Spelling

Dyslexia Spelling Challenges

For many with dyslexia spelling remains a great difficulty even after they’ve gotten past their reading struggles. Or perhaps they have stealth dyslexia where they never really struggled with reading but have significant struggle with spelling. Sometimes dyslexia spelling issues when there isn’t a connected reading challenge would better be thought of as a part of dysgraphia. While tools such as spell check and predictive text are incredibly helpful, some focused work on the most frequently used words and patterns can have a large payoff.

When I started using my training in Orton-Gillingham, I realized that some spelling patterns repeat with amazing frequency, while I had trouble coming up with more than a few words for other patterns. I employed my computer-programmer husband to write a custom program for analyzing the entire dictionary for any spelling pattern. I wanted to make sure I was teaching my students patterns that were truly useful. Over 14 years I researched to identify which patterns, and which words within those patterns, are the most used. I manually sorted the spelling patterns into their different sounds so I would confidently know how many words are in each of these patterns, or clusters.

Dyslexics don’t tend to be incidental learners; that is, they do not automatically pick up patterns and rules. One of Dr. Orton’s findings is that dyslexics need direct, systematic instruction that makes the rules and patterns explicit. They need to be taught the patterns as well as the rules and generalizations that go with them. The amount of phonics in most spelling curricula is not enough for dyslexics. It also goes way too fast for them.

Helping with Dyslexia Spelling Concern

Dyslexic students have trouble learning such rules, so why bother with the ones that are so infrequently relevant? If you still have doubts, take a look at the below frequencies-of-use in written English:


Top 300 words 65%
Top 1,000 words 90%
Top 2,000 words 95%
Top 3,000 words 97%

It makes sense to focus time and effort on high-frequency patterns and words for the focus for dyslexia spelling intervention. Any other pattern or word can be taught as it becomes personally useful to the student. The Wings to Soar Spelling Foundations program is the direct result of my extensive research.

For learning to spell, I classify words into three categories:

  • Phonetically regular words with high-frequency patterns that are worth learning
  • “Outlaw words” – small groups of words that “break the rules together”
  • True “rule-breakers” that just need to be memorized

For phonetically regular words, repetitions of words within a family of related words reinforces connections between the words. Learning “outlaw words” as clusters reinforces their connections to each other. There are few enough of them in each cluster that Wings to Soar Spelling Foundations provides sentences for some of the “outlaw families” using them all. The sentences are picturable even if individual words are not. Once the student knows the words in an outlaw family they know not to guess that spelling for words not in that family. For rule-breakers I recommend using the multisensory strategies and Daily Basic 5 practice over the course of two or three weeks so the student can get the repetitions needed to add the word to their long-term memory. (See the Multisensory Practice Ideas article)

The more we use a neural pathway, the more efficient it becomes. This is why repetition is so important. Research has shown that it takes 60 to 75 repetitions of a word spelled correctly to get the word into long-term memory.1 How many repetitions are there in a typical spelling lesson – five, or maybe ten? Maybe the parent quizzes the student another five or ten times. Perhaps the student writes the word ten times. That is only 30 repetitions, possibly enough to pass the test on Friday, but not enough to get it into long-term memory. Natural spellers get most of these repetitions through just reading the words. This kind of practice is more than adequate for them, but is not enough for dyslexics.

Many phonics programs have the student memorize all the possible sounds for a spelling pattern. But for many spellings there are one to four patterns that are common; the other patterns often only apply to a small number of words. I prefer to have students with dyslexia spelling words containing these less common patterns by learning these as clusters of outlaw words that break the rules together.

A good example of this is the ou spelling pattern. The ou vowel combination makes six different sounds in English (pronounce the words sound, rough, four, group, could, and soul); however, only the /ou/ sound is common (as in round, out, foul, etc.). It is, in fact, a very common vowel-team pattern. Teach the rule that ou is never used at the end of a syllable, and that if the /ow/ sound comes at the end of a word, to use the ow pattern. Learning both in tandem is more useful than either by itself. The ow spelling for /ow/ is not used unless it’s at the end of a syllable or followed by n or l.

The rest of the sounds that you can make are very uncommon. For example, I want students to learn enough, rough, and tough together because these three words (and their variants, such as roughly and tougher) are the only ones that use that pattern. A sample memory-aid sentence is “I am tough enough to do rough work.” Another outlaw family with only three words is could, would, and should. Here’s a sample sentence for that group: “I would go if I could, but I should stay home.” Teach them together. If the student learns these two clusters of outlaw words, each of the words in each cluster becomes a reminder of the other words in the pattern. Do students need to worry about using ou for other words, or yet another pattern, making our language more complex than it needs to be?

