Spelling Skills, Spelling Disability, Spelling Accommodations

We are in a new age for spelling.  A hundred years ago (or even 50) spelling was important.  Everyone wrote by hand and some had typewriters.  Spelling was up to the writer and poor spelling was a sign that you were sloppy or maybe not very literate.  Learning disabilities were unknown or poorly understood.  As with any learning disability,  poor spellers were likely punished for their weakness and left feeling stupid.

A Newer Age

Enter a newer age, where we can fully realize that poor spellers are not illiterate, lazy or unintelligent.  They just lack a specific ability (and remember, we all have a weakness of our own somewhere).  So with the recognition of spelling or writing disabilities came accommodations.  Poor spellers were given modified spelling tests and they were not penalized for spelling errors.  And spelling devices were invented.  Suddenly, there were devices like the Franklin Speller where a poor speller could type in a word and the device would list several correct words that the writer might be trying to spell.

That sounds downright cumbersome now.

Because now, we are in the next age.  Kids are taught to type earlier and earlier (at the expense of good handwriting, but that is another blog entry).  The computer (or Smartphone or word processor) has spell checking programs and auto correct.  These programs aren’t perfect, but they are pretty good.  Yes, a poor speller can absolutely challenge the spell checking program.  And yes, auto correct fails are not uncommon and can often be either hilarious or embarrassing.  But they do help tremendously.  I am impressed with how easily even young children can highlight a mis-spelled word, hit a drop down menu, and pick what they need.

So do we care about spelling?

Yes, we do care.  We are still reading and writing to communicate and will likely continue to do so more and more (even if it is by electronic writing and not on paper). Good basic spelling will be needed.  However there will still be kids (and adults) who are poor spellers.  So how do we spot them and what can we do to help?

Who has weaknesses in spelling?

  • People with dyslexia. Dyslexia is a weakness in phonological processing.  The person has difficulty hearing the individual sounds in words, so struggles to learn to sound out words for reading and spelling.  Even with good reading remediation, spelling often remains a weakness.  I tell people that, at least with reading a word, all the letters are in front of you to see.  When spelling, the dyslexia person has to look inside their head to see if they can find all the sounds. It’s hard.
  • People with visual processing weaknesses. For people who have trouble with visual scanning or visual convergence or people who have atypical visual processing such that letters seem to waiver, move, and even disappear (special shout out to people with Irlen Syndrome), spelling remains one challenge among others in the reading and writing domain.  There are so many demands on their plate when writing that spelling is at risk at all times.
  • People with Attention Deficit Disorder. Weak attention during early grades may cause them to miss spelling patterns as they are taught.  Weak attention in higher grades means there is only so much “band width” when writing.  Spelling may need to be sacrificed for getting good thoughts on paper.  When weighing good thoughts against good spelling, I will take the good thoughts.
  • People with Executive Function weakness. Very similar to attention deficit disorder, but the problem is not in basic attention.  Even when “paying attention,” they may miss important spelling patterns.  Some kids with EF are just not good with patterns.  And again, in higher grades, they may sacrifice spelling for other writing demands.
  • Visual Motor Weaknesses. Often typing can relieve some of the visual motor demand of handwriting, but typing is still a visual motor demand.  Any hand writing or typed work may include spelling errors.
  • Other stuff. Because the brain is big and complex, so there is always something else that can crop up and trash spelling.

  What to do about spelling weaknesses:

  • Remediation
    • Remediation with many of the programs for reading disabilities can help with the phonological skills needed for spelling, but do not expect spelling issues to fully resolve even if reading seems to.  Remediation should aim for consistent spelling of high frequency words.
    • I do think handwriting words builds a better motor memory for the word than typing it (though handwriting the words may be ineffective for kids with significant visual motor weaknesses).
  • Accommodations-Make sure your child’s weakness is identified and given accommodation at school.
    • A child can be given modified spelling lists that focus in high frequency words
    • A child should not be penalized for spelling errors outside of the modified spelling list (and even that should be open to negotiation). A student with a spelling disability should be able to focus on their thoughts and organizing them on paper without having to worry about spelling
    • A student can be given a list of high frequency words for a particular unit or subject matter when testing, so that they can copy the word out accurately for tests or essays.
    • A student can be given access to technology at allows them to compensate for the spelling weakness.
  • TECHNOLOGY!!! (Our new best friend)
    • Word processing, keyboarding, typing. Whatever you want to call it, have a child start gaining proficiency in it early. They will need to use spell-checker programs and auto-correct.  Hopefully, they have enough reading/spelling remediation to enable them to recognize errors due to synonyms or other similarities (e.g., “quiet” spelled “quite”).
    • Voice Recognition software. Some students and teachers are moving more quickly to dictation software that allows students to dictate their thoughts to the computer for written work.  Writing a paper this way is a skill unto itself, but probably a more reasonable skill for some kids than writing or even typing.

Emphasize Strengths Over Weaknesses

I remember reading an essay by John Irving, the author of The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany.  John Irving was a poor student and a terrible speller.  He grew up in a time and in a private school where poor spelling was a sign of many things, none of them good.  He hung in there to write incredible novels where his genius could shine through.  I wonder if any of his teachers saw that coming. Don’t let poor spelling block a child’s other strengths (whatever they may be).  Those strengths will be their future.

(On a side note, my teenager does not think she needs to learn to drive because self-driving cars will be hitting the streets in a few years.  I wonder how many critical life skills will be obsolete in a few years and what new critical life skills will take their place?)