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Learning to Spell

Phonics refers to the relationships between sounds and the patterns of letters used. However, phonics alone is usually not enough for students to decode words. They need a meaningful context to determine how the phonics works. For example, consider the word ‘lead’. We can see the differences in the following sentence: ‘The lead singer wrote his music with a lead pencil.’ Without meaning or structure, decoding becomes a much harder process for students especially for students with dyslexia.

Expert spellers visualise words; poor spellers do not. Some of us ‘see’ when we think of a diamond, or when we think of a vegetable, some do not. The visual coding mechanism may be attributed to inborn brain organisation. When it comes to decoding words, expert spellers use visual patterns, they think about and use meaning units, they know how sounds relate to letters, they make links or connections, their teaching at school incorporates the history of the word’s spelling and they consult dictionaries when they’re unsure of a particular word.

However, much of this is lost at school, especially in the early school years whereby many teachers do not teach all the spelling strategies and use phonics in isolation instead. It’s worth noting that the English language is based on meaning, not sound.

Developmental Stages of Spelling

When it comes to spelling, it can be broken up into the following developmental stages:

Pre-Communicative Stage

writing cannot be read by others
a random string of symbols
no indication of letter-sound correspondence

Semiphonetic Stage

first attempts at letter-sound correspondence
initial consonants, one letter representing one word
one or two sounds represented in a word
letter name sometimes used for sound
great difficulty with vowels

Phonetic Stage

writing can usually be read by others
may be a match between all essential sounds
vowels represented in various ways
relying on articulation – fil (feel)
relying on letter name – monke (monkey)
using known pattern – plese (please)
letters used to represent dominant sounds heard – jrum (drum)
past tense represented in various ways according to sound – pild (peeled)

Transitional Stage

may be a match between all essential sounds
more aware of common patterns
common letter sequences are used
correct letters, but incorrect sequence – becuase/because or loin/lion

Understanding Children’s Spelling

Therefore, when it comes to spelling tests or spelling results, having a student’s spelling marked simply as right or wrong is not telling us anything. Marks hide more than what they reveal. Rather it should be, are they spelling phonetically or semi-phonetically? This informs teaching and learning intentions. It also assesses what the student needs and how we can help them. This is even more so for students with learning difficulties, such as students with dyslexia.

When phonics is taught in isolation, students can become disengaged, which is especially so for students with learning difficulties. Students need to be taught skills in a meaningful context and this can begin with rich, authentic text. For example, if we are teaching students the ‘oo’ phoneme as in ‘room’, we could use the excellent story, ‘Room on the Broom’. Students can be asked what sound does it have in that word and who can hear the sound?

As a group or individual activity, word lists can then be built which start with the same letter-sound relationships. Children learn when they’re engaged and when the abstract symbols are presented in meaningful contexts. That is why rich, authentic texts are invaluable and especially so for struggling readers and students with learning difficulties. They’re also exploring stories with narratives that have a beginning, middle and ending, rather than bland phonics readers. Children will also become more engaged through providing them opportunities for discovery learning through reading and writing.

Incorporating these approaches and being aware of these teaching methods will help students be more engaged and less frustrated at home and in the classroom. It will also provide more enjoyment and less resistance for students with learning difficulties when it comes to reading.

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Justin Clark Learning Difficulties Tutor in Brisbane


Justin Clark from Hope Tutoring is a specialised learning difficulties tutor based in Brisbane who provides private individual private tutoring for children and adults with dyslexiaautismdyscalculia etc.