Spelling and Dyslexia

Spelling is a challenge for people with dyslexia. The International Dyslexia Association provides a fact sheet explaining why people with dyslexia have trouble spelling, how to find out the reasons a particular child has this difficulty, and how to help children with dyslexia spell better.

How common are spelling difficulties?

Spelling is difficult for many people, but there is much less research on spelling than there is on reading to tell us just how many people spell poorly or believe they spell poorly. Less is known about spelling competence in the general population than is known about reading achievement because there is no national test for spelling and many states do not test students' spelling skills.

Almost all people with dyslexia, however, struggle with spelling and face serious obstacles in learning to cope with this aspect of their learning disability. The definition of dyslexia notes that individuals with dyslexia have "conspicuous problems" with spelling and writing, in spite of being capable in other areas and having a normal amount of classroom instruction. Many individuals with dyslexia learn to read fairly well, but difficulties with spelling (and handwriting) tend to persist throughout life, requiring instruction, accommodations, task modifications, and understanding from those who teach or work with the individual.

What causes spelling problems?

One common but mistaken belief is that spelling problems stem from a poor visual memory for the sequences of letters in words. Recent research, however, shows that a general kind of visual memory plays a relatively minor role in learning to spell. 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, such as wnet for went are manifestations of underlying language learning weaknesses rather than of a visually based problem. Most of us know individuals who have excellent visual memories for pictures, color schemes, design elements, mechanical drawings, maps, and landscape features, for example, but who spell poorly. The kind of visual memory necessary for spelling is closely "wired in" to the language processing networks in the brain.

Poor spellers have trouble remembering the letters in words because they have trouble noticing, remembering, and recalling the features of language that those letters represent. Most commonly, poor spellers have weaknesses in underlying language skills including the ability to analyze and remember the individual sounds (phonemes) in the words, such as the sounds associated with j , ch, or v, the syllables, such as la, mem, pos and the meaningful parts (morphemes) of longer words, such as sub-, -pect, or -able. These weaknesses may be detected in the use of both spoken language and written language; thus, these weaknesses may be detected when someone speaks and writes.

Like other aspects of dyslexia and reading achievement, spelling ability is influenced by inherited traits. It is true that some of us were born to be better spellers than others, but it is also true that poor spellers can be helped with good instruction and accommodations.

Diagnosis of spelling problems

If dyslexia is suspected, and the student is at the kindergarten or first-grade level, simple tests of phoneme awareness and letter naming can predict later spelling problems, just as they predict later reading problems. If a student is struggling to remember spelling words, a standardized test of spelling achievement with current national norms should be given to quantify just how serious the problem is. In addition, a spelling diagnostic test should be given to identify which sounds, syllable patterns, or meaningful parts the student does not understand or remember.

A spelling diagnostic test, such as a developmental spelling inventory, will tell a teacher exactly which consonant, vowel, syllable, and word spellings the student must be taught. Third, the student should be tested on his or her knowledge of the most commonly used words in English that are necessary for writing, as these, too, should be emphasized in instruction.

How do children learn to spell?

Children gradually develop insights into how words are represented with letters in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade. This process moves ahead much more quickly (and successfully) if instruction in sounds and letters is systematic, explicit, and structured.

Spelling of whole words is facilitated when the child understands that words are made up of separate speech sounds and that letters represent those sounds. As knowledge of that principle increases, children also notice patterns in the way letters are used, and they notice recurring sequences of letters that form syllables, word endings, word roots, prefixes, and suffixes. Memories for whole words are formed much faster and recalled much more easily when children have a sense of language structure and receive ample practice writing the words.

Inventive spelling or spelling words the way they sound is common in preschool and kindergarten children and is a desirable step in understanding how we use letters to spell. However, inventive spelling is not sufficient for students to learn all of the conventions and patterns of Standard English writing. Encouraging students, beyond the beginning of first grade, to invent their spellings or to ignore correct spelling is not constructive.

Is the English spelling system predictable or unpredictable?

The English spelling system is not crazy or unpredictable. It can be taught as a system that makes sense. Nearly 50% of English words are predictable based on sound-letter correspondences alone (e.g., slap, pitch, boy). An additional 37% of the more common words are almost predictable except for one sound (e.g., knit and boat).

Other information, such as the language from which a word came (e.g., Old English, Latin, Greek, or French) and word meaning, also helps explain the spellings of words. Only 4% of English words are truly irregular and may have to be learned through whole word methods, such as tracing and saying the letters while the word is being memorized. Thus, it is possible to approach spelling instruction with confidence that the system by and large makes sense-an encouraging observation for students who have great difficulty forming memories for words.

