Spelling and Students with Learning Disabilities

By: Louise Spear-Swerling
Spelling difficulties can be enduring in individuals with reading disabilities, sometimes even after reading has been successfully remediated. Addressing spelling difficulties is important, because poor spelling can hamper writing and can convey a negative impression even when the content of the writing is excellent.

Students with learning disabilities in reading usually have problems in spelling as well. Spelling can be especially difficult for these students, for several reasons. First, the core deficit in reading disability (RD) typically involves word decoding, and many of the same weaknesses that impact word decoding in individuals with RD — such as poor phonemic awareness or poor knowledge of letter-sound relationships — also influence spelling. Furthermore, spelling is affected by independent reading and exposure to text; avid readers see more words in print and have more opportunities to learn spellings of specific words. Because individuals with RD are rarely avid readers, lack of exposure to printed words may adversely influence their spelling. Finally, English spelling is complex, drawing upon several different kinds of knowledge. Effective teaching of this knowledge is especially crucial for students with RD.

Spelling difficulties can be enduring in individuals with RD, sometimes even after reading has been successfully remediated. Addressing spelling difficulties is important, because poor spelling can hamper writing and can convey a negative impression even when the content of the writing is excellent.

Knowledge required for spelling in English

The most basic kind of knowledge required for good English spelling involves phonics knowledge, or knowledge of common letter-sound relationships. For example, children need to learn that the sound they hear at the beginning of the spoken word "bag" is spelled with the letter b, the medial sound is spelled with the letter a, and the final sound is spelled with the letter g. Unfortunately, however, basic phonics knowledge is necessary, but often not sufficient, for accurate spelling in English. Some familiarity with the printed word is essential for correct spelling of many words. This is true not only for phonetically irregular words such as of or what, but for many regular words as well. For instance, phonics knowledge serves as an essential base for spelling a word such as shirt, but the only way to know that the word is not spelled with ur (shurt) or er (shert) is to be familiar with the printed word. Morphological knowledge about root words and relationships among words is also important, especially as children progress to more advanced levels of reading and spelling. For example, the second vowel sound in the word colonist is a schwa (unstressed) vowel; it is impossible to hear that the vowel is an o rather than, say, an i or a u. However, if the child knows the spelling of the root word colony, this knowledge facilitates the spelling of the related word colonist (as well as colonial and colonize). All three kinds of knowledge — basic phonics knowledge, word-specific knowledge, and morphological knowledge — need to be addressed in spelling instruction.

Suggestions for teaching spelling to students with LD

  • Provide systematic phonics instruction that incorporates teaching of phonemic awareness. Although this kind of instruction alone will not be enough to make students flawless spellers, phonemic awareness and phonics knowledge form an essential base for accurate spelling in English.
  • Teach common irregular words from the earliest stages of spelling. It is virtually impossible to generate a complete sentence without common irregular words such as of, what, and were. Therefore, it is important to begin teaching these kinds of words early, as one part of a more comprehensive spelling program. Multisensory techniques involving repeated tracing and saying of words can be especially helpful for introducing irregular words.
  • Teach useful spelling rules. Although many English words do not conform to consistent rules, some generalizations are very helpful to students, such as rules for adding endings to words with a silent e (make, making) or to closed syllables that end in a single consonant (sit, sitting).
  • Teach spelling of important grade-appropriate words. Because many English words cannot be spelled solely through the use of rules or phonics knowledge, spelling instruction also should include studying a corpus of important words needed for accurate spelling at each grade level.
  • Emphasize activities that involve writing or building printed words with letter tiles, not oral spelling. Oral spelling activities, such as traditional spelling bees, usually are not as effective as activities that require children to look carefully at the printed word.
  • Encourage students to use knowledge about root words and relationships among words to help them spell new words. Even when they possess this kind of knowledge, students will not always apply it spontaneously. It is very helpful to point out relationships among words and to illustrate how knowing the spelling of one word facilitates spelling of related words, as in the colony-colonist example.
  • Encourage independent reading to increase exposure to printed words. Independent reading cannot substitute for direct spelling instruction, but it can help to promote spelling knowledge---and of course, it is valuable for many other reasons as well.
  • Teach older children how to use a computer spell-checker. Like independent reading, spell-checkers are not a substitute for explicit spelling instruction from a knowledgeable teacher. Also, children need some phonics knowledge in order to use spell-checkers effectively. Nevertheless, spell-checkers can be enormously helpful to struggling spellers and writers, especially in the later grades when the volume of writing increases greatly.

Examples of sources

Peer-reviewed journal articles:

Bruck, M. (1990). Word-recognition skills of adults with childhood diagnoses of dyslexia. Developmental Psychology, 26, 439-454.

Cunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K. E. (1991) Tracking the unique effects of print exposure in children: Associations with vocabulary, general knowledge, and spelling. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 264-274.

Greene, J. (1996). Language!: Effects of an individualized structured language curriculum for middle and high school students. Annals of Dyslexia, 46, 97-121.

Invernizzi, M., Abouzeid, M., & Gill, T. (1994). Using students' invented spelling as a guide for spelling instruction that emphasizes word study. Elementary School Journal, 95, 155-167.

Other helpful sources:

Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ehri, L. C. (1998). Learning to read and learning to spell are one and the same, almost. In C. Perfetti, L. Rieben, & M. Fayol (Eds.), Learning to spell: Research, theory and practice across languages (pp. 237-269). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Moats, L. C. (1995). Spelling: Development, disability, and instruction. Timonium, MD: York Press.

Moats, L. C. (2000). Speech to print: Language essentials for teachers. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Co.

Treiman, R., & Cassar, M. (1998). Spelling acquisition in English. In C. Perfetti, L. Rieben, & M. Fayol (Eds.), Learning to spell: Research, theory and practice across languages (pp. 61-80). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Louise Spear-Swerling (2005)


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