or units of sounds.

Six Syllable Types are used to form English words. Students are directly taught each syllable type and its relationship to word structure.

Morphology is the study of how morphemes, the smallest units of meaning, are combined to form words. It includes the study of base words, roots, prefixes, and suffixes.

How It Is Taught

Multi-sensory Instruction utilizes all learning pathways: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-tactile. To enhance learning and facilitate long term memory, all pathways are simultaneously engaged.

Direct, Explicit Instruction requires the direct teaching of all rules that govern written English. Concepts are taught individually and practiced until mastered.

Systematic and Cumulative organization of the material ensures that its presentation follows a logical, progressively difficult sequence, and involves ongoing review of previously learned concepts.

Synthetic and Analytic instruction teaches how to blend individual letters or sounds to form a word (synthetic), and how to examine and segment a whole word into smaller pieces (analytic).

The Type of Instruction Matters

English consists of words from several languages, yet its spelling rules are fairly predictable. Over 80% of English words are phonetically decodable. Only 4% are fully irregular and must be memorized. With proper instruction, the poor speller can attain the skills needed to significantly improve their spelling ability.


International Dyslexia Association Spelling Fact Sheet

Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read

Shaywitz, Sally (2003). Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at any Level. New York: Knopf

Gillingham, Anna and Stillman, Bessie (1997). The Gillingham Manual: Remedial Training for Children with Specific Disability in Reading, Spelling, and Penmanship. Cambridge and Toronto: Educators Publishing Service.