I’m often asked for the best way to teach a dyslexic child to spell. English is not the easiest of languages to learn at the best of times. Throw a learning difficulty into the mix and confusion will almost certainly arise.
Grammar rules are not easy to remember and there are so many different exceptions (I before E except after C is a classic example). Think about how many words sound the same but are spelt completely differently (eg. ate/eight) or those words where the spelling is the same but the meaning changes depending on the context. (eg. screen/screen). We already know that dyslexia affects the skills needed for reading and spelling, but it can also affect visual and auditory processing. Therefore, seeing words or hearing them may not necessarily help with learning how to spell them.
How does dyslexia affect spelling?
When we learn to read, most of us have phonemic awareness. This is the ability to differentiate between sounds. For example, Cat/Sat/Mat. These three distinct sounds, as well as the connections between sounds and letter combinations, are easy to spot for most of us and it’s this which enables us to develop fluid reading and spelling skills. If a child cannot hear the subtle (or more obvious) difference in sounds, they will have difficulty in encoding and decoding and thus reading and spelling difficulties arise.
So… How do you teach a dyslexic child to spell?
A child with dyslexia can be resistant to traditional teaching methods and often learns best through multi-sensory learning at the pace of the learner (see my blog on the Orton-Gillingham approach here). Everyone, dyslexic or not, can learn from dyslexia-friendly approaches to reading and spelling which includes lots of repetition and positive reinforcement. Always remember that a little bit of praise can boost a child’s confidence significantly. Spelling tests are often a dyslexic child’s worst nightmare. Dyslexia affects working memory as well so a child could think that they have learnt all of their spellings ready for the test, but be unable to spell them all correctly the next day.
Strategies for spelling
When you support or teach a dyslexic child to spell, patience is a must. The strategies I list below are not an instant fix – they will take time. However, they are proven tactics for teaching spelling and also ways in which I support Ella at home.
1. Memory tricks
When you are supporting or trying to teach a dyslexic child to spell, you will find that there are tricks that can be used to remember spellings This technique is known as ‘mnemonics’ (A tricky word in itself!). In layman’s terms, a mnemonic is a tool that helps with memory. It could be a song, rhyme, acronym, image or phrase. For example:
- Never believe a lie; There’s a rat in separate; Because: Big Elephants Can Always Understand Small Elephants
2. The more detail the better
Kids with dyslexia might not spot the details in a new word – especially if the spelling is at all unusual. A good example would be the word ‘enough’. Show them the word as you read it out loud. Ask your child to spell it out while looking at it and then to point out the vowels. Which letters feature at the beginning, middle and at the end – and what sounds? This helps with analysis.
3. Get creative
Some children find learning sight words easier by linking them to pictures. One of the ways I did this with Ella was to write the word in large printed letters, with the hardest part of the word in a different colour. I drew a picture in or around the letters and told a story relating to the spelling. For example, double ‘o’ could become two eyes, double ‘n’ could be two hills. Eg. LOOK. could become L K.
4. Take a photo in your mind
Ask your child to take a good look at a word and try to ‘take a photo’ of it in their mind. Cover the word and ask your child what letters they see in their mind. Ask them which letters are first, second and last and which vowels are in the word. Using this visualisation technique will help them to read, spell and remember new words.
5. Multi-sensory approach
Research, numerous studies and experience have proven that children with dyslexia learn best when they use more than one of their senses. They could trace the letters with their fingers (touch), dictation (hearing), use colours to highlight the letters (sight) or do an activity such as skipping while spelling out the word.
6. Go back in time
When it comes to words that cannot be sounded out, there is usually a reason behind it. If you want to teach a dyslexic child to spell, a fun way to learn certain grammatical rules is to find the answers in history. For example, did you know that a rule was brought into the English language forbidding words to end in a ‘v’ (hence so many silent ‘e’s – ‘give’ and ‘live’). Completing a quick search of strangely spelt words could unlock an easy way to remember that particular sight word.
7. Keep things fun
Practicing spelling does not need to be a chore all the time. There are a number of games that can be played to mix things up a bit and bring some fun into learning. Games such as pairs, Hangman, bingo, Go Fish and tic-tac-toe can all be adapted for spelling practice. There are also many fun apps.
8. Word Searches
Find free word searches online or make your own. Your child will have hours of fun spotting their recent sight words – obviously make sure the words match their reading level. Word searches also help with building awareness of certain spellings.
9. Word walls
A little bit of confidence goes a long way and a word wall is a great way to give your child the confidence they need to achieve. By creating a specific space to write, hang or stick the words your child has mastered, you are showing them a visual concept of their achievements. It is also a great place for your child to visit to remind themselves of these words.
10. Don’t overwhelm
One of the worst things you can do is overwhelm your child. It’s not about quantity at this stage. Introduce one or two new words a day (as your child masters one, add a new one) until you have 10 to practice. Learning goals stay achievable which will give them the motivation to keep trying.
When you teach a dyslexic child to spell at home, it’s vital that you are in touch and working with their teacher at school. This way you can ensure that you are both on the same page, using the same approaches and not overwhelming your child. There will be good and bad days. When it comes to spelling, this does NOT reflect your child’s vocabulary.
Learning to touch type will be a great bonus for a child with dyslexia. Once they can type, they will be able to self-edit and of course, spell check is a great tool! I highly recommend this course from TTRS. It’s not one of the free ones, but we have tried and tested many and always come back to this.
It’s also so important to remember that while your child will struggle with spelling, there are so many unique strengths they do posses. Dyslexia does not need to hold them back from anything they want to achieve. Click here for a list of dyslexia strengths and inspire your child.