Spelling & Learning Difficulties

posted in: Spelling | 0

Learning to spell words correctly is a difficult skill and it is a skill that is even more challenging for children with learning and attention issues. If you are a poor speller it impacts on:[divider]

  • The words you select to use because you may deliberately choose simple words that are easier to spell and consequently you don’t demonstrate your actual vocabulary knowledge
  • The quantity of written work produced because a disproportionate amount of time is spent trying to recall the spelling of words rather than writing

To spell correctly you need to be able to quickly:

  • Identify the sounds in the word
  • Determine the correct letters or letter combinations representing each of the sounds
  • Apply any relevant spelling rules (and there are many of these) as well as having a good memory for the exception words
  • Know the different meaning of words (e.g., it by, bye or buy)
  • Connect the spelling of new words to words already held in long-term memory that have similar spelling patterns
  • Retrieve words in long-term memory so that you don’t need to continuously go through the above process

Impact of Dyslexia

  • Individuals with dyslexia find it difficult to isolate the sounds in words and then to connect these sounds to the letters or letter combinations used to represent those sounds.
  • Letters that sound similar or graphemes (letters or letters representing sounds) are often confused (e.g., d/b, aw/ou). Vowels (especially diphthong where two mouth movements are required to make the sound such as oi) are particularly difficult to hear and consequently are often omitted or confused.
  • Tendency to rely on the visual appearance of a word, but our ability to do this is constrained because of the limitation of working memory. A reliance on this strategy is particularly evident when children are able to remember words for a spelling test but are not able to remember or use the word correctly in situations of cognitive overload (i.e., writing a story) and also when the word is mostly written with the correct letters, but the letters are in the wrong order.

Impact of ADHD

  • Individuals with ADHD find it difficult to maintain focused attention and may have difficulty controlling impulses.
  • Consequently, work is often ‘rushed’ resulting in careless errors.
  • It is more difficult to sustain attention to practise the spelling of words and rules sufficiently so that the information becomes stored in long-term memory.
  • It can be harder for the brain to organise information and make connections to previously stored information which makes the retention of spelling patterns and rules more difficult and also makes it more difficult to retrieve the information on demand.
  • Often letters in words will be left out, substituted for other letters or the order of letters rearranged.

Impact of Auditory Processing Disorder

  • Individuals with auditory processing disorder (APD) find it difficult to process and make sense of the sounds they are hearing.
  • It can be difficult to follow a lesson in a classroom, especially if it is a noisy classroom, and to follow multiple instructions.
  • These students may confuse similar sounding words (e.g., fifty/fifteen), leave out sounds or syllables (e.g., emty for empty) and confuse the order of syllables (e.g., delevopment for development).

Impact of Visual Processing Difficulties

  • Individuals with visual processing difficulties may find it difficult to distinguish between letters or letter combinations that are quite similar (e.g., p/b/q/p or ou/ow/oy), make connections between similar spelling patterns or identifying letters in different types of fonts.
  • Consequently, they are more likely to reverse letters and to find it difficult to develop automatic recognition of words.

Impact of Dysgraphia

  • Individuals with dysgraphia find it difficult to write legibly at an age-appropriate speed and to transfer their ideas into a written format.
  • Their written work is often difficult to read, isn’t structure in a logical manner and has many errors.
  • Many children will also find it difficult to hold and manipulate a pencil resulting in poorly formed, positioned and sized letters.

Strategies to Try:

  • Develop phonological awareness and auditory processing skills.
  • Help children build a strong phonic knowledge so they can quickly and accurately recall the various letters and letter combinations representing the different sounds in English.
  • Explicitly teach word structure, word origin and word meaning.
  • Explicitly teach spelling rules and provides lots of repetition and practise so that children have immediate recall of the rules and can apply them in a range of situations to both real and nonsense words.
  • Help students make connections between words that have similar patterns. Once children can spell a word like match and they know that ‘t’ is added before ‘ch’ after a short vowel, then make the link to other words with that pattern – both real words (stitch, hutch) and nonsense words (cotch) and to words in which the ‘t’ would not be added because the ‘ch’ does not occur immediately after a short vowel (lunch, beach).
  • Keep children engaged and focused by minimising the number of words to be learned at any one time, including a range of strategies and sticking to a systematic structure.
  • Teach students editing strategies (e.g., read written work one word at a time, starting from the bottom of the page – this way the focus is on individual words).
  • Seat children (especially those with APD or ADHD) away from noisy areas and near the teacher so they can see the teacher’s face and so the teacher can easily monitor whether the child is on-task.
  • Teach students to form, position and size letters correctly. Using dotted third lined paper or paper with raised lines and pencil grips can be useful resources.
  • Refer to a speech therapist (if there are difficulties pronouncing particular sounds), an occupational therapist (if there are difficulties with the fine motor skills needed for writing), an audiologist (if there are difficulties hearing sounds or instructions) or an optometrist (if there are difficulties seeing words clearly).


Although spell checkers can be a useful resource for individuals who find spelling difficult, just be aware that research by Montgomery et al. (2001) showed that spell checkers only catch 30-80% percent of misspellings overall and for children with a learning disability, spell checkers only correctly identify the word the child is trying to spell 53% of the time.


Montgomery, D.J., Karlan, G.R., and Coutinho, M. (2001). The effectiveness of word processor spell checker programs to produce target words for misspellings generated by students with learning disabilities, Journal of Special Education Technology, 16 (2).