Tip 1: Teach the written language code.
Tip 2: Be empathetic and patient.
Tip 3: Celebrate errors and use them as a tool to understand the student’s thought processes.
Tip 4: Provide meaningful success.
Tip 5: Revise, revise, revise and revise again and again and again.
A key problem for many struggling readers and spellers is the retention of the words so they can be automatically recalled, especially under conditions of cognitive overload (i.e., when you’re writing a story and thinking of what you are going to write rather than how to spell the words). The research consistently shows that the best intervention for these students is NOT to ‘rote’ learn words based on their visual appearance, but to ensure they understand that the written language is a code for the spoken language. This requires them to learn the different letter and letter combinations used to represent the sounds in English and the rules associated with writing the words. Teaching and learning the written language code takes time.
It is common for students struggling with literacy to work slowly. Often they are slower at retrieving information from their long-term memory. The challenge is to find the right balance between providing sufficient time for students to recall the information versus not providing the required support because the information can’t be recalled and no amount of extra time will result in the information being remembered.
It is also not unusual for these students to remember the information taught one day and then not remember it the next day, or to be able to read or spell a word in isolation but not when reading complex text or writing a story. This just lets you know that they have not remembered the information to the level of automaticity required.
Use a range of memory strategies to help improve retention. These should include:
- Linking new material to the student’s existing knowledge. For example, link the student’s know of the sounds of the alphabet to the digraphs being taught. If you were to introduce ‘sh’, you could cover up the ‘h’ and say, “This letter by itself represent /s/.” Then cover up the ‘s’ and say, “This letter by itself represent /h/.” Then show both letters and say, “When these two letters are together they represent a new sound /sh/.”
- Making sure every task you do is interlinked. As you are teaching the spelling of a word, link the letter sounds to picture cues that are currently being learned or previously been learned, relate to the relevant spelling rules, compare to other words that have similar patterns, etc.
- Use as many senses as possible. For example, colour-code the word being learned according to the sounds represented by each letter or letter combination, have the student trace over the letters of the word with his/her finger, while saying the sounds, while looking at the colour-code.
- Provide multiple opportunities to practise and revise again, and again, and again, in different situations and at different times until a high level of automaticity is achieved.
Anxiety can also interfere with the recall process. The research shows that working memory is less effective when there is a high levels of anxiety. If you, as an adult, find a task difficult, you avoid doing that task. This is no different to students who find reading and spelling difficulty. However, if you don’t practise reading and spelling little improvement is going to be made.
- Be mindful of this avoidance cycle. Acknowledge the difficulty of the task and the student’s anxiety. However, this doesn’t mean that they should be allowed to avoid the task.
- Be patient. Learn to accept that these students may not understand or remember the first, second, third, fourth……time.
- Make sure these students are experiencing some successes. If necessary ‘engineer’ this success by making the tasks achievable but still with some level of challenge.
- Set up a mindset that it is ‘okay to be wrong’ and that it is through mistakes that we learn. Take the time to examine the error. Use this information to understand ‘why’ the student is making the mistake and to help determine strategies to overcome the point of confusion. As a part of this process, focus on rewarding effort.