Many individuals with dyslexia learn to read fairly well, but difficulties with spelling tend to persist throughout life. Despite this, there is much less research on spelling which makes it difficult for teachers and parents to know how best to support children who are experiencing difficulties.
One common but mistaken belief is that spelling problems come from a poor visual memory. However, spelling problems, like reading problems, originate with language learning weaknesses. Therefore, spelling reversals of easily confused letters such as b and d, or sequences of letters, are manifestations of underlying language learning weaknesses rather than of a visually based problem. Many dyslexics actually have a very good visual memory and this can be exploited to help them to overcome their weaknesses.
Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate sounds (phonemes) in words. Children with poor phonemic awareness are likely to have difficulty with spelling, as spelling requires the individual to firstly identify the sound in the word that they wish to spell and then to recall the written representation of that sound. As many children with dyslexia have working memory difficulties, it makes it even harder for them to hold the sound in their head whilst working out which letters to use.
Whole words versus phonics
There is great debate as to whether it is more effective for dyslexic children to learn spellings as ‘whole words’ or to learn how to spell using phonological strategies (phonics). In my experience the most effective way for dyslexic children is to follow a carefully structured spelling programme which teaches the children the link between sounds in words and the letters used to represent these sounds.It is important that common morphemes are taught e.g. ‘-ed’ at the end of ‘walked’ as these change the meaning of words and an understanding of these can help children to have a better understanding of why words are written as they are and enable them to apply this knowledge to new words.
Some common words are helpful to learn as a ‘whole’ initially as their sound-spelling link is tricky, e.g. ‘one’. However, memorising long lists of words as a whole is not recommended as they end up being meaningless to the child and not retained.
The important thing to remember about dyslexic children is that they often have working memory difficulties. Therefore, any spellings learnt will need lots of reinforcement and opportunities to put these spellings into context, for example, in meaningful sentences.
Where to go for more information?
On the main website toolbar click ‘Dyslexia’ and ‘Supporting your child with spelling’ for further ideas.