+ Spelling Facts from IDA

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From IDA, the “Spelling Fact Sheet,”which was prepared by IDA with the help of Louisa Cook Moats, Ed.D.   Following are some of the points in the paper. 

How common are spelling difficulties?

Spelling is difficult for many people, but there is much less research on spelling than on reading to tell us how many people spell poorly (or believe they spell poorly).  

We know less about spelling competence in the general population than we know about reading achievement.  Why? — because there is no national test for spelling.  In addition, many states do not test students’ spelling skills.

But almost all dyslexic people struggle with spelling and face serious obstacles in learning to cope with spelling problems.  Many individuals with dyslexia eventually learn to read fairly well, but spelling (and handwriting) difficulties can persist as long as one lives.

And so instruction, accommodations, task modifications and understanding may be required from those who teach or work with these students.

What causes spelling problems?

A mistaken (but common) belief is that poor visual memory for the sequences of letters is at the root of the problem.  But recent research shows that general visual memory plays a minor role in learning to spell.

Spelling problems, just like reading problems, originate in language learning weaknesses.  We all know people with excellent visual memory for pictures, color schemes, design elements, mechanical drawings, who cannot seem to spell.  The kind of visual memory necessary for spelling is closely “wired in” to the language processing networks in the brain.

A poor speller has trouble remembering letters in words.  That is because he or she can’t notice — then remember — then recall — the features of language that those letters represent.

Such students have weaknesses in the underlying language skills that can perceive individual sounds in words.  Often you can hear that in their cluttered or garbled oral speech.  Those misapprehensions will show up in their written productions.  We spell what we hear.

Spelling ability, like other aspects of dyslexia, is influenced by inherited traits.  While some of us are born to be better spellers,   those who aren’t can be helped by good instruction and accommodations.

Diagnosis of spelling problems

Simple tests of phoneme awareness and letter naming can predict later spelling problems (reading problems as well).  The earlier these tests are administered, the better.  

When students struggle to remember spelling words a standardized spelling test should be given.  This type of test will identify which sounds, syllable patterns or meaningful word parts the student does not understand or remember.  A spelling diagnostic test (developmental spelling inventory) will tell a teacher exactly which consonant, vowel, syllable and word spelling the student needs to learn.

In addition, students should be tested on their knowledge of the most commonly used and written words. 

How do children learn to spell?

Children gradually develop insight into how words are represented by letters as they progress through preschool, kindergarten, and first grade.  The process moves most quickly and successfully if instruction in sounds and letters is systematic, explicit, and structured.  Multisensory instruction (tracing letters, manipulating letter tiles) is necessary as well.

Children should learn that words are made up of separate speech sounds, and gradually be taught  how certain patterns work.  They will then notice recurring sequences of letters that form syllables, word endings, word roots, prefixes and suffixes.

Memories for whole words are formed much more quickly when children have a sense of language structure, and are given enough practice writing the words.

Is our English spelling system predictable?

The spelling system of our language is not crazy or unpredictable.  We can teach it as a system that makes sense. 

  • Nearly 50 percent of English words are predictable based on sound/letter correspondence alone.  Think of the words “slab,” “pitch,” and “boy.”
  • An additional 37 percent of our words are almost predictable except for one of its sounds:  think of “knit,” or “boat.”
  • A third type of information informs students about word origin (French, Latin, Greek, Old English). Information about word meaning. can also offer a clue to the spelling of a word.
  • In fact, only four percent of English words are truly irregular and may have to be learned through whole word memorization.  (We use a method of tracing and saying letters in order to cement them in long-term memory.)

So it is possible to approach spelling instruction with confidence that the system by and large makes sense.  You can reassure your students that won’t be guessing blindly any more; they will be learning to make correct spelling predictions.

Implications for teaching

Spelling instruction that explores word structure, origin and meaning is the most effective, even for dyslexic students with word recall problems.

Students who have learned the connections between word sounds and letters,  who have become acquainted with recurring letter patterns in English syllables, and who understand meaningful word parts such as prefixes, final syllables and suffixes, can gain proficiency in remembering whole words.

Classroom spelling programs should be organized to teach a progression of regular spelling patterns.  Note that after first grade, spelling instruction should follow and complement decoding instruction for reading.  Children should be able to read the words in their spelling lesson  (most learners can read many more words than they can spell).

Understanding correspondences between sounds and letters comes first.  Before spelling a word, a student should be able to orally take the sounds of the word apart.  Do one syllable at a time if it’s a multi-syllable word.  After recalling the letters that spell the sounds in each syllable, the student can recall the letters that spell those sounds.

Students should learn the patterns of the English language’s six basic syllable types, since those patterns represent vowel sounds in predictable ways.

Finally, students should be taught a few basic rules for adding endings to words, such as when letters should be doubled, when y is changed to i, and when to drop silent e.

Practice a few (only a few) irregular words — sight words — every lesson.  These are words that don’t “play fair,” such as come, they, their, who.    This can be done by tracing and saying the letters, building the words with letter tiles, copying and writing in sentences.  As such words are learned, help the student to build fluency by offering word and sentence dictation.  Have students keep a list of their own particular “spelling demons” to help them with future proofreading.

Note: it’s important that students learn words for writing and not just for spelling tests.  Transfer words into everyday writing.  Also teach a proofreading procedure that checks one element at a time: capitalization, organization, punctuation, spelling.

Be aware that computer spell-checkers are not helpful unless the student has already achieved basic spelling skill (about a fifth-grade level) and unless the student receives other proofreading help.  Spell-checkers don’t identify all errors.

Accommodations and task modifications

Dyslexic students should be offered these accommodations and modifications:

  • written work can be graded primarily on content
  • correct spellings can be written over the incorrect one; limit rewrites to a reasonable amount
  • provide proofreading assistance
  • encourage students to dictate their thoughts before writing; give them spellings of key content words to use
  • allow students in intermediate grades and higher to type exams and papers (or to use a voice-translation device)
  • encourage students to hand in early drafts of research papers and essays, to allow for revision before grading.

This information was taken from a”Just the Facts” sheet on SPELLING from the International Dyslexia Association. As mentioned above, this one was prepared with the assistance of Louisa Cook Moats, Ed.D.   It was included in the latest newsletter.  For more Fact Sheets, on a wide-ranging array of issues, visit the IDA website at http://www.interdys.org.

Orton-Gillingham tutoring in Columbus OH:  Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021 or email aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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