I have found it’s best to teach similar sounds separately. This is essential for many dyslexics due to their weakness with fine details. For example, many programs teach the short vowels in alphabetical order. For those with phonological-processing issues, this is one of the worst possible orders to learn. Many individuals who struggle with reading and spelling have great difficulty distinguishing between the sounds of the short e and short i. When these two similar sounds are taught in alphabetical order, it amplifies the confusion because the student can’t hear the difference.

I have also discovered that it’s best to separate the teaching of similar visual spelling patterns. Some programs unnecessarily confuse students by teaching all of the vowel teams that start with o in succession. For example, it can be useful to teach you as the spelling at the beginning and in the middle of syllables and ow as the spelling at the end of syllables (or when followed by n or l) at the same time. It’s wise to give the brain time to solidify those patterns with extensive practice before introducing the oi and oy pairs, for example, which have a similar rule (oy occurs only at the end of syllables, just like ow).

I’m always looking for possible stumbling blocks for my struggling learners. I try to eliminate, or at least minimize, such blocks. I have taken all of these things into account when writing my Wings to Soar Spelling Foundations program.

At Wings to Soar some students have found that the phonetic-skills practices in MindPlay, Lexia, Nessy, and Reading Horizons are adequate in addressing their spelling challenges. Many also benefit from the focused work in dyslexia spelling work in our targeted Wings to Soar Spelling Foundations.

Dyslexia Spelling Intervention Options

For the older student with kindergarten- through second-grade-level phonetic-reading skills, but who has spelling gaps, I encourage you to request Wings to Soar’s free Spelling Dictation Placement Sentences, which incorporates 756 words that make up 71 percent of written English. The Spelling Dictation Placement Sentences are meant for parents to use at home to assess which words your child needs to work on. I have found that many older, struggling spellers have difficulty with at least a quarter to as many as two-thirds of these high-frequency words. These are words we typically expect to be learned in first or second grade.

Whether or not you choose to work with our Wings to Soar Spelling Foundations or Customized Remedial Spelling, I encourage you to work on the words you identify in this assessment. These are more important than any random words in anyone’s spelling program. Supplement these with the student’s personal spelling demons – the words they spell incorrectly when they write. This is important because if repetition causes the wrong neural pathways to form, it can take 600 to 2,000 correct repetitions to rewire the brain! The more a wrong spelling has been reinforced, the more repetitions are required to accomplish the rewiring. Catching and correcting errors as early as possible minimizes such setbacks.

It’s best to correct spelling before a mistake lodges in long-term memory. If misspelling recurs in later writing after a student has worked through the first round of the Daily Basic 5 practice, immediately re-add the word to their current spelling list. Practice again for another week or two of Daily Basic 5 practice. Then move it to weekly review for a month. You might need to do this many times if the word was originally learned incorrectly. Do not try for 600 repetitions during one round of learning; just come back as often as misuse suggests rewiring is still a work in process.

My Wings to Soar Spelling Foundations program focuses on the top 3,000 words in written English, making up 97 percent of the words we write. If 3,000 words can make up 97 percent of our language, why bother with the thousands of additional words that make up the other 3 percent until the student has use for them?

Focus on only the additional words that are truly useful to the student in writing about their areas of interest. This is especially true for the dyslexic, who is going to excel at other real-world skills. Then add their “personal passion” words. For a student interested in football, words like quarterback, field, receiver, and touchdown are important words to master. For a student interested in ballet, tutu, relevé, choreographer, and ballet are important to add to their personal repertoire. I encourage you to allow your student to use topics of personal interest for their writing assignments unless they are doing a paper for an academic topic. If they are not likely to use a particular word in the future, make a vocabulary card for reference and don’t waste their emotional energy memorizing its spelling.

Consistently spaced repetition and review helps the brain build the neural pathways for long-term retention. “Use it or lose it” is a core principle in learning. Encourage usage in real life, not just on worksheets. Challenge students to use their new spelling and/or vocabulary words in their writing and in daily conversation.

The “see it, say it, write it” principle that Orton-Gillingham uses provides important multisensory feedback to the brain. That is essential for helping dyslexics internalize the phonetic patterns for spelling mastery. However, I found that many students need even more multisensory stimulation to keep them engaged enough to learn. I have gathered over 75 different multisensory practice ideas to further connect with visual, tactile, and kinesthetic learners. (My Daily Basic 5 practice recommendations and this list of multisensory strategies can be found in the Multisensory Learning Activities article.)

Our intervention specialist has expanded on the basic read-write-say multisensory elements in OG with over 75 Multisensory Learning Activities to add variety to help make the practice more fun and better engage the brain.
These Spelling Dictation Placement Sentences assess 756 words that make up 71% of written English.

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