What are the implications for teaching?

Spelling instruction that explores word structure, word origin, and word meaning is the most effective, even though students with dyslexia may still struggle with word recall. Emphasizing memorization by asking students to close their eyes and imagine the words, or asking them to write words multiple times until they "stick" are only useful after students are helped to understand why a word is spelled the way it is. Students who have learned the connections between speech sounds and written symbols, who perceive the recurring letter patterns in English syllables, and who know about meaningful word parts are better at remembering whole words.Classroom spelling programs should be organized to teach a progression of regular spelling patterns. 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. For example, before spelling a word, students can orally take the sounds of the word apart. Then, they can recall the letters that spell those sounds. Next, patterns such as the six basic syllable types of English should be taught because they represent vowel sounds in predictable ways. Third, 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 the silent e is dropped.

A few irregular words should be practiced daily (e.g., come, they, their, who). Tracing and saying the letters, building the words with letter tiles, copying and writing in sentences, all help build memories for irregular words. Students may be able to handle only a few new words at a time, and they may need many opportunities to write words accurately and with supervision before they can remember them. As words are learned, exercises to build fluency, such as word and sentence dictations, are helpful. Having students keep a list of their own particular "spelling demons" for reference supports the development of proofreading ability and aids mastery of the spelling of those challenging words.

It is important that students learn to spell words for writing and not just for spelling tests. Transfer to spelling in everyday writing is essential. It helps if the student is taught to use a proofreading procedure that involves checking for one element at a time, such as punctuation, capitalization, spelling, sentence structure, and organization.

Computer spellcheckers are not helpful unless the student has already achieved basic spelling skill, at about a fifth-grade level, and unless the student receives other proofreading help. Spellcheckers do not identify all errors.

Important accommodations and task modifications for dyslexic students include the following:

  • grading written work primarily on content,
  • writing correct spellings over incorrect ones and limiting rewrites to a reasonable amount,
  • providing proofreading assistance,
  • encouraging students to dictate their thoughts before writing and giving them the spellings of key content words to use in writing,
  • allowing students in intermediate grades and higher to type exams and papers or to use a voice-translation device on a computer,
  • encouraging students to hand in early drafts of research papers and essays to allow for revision before grading.

The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) thanks Louisa Cook Moats, Ed.D., for her assistance in the preparation of this fact sheet.


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Bear, D. R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2005). Words their way: Word study phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction. (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Publishing.

Berninger, V. W., Vaughn, K., Abbot, R. D., Brooks, A., Begay, K., Curtin, G., Byrd, K., & Graham, S. (2000). Language-based spelling instruction: Teaching children to make multiple connections between spoken and written words. Learning Disability Quarterly, 23, 117-135.

Carreker, S. (2005). Teaching spelling. In J. R. Birsh (Ed.), Multisensory teaching of basic language skills (2nd ed.) (pp. 217-256). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Cassar, M., Treiman, R., Moats, L. C., Pollo, T. C., & Kessler, B. (2005). How do the spellings of children with dyslexia compare with those of nondyslexic children? Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 18, 27-49.

Ehri, L. C. (2000). Learning to read and learning to spell: Two sides of a coin. Topics in Learning Disorders, 20, 19-49.

Graham, S. (1999). Handwriting and spelling instruction for students with learning disabilities: A review. Learning Disability Quarterly, 22, 78-98.

Henry, M. K. (2003). Unlocking literacy: Effective decoding and spelling instruction. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Henry, M. K. (2005). A short history of the English language. In J.R. Birsh (Ed.). Multisensory teaching of basic language skills (2nd ed.) (pp. 119-139). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Joshi, R. M., & Aaron, P. G. (2003). A new way of assessing spelling and its classroom applications. In R. M. Joshi, B. Kaczmarek, & C.K. Leong (Eds.). Literacy acquisition, assessment and instruction: The role of phonology, orthography, and morphology (pp. 153-161). Amsterdam: IOS Press.

Kessler, B. & Treiman, R. (2003). Is English spelling chaotic? Misconceptions concerning its irregularity. Reading Psychology, 24, 267-289.

Moats, L. C. (2005). How spelling supports reading: And why it is more regular and predictable than you think. American Educator, Winter 2005/06, 12-22, 42-43.

Treiman R., & Bourassa, D. (2000). The development of spelling skill. Topics in language disorders, 20, 1-18.

The International Dyslexia Association. Spelling. International Dyslexia Association Fact Sheet series.

© Copyright 2008, The International Dyslexia Association (IDA). IDA encourages the reproduction and distribution of this fact sheet. If portions of the text are cited, appropriate reference must be made. Fact sheets may not be reprinted for the purpose of resale.


