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My son is a good reader – so why can’t he spell?
I was asked this question by the mother of a boy who came to me for advice and help. He loved reading, and read widely, but his spelling was very poor indeed. Many people assume that reading and spelling are similar, so think that success in reading should lead to success in spelling, but in reality reading and spelling are two very different skills. Sometimes those who learn to read very quickly and easily are those who face difficulty in learning to spell. Why is this?
When we read our brains have to get information from marks on paper and make sense of these. Research has shown that effective readers don’t look at every word on the page, nor do they look at every letter of every word, and they also don’t look at the whole of each letter. Instead our eyes take minimal information from the print, and use many other skills, including prediction, to glean the message. ( I have lots of printed material which demonstrates what our eyes and brains see and do when reading, but can’t reproduce them here.)
Spelling, on the other hand, requires the brain to produce a great deal of information, accurately and correctly. Most of us do this instinctively and with (usually!) a good degree of accuracy, but when we analyse what we actually do, we can understand why some children struggle.
For each word to be spelt correctly a writer needs to:
- form each letter properly (a b instead of a d, or a c instead of a o will result in an error)
- put all the letters down (friend or frend?)
- put the letters in the correct order within the word (receive or recieve?)
- know the difference between words that sound the same but are spelt differently (wear or where?)
- know the difference between parts of speech (practice or practise?)
- know that some words follow patterns but for others there is little logic at all, and the irregular words might need to be learnt.
A slip in any of these will probably lead to an incorrect spelling.
The boy in question, who read easily and quickly, let his eyes skim the text he was reading, but in doing what skilled readers do his brain was actually taking little notice of the detail of the words and their letters. That close attention to letters and words is exactly what a competent speller needs!
Spelling is a complex skill, and is often treated simplistically in schools, with the memorising of lists of words remaining the key strategy. (For a good account of why this doesn’t work, J Richard Gentry’s book ‘Spel.. is a four letter word’ is excellent and very readable.) As adults most of us will have many words that we can spell automatically, giving little obvious thought or attention to the component letters. We will usually be aware that there are some words we have trouble spelling, and we will use a range of strategies when trying to find the correct spelling for a word we aren’t sure of. Sometimes we need to ‘try it out’ – and the process of writing can lead us to the right spelling (helped by movement). Sometimes seeing the word written – perhaps trying a few alternatives in the process – helps us to seethe right answer (a visual strategy). Sometimes we need to say the word aloud to help ourselves – Wed – nes- day (oral), and sometimes we might go straight to the dictionary (as long as we know how the words begins!).
Children need to learn such strategies, and they need to be introduced, through word study and games, to the idea of focusing attention on words themselves and the letters within them. Word study can be great fun, and although the challenges of English spelling are notorious that means that teaching spelling need never be boring!