Many kids and adults have trouble with spelling. And they may struggle for different reasons. That’s because spelling is a complex activity that involves many skills.
Spellers have to think about how words sound and then translate those sounds into print. They have to memorize lots of spelling rules — and remember the exceptions to those rules. They also have to choose between different words that sound the same: Sent, cent, or scent? There, they’re, or their?
Kids and adults can be very smart and have trouble with spelling. Some people are fast thinkers but slow spellers. They may be full of ideas but only write down a few words because spelling takes so much time and energy.
Here are learning and thinking differences that can cause trouble with spelling.
How dyslexia can affect spelling
Dyslexia is a common learning difference that affects reading. It makes it hard to isolate the sounds in words, match those sounds to letters, and blend sounds into words. Learning to spell maybe even harder than learning to read for some people with dyslexia.
The spelling connection | People with dyslexia often confuse letters that sound alike. Vowels can be especially tricky. People with dyslexia may mix up the order of letters (felt for left). They may also misspell common sight words, even after lots of practice.
Strategies to try
- Teach phonics rules to help build a strong foundation that connects letter sounds with letter symbols.
- Help spelling instruction “stick” by engaging more than one sense , like sight, sound, and touch.
- Focus on word history , structure, and meaning.
- Let students take spelling tests orally instead of writing the answers.
How ADHD can affect spelling
ADHD makes it hard to pay attention. It also affects impulse control, organization, and other skills called executive functions.
The spelling connection | Trouble with focus makes it hard to notice spelling mistakes. People with ADHD often leave out letters, use the wrong ones, or put them in the wrong order.
ADHD can make it harder to commit words and spelling rules to memory. ADHD can also make it harder for the brain to organize information and retrieve it when needed.
Strategies to try
- Try focus techniques when memorizing spelling words, like bouncing a ball while saying the letters in a word or tapping a finger with each letter or syllable.
- Build in time to move around during brain breaks.
- Teach self-regulation strategies that help writers with tasks like planning, revising, and proofreading.
- Encourage kids with ADHD to slow down during homework or tests. Give a list of items to check before they hand in their work.
How dysgraphia can affect spelling
Dysgraphia is difficulty with writing that makes it hard to write neatly and at an age-appropriate speed. Many people with dysgraphia also struggle to put their thoughts down on paper. This is sometimes called a disorder of written expression.
The spelling connection | People with dysgraphia have trouble getting words on paper, either by handwriting or typing them. They may have a hard time holding a pencil properly or remembering how to write a word. They may also misspell the same word in many different ways.
Strategies to try
- Work on fine motor skills used for writing and typing.
- Use tools like pencil grips and slant boards to encourage neater writing.
- Use graphic organizers to help writers organize their thoughts.
- Offer oral spelling tests instead of written ones.
How other differences can affect spelling
Difficulty processing auditory information makes it hard to make sense of what the ear hears. This includes recognizing different sounds in words. Difficulty processing visual information makes it hard to make sense of what the eye sees.
The spelling connection | Auditory trouble can make it hard to recognize subtle differences in the sounds in words. It can make it hard to follow spelling lessons, especially in a noisy classroom. This can lead to things like skipping letters or putting them in the wrong order.
The trouble with visual processing can make it hard to do things like memorize spelling patterns or notice the difference between letters like p and q.
Strategies to try
- Sit near the teacher and away from noisy doors or windows.
- Work with a speech therapist on perception of individual sounds in words. This can also help develop active listening skills.
- Give spelling tests one-on-one in a quiet room or with headphones playing a recording of the words that need to be spelled.
- Avoid crowding spelling words together on a page. Give each one some space.
- Provide oral as well as written instructions when teaching spelling rules.
A note about spellchecking programs
Computer spellchecking programs can be a big help for kids and adults who struggle with spelling. But these programs won’t help build spelling skills. Focus on building a solid foundation. Educators typically don’t recommend spellcheck for kids before fifth grade.
- For some people with dyslexia, learning to spell may be even harder than learning to read.
- Computer spellchecking can be a good support for older kids and adults, but it won’t help build spelling skills.
- The right teaching and tools can help people who struggle with spelling for different reasons.