You are welcome to print copies for non-commercial use, or a limited number for educational purposes, as long as credit is given to Reading Rockets and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact the author or publisher listed.


This article really oversimplifies the spelling problem that dyslexic students have. 1)The switching of letters (b for d or wnet for went) is not based on poor phonemic skills. There needs to be specific instruction in symbol memory. See Meeker and Meeker, Structure of Intellect for this kind of training.2)When a student does have poor phonemic skills, this is compounded by the fact that the same sound can be presented many different ways is English. The vowel combination "ei" may be a long e, a long i or an long a.Also the "sh" sound is also made by ci, si and ti. If you consider all of these different ways to spell the same sound as "predictable" I can see why this article underestimates how difficult spelling is for dyslexic students. There is a great difference between knowing how to pronounce a word and remembering how to spell it.3) When working with high school age dyslexic students, explaining why "ch" can be "ch" (Old french origin) or "k" (Greek origin), may help, but adds a lot to learn. Origins still do not explain many of the spelling irregularities. 4) Most of the time when I work with high school age dyslexics we concentrate on sounding out words by syllable so the student can type the phonetic spelling of a word into a spell check program and get the word he/she is looking for. One student with an excellent vocabulary showed me how she typed in synonyms to find words that she understood, but could not spell. Still the time consumed in editing is much longer for the dyslexic students, and often teachers do not see their ideas because of poor handwriting and spelling. The teachers who equate those two things with intelligence need to be re-educated.

Grace Fernald of UCLA back in the 1940s taught "spelling" using an ancient whole-word repeated tracing technique while sounding (not spelling) the word. This system works with any age 4-44 when the procedure is followed with strict fidelity. Fernald spelling is one quick way to break through the wall of failure and demonstrate classroom capability with academics. Warning: The system can be compromised by orally spelling the word--Fernald is a visual memory system with connected sounds of the word, not the letters. Many teachers add or change the procedure and therefore their method is NOT Fernald and is generally frustrating and unsuccessful.

The English spelling 'system' is not crazy or unpredictable?Compare it with Finnish, Italian, or Korean, and think again!

This feeds into a common misconception many teachers have: poor spelling = dyslexia. Many children struggling with spelling do not have dyslexia (reading disorder), they have dysgraphia (writing disorder). Teachers see children who are average to excellent readers but poor spellers and accuse the child of being lazy, careless, inattentive to work - choose your favorite. Meanwhile, the child becomes increasingly frustrated, knowing that he or she fully comprehends material, wants to express ideas in writing, but can't get the letters in the correct order, no matter how much they study.

The claim that 5o% of the English words are regularly spelled isn't correct. This is proven by research is the one conducted by Dewey 1971 who proved that only 15% of the English words are predictable.

I've taught Slingerland on the first and second grade level for 26 yrs. Some of these classes were screened. It is an excellent reading, writing and spelling program. It was the backbone of my reading, writing and spelling program. We started with learning key words/sound. We learned how to decode words for reading. Spelling tests progressed from single words to whole sentences that included punctuations. Sentences were dictated on Fridays. This program also included handwriting. I will never regret using this method!

It's no wonder there is so little real help for dyslexic students. When educators cannot even agree about the definition of their struggles, let alone the interventions needed, it's a wonder they ever learn anything!

I really don't think it is important to squabble about what we call this. Dyslexia, dysgraphia, who cares. The methods for teaching and the accommodations suggested are very helpful to a student that is struggling with spelling.

Please remember that every student is different and each may need a different approach. Focus on getting to know the student and their needs! Thank goodness we have many different approaches to help many different types of learners!

Any one and any method that can help a dyslexic person spell, read or write should be immortalised. All educators and parents go the hard long road with dyslexics as they themselves do. I have witnessed struggling discouraged and frustrated children, parents and teachers overcome this trauma with varying degrees of success and any gains is wonderful. Many of these children's path has been fraught with the spelling, reading pitfalls yet thanks to their intense indomitable courage and committed care and effort of themselves, family and educators they can read and are mastering spelling (it's much harder). Systems and methods fall out of favour but we need to give credit where it's due. These kids and adults who learn these skills are heroes.

I have a 10yrs old child snd he attends school at Kiasha Park Primary School.The teachers were complaining that he doesn't finish his class work and he's naughty and the other teacher said he doesn't even allow him to get in his classroom but lately I've realised when I was helping him with his homework that actualy he's giving me the correct answers but it becomes a problem when I ask him to write.I forced him to write and that is when I realised that he has a spelling problem.he gets angry sometimes because teachers are telling him that he's going to fail infront of other kids instead of helping him.

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