How dyslexia affects spelling
Weird and wonderful spellings go with the territory when your child is learning to write. But while most children will eventually learn to spell correctly most of the time – with exceptions, of course – children with dyslexia can have difficulty throughout their lives.
But while spelling can be a challenge for dyslexic children, they can adopt techniques that make it easier. ‘It’s not that dyslexic children can’t learn; they just learn in a different way,’ explains Kate Saunders, chief executive officer of the British Dyslexia Association. We take a look at the specific difficulties they may face.
Spelling challenges for dyslexic children: phonological difficulties
Children are taught to write using phonics, where instead of learning the 26 letters of the alphabet, they learn over 40 groups of letters called graphemes, each of which makes a sound. By joining these graphemes together (a process called encoding), children build words.
Children with dyslexia can find this word-building, or sequencing, difficult. ‘They often find it difficult to break the word down into the right sounds, or to put them in the right order to make words,’ Kate explains. ‘Some children have trouble even linking the sound to the letters that make it up.’
This means that they may choose the wrong grapheme or letters to use in a word – so the word ‘decided’ may be written ‘disiidid.’ Where the links between graphemes and sounds are not well established, spelling may appear bizarre and hard to decipher. Most children will do this as they start to write, but those with dyslexia may be slower to outgrow it.
Spelling challenges for dyslexic children: poor visual memory
As adults, we rarely have to think about how to spell words – except for particularly tricky ones! That’s because we’ve formed a visual picture of how each word looks on the page. As children get older, they’ll move away from relying on phonics and instead will build visual memories of the shape of words.
Children with dyslexia often have problems building these mental pictures of how words should look. ‘They find it difficult to remember how a word should appear written down, and can’t check it against the blueprint in their memory, as they don’t have a correct one,’ Kate says.
Spelling challenges for dyslexic children: difficulty remembering patterns
Most of us use the regular patterns of written English without much thought, such as using ‘ies’ to pluralise words ending in ‘y.’ But children with dyslexia can have difficulty committing these patterns to memory. They often don’t develop mental rules for things like prefixes, suffixes and plurals, and this means they can get spellings wrong by not applying the patterns correctly. For dyslexic children, very explicit teaching of rules and patterns is essential.
Spelling challenges for dyslexic children: irregular words
Alongside having trouble remembering spelling patterns, children with dyslexia often have difficulty with the vast number of irregular words in the English language. ‘Common words like “because,” “was” and “said” aren’t spelled the way they sound, but because children with dyslexia can’t remember how these words look, they write them the way they sound, which can lead to bizarre spellings that don’t bear any resemblance to how the world should appear,’ says Kate.
Spelling challenges for dyslexic children: embedded errors
Children with dyslexia may have poor visual memory, but they often have very good motor memory: that is, they learn by doing. The downside of this is that the more often they spell a word incorrectly, the more automatic the wrong spelling will become when they are writing, especially if they are concentrating on content. ‘If they get into the habit of writing a word incorrectly, they’ll develop a muscle memory for the misspelling and it can become firmly embedded,’ Kate explains.
Spelling challenges for dyslexic children: jumbled letters and sounds
People with dyslexia and visual stress often have problems remembering the order of letters in a written word, and even which way round the letters go. This can lead to spelling difficulties such as writing the letters b and d backwards, or transposing the sequence of letters in a word: for example, ‘saw’ instead of ‘was’.
Spelling challenges for dyslexic children: pressure and frustration
Being unable to spell at the same level as their classmates can be humiliating and upsetting for children with dyslexia. Spelling tests can be a particular source of embarrassment and tension.
Eight ways to help children with dyslexia with spelling
1. Practise sequencing
Because children with dyslexia can have trouble getting letters in the right order, working on sequencing tasks can be a big help, particularly in the early years. ‘This doesn’t always have to be with letters and sounds; they might start by copying a pattern of beads threaded onto a string, for example,’ says Kate.
2. Use their senses
Multisensory learning tends to work well for children with dyslexia, so you can help them by encouraging them to use their senses, such as by spelling words using wooden, plastic or magnetic letters, writing in sand using their finger, or writing on a whiteboard in coloured pen. ‘They will learn the movement they make when they write the word, which is often more effective than relying on visual memory,’ Kate explains. Tracing over the correct spelling and working with large lettering can help reinforce correct learning.
Mnemonics are memory aids, and they can be a great spelling aid for children with and without dyslexia. ‘Picture and colour cues can help children remember how words are spelled,’ says Kate. For example, a good mnemonic for the word ‘because’ is Big Elephants Can’t Always Use Small Exits. ‘The child can associate it with a mental image of an elephant trying to squeeze through a tiny door, which helps them remember the spelling,’ Kate adds.
4. Commonly used words
Using these techniques, it can be helpful to focus on helping the child learn to spell the most commonly used words. There are lists of these, and many of them are exception words (irregular words that don’t follow spelling rules), which dyslexic children may need extra mnemonics, picture memory anchors, multisensory learning and repeated practice to learn solidly.
5. Joined-up writing
If your child struggles with spelling and writing in general, you might think that mastering joined handwriting is beyond them. However, learning to write cursively can be beneficial to children with dyslexia as they build muscle memory of the word as a whole, whereas when they print, each letter stands alone and it can be hard for them to remember which order they come in.
6. Differentiated spelling tests
The weekly spelling test can be a source of distress for children with dyslexia, but there are ways to make it less stressful. ‘This could include giving them easier spellings than the rest of the class, giving them words grouped around a common family (e.g. ‘igh’ words), or simply giving them more time,’ says Kate.
7. Giving credit for content
Yes, spelling matters, but children can be demoralised if their written work is constantly marked down because of spelling errors. Teachers can avoid crushing children’s self-esteem by giving more weight to the content of their work than to its accuracy, and writing correct spellings above incorrect ones, rather than simply underlining or crossing them out.
8. Use technology
Make use of spelling programmes and games designed for dyslexic children, as well as technical aids for spelling (e.g. spell checkers, picture thesaurus/dictionary functions, predictive text).