Along with difficulty reading, difficulty spelling is a hallmark of dyslexia. While dyslexia is something that can’t be “cured,” there are a great number of tools to help a dyslexic overcome many of its challenges, including difficulty spelling. Do you wonder what to look for in a spelling program for dyslexic students? I’ve found 7 components to be key for us.
Orton-Gillingham is an approach to reading instruction developed in the early 1930’s by neuropsychiatrist, Samuel Orton and educator and psychiatrist, Anna Gillingham. It is a language-based, multisensory, systematic approach that has been shown to be highly effective with dyslexics. While Orton-Gillingam is an approach to reading instruction, its principals apply to spelling, as well.
Logical order of presentation for spelling concepts
Spelling concept should be taught in a logical, sequential order. An Orton-Gilllingham approach means that “sound symbols,” consonants, vowels, and blends, are taught in an order that makes sense, linguistically – first as individual sounds, then as syllables, followed by roots, suffixes, and prefixes.
An effective spelling program for a dyslexic student must help him break words down into meaningful chunks, such as syllables, roots, prefixes, and suffixes.
For spelling, this means that the program must start with phonological awareness. If a student doesn’t know the sounds that each of the letters makes, can’t hear them, or can’t break them down in a syllable, he can’t spell the word. He must be able to decode the sounds in the words he hears in order to encode those sounds on paper.
The spelling program should teach word patterns, rather than a list of words to memorize. Dyslexics tend to rely heavily on memorization, which can be detrimental in the long run. Rather than memorizing lists of words, they should be taught to recognize reliable sound patterns that can be applied to unfamiliar words.
Patterns, predictable spelling rules, and the reasoning behind English spelling patterns teach kids how to spell, so that what they’ve learned can be applied to unfamiliar words, rather than trying to call up memorized lists. Of course, not all words follow the typical spelling rules and patterns. Therefore, an effective spelling program should also include words that don’t follow predictable patterns – those that must be memorized.
In addition to teaching students predictable patterns, a spelling program for dyslexic students should be mastery-based with plenty of built-in review. Again, lists of words to be studied all week with a test on Friday is ineffective for a dyslexic student. There has to be flexible pacing that allows a student to remain on a particular concept until it is mastered and provide ways to reteach or revisit a particular concept to ensure mastery and retention.
A strong mastery-based program will also teaching confusing concepts side by side or introduce one, then review it when the similar or confusing concept is introduced. For example, a student may learn the rule of doubling a consonant when adding vowel suffixes pretty early on, but need that concept reviewing when he learns the rule for dropping the final silent e when adding vowel suffixes.
If a spelling program teaches the vowel consonant e syllable pattern, it should also contrast that with open syllables or vowel teams for the same sound.
A good spelling program will use as many pathways to a student’s brain as possible. They should be able to see the words written out, hear the sounds that make up the words, and be able to manipulate (touch, move, write) the letters and syllables that make up a word.
The more pathways information takes to get to the brain – the more senses used on taking in the information – the better it is retained.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that if a student really struggles with the physical act of handwriting, such as a student who suffers from dysgraphia, it can be counterproductive to force them to hand write words. Use tiles or typing with the spell check turned off to teach spelling. If they are being forced to concentrate excessively on the actual process of writing, kids can lose their focus on the spelling.
Students don’t need to know only how words are spelled, but why they are spelled that way. Knowing that words that use the ph spelling for the /f/ sound have a Greek origin often, for example, can help a child figure out not only the spelling, but the meaning of a word. There is a very interesting article about why some kids can’t spell that touches on this and other problems with standard spelling tests.
Spelling can be difficult for kids with dyslexia, but seeking out a spelling program with these attributes can go a long way toward giving them the tools and confidence to be proficient spellers.
If you suspect your child may have dyslexia, I would strongly encourage you to use the free online dyslexia screener from Lexercise. That is what helped us identify Josh’s struggles with reading. With the help of Lexerise and a spelling program designed with dyslexic kids in mind, we were able to get Josh the help he needed to become a successful reader and speller.