Helping your child with specific spelling difficulty

The importance of spelling should not be overemphasized; many people become accomplished writers despite poor spelling ability. This is because expressive language skills are separate from spelling skills. Spelling should not be regarded as an end in itself. Although primary school years place great emphasis on learning to spell, inaccuracies in spelling are often ignored in later school years, provided that the writing is comprehensible. Nevertheless, a high school child whose assignments and examination papers are filled with elementary spelling errors will often be at a disadvantage because of the poor impression this makes on the examiner.

Prior to developing a plan for helping your child with his spelling, an assessment should be carried out to determine if a cause for his problem can be found. A spelling programme should cater for the child’s particular pattern of difficulties. For example, a child who has phonetic difficulties may need to be trained to break down words into their component parts, a child with auditory discrimination problems may need more training in auditory discrimination, while a child with lexical (visual retention) problems may need practice that emphasizes remembering the appearance of words.

Many children with spelling difficulties, especially if associated with reading difficulties, benefit from a teaching system that links reading with spelling, such as the Spalding programme. The grapheme-phoneme correspondences can then be learned following the same procedures when writing and reading.

Parents play a vital role in helping their child to practise spelling; yet few parents know how best to do this. The common method of the parent asking the child to spell words he has memorized from a list is unsatisfactory for children with a specific spelling difficulty. I shall, therefore, describe another method where the parent has a much more active and positive role in helping the child learn to spell. This method is good for children with poor phonetic or visual retention skills.

First, you should aim to teach your child only a small number of words each day; three is usually sufficient.

Choose a time when you are both feeling relaxed and when you will not be disturbed. The teaching sessions should be carried out with plenty of encouragement in accordance with the suggestions in Chapter 4.

The session should last only about 15 minutes and should preferably take place each day. Short, regular practice sessions are better than long, less frequent sessions.

Before the session, choose the words to be taught from the list provided by the school. Break up each word into parts and write each part on a blank white card. For example, write ‘correct’ as ‘cor’ on one card, and ‘rect’ on another; ‘hippopotamus’ as ‘hip’, ‘po’, ‘pot’, ‘a’, and ‘mus’ on five separate cards. Notice how double letters are always separated.

Sit opposite your child at a well-lit table. Place the cards making up the first word to be taught in the correct sequence in front of the child. Ask him to read the word aloud. Then collect the cards and place them in front of the child one at a time (Figure 6.3). Ask him to look at the card while you wait four seconds (count silently and slowly ‘one-and’, ‘two-and’, ‘three-and’, ‘four-and’). While your child is looking at the card, observe him to make certain that his gaze does not wander. Then ask him to read the card. Move on to the next card and repeat the procedure until all the cards have been looked at and read in turn. Now repeat the process working through the word again, card by card. When this has been completed, remove the cards and give your child a blank sheet of paper. Ask him to write the whole word from memory on the sheet of paper. If he writes the word correctly give him plenty of praise; if he has difficulty spelling the word, dictate it to him slowly, section by section.

A parent teaching a child to spell (see text for explanation)

Figure 6.3 A parent teaching a child to spell (see text for explanation).

Now move on to the next word, teaching each new word in the same manner. Do not rush the procedure, even if your child wants to take short cuts.

At the beginning of the next session, dictate the words your child has already learned and see if he can spell them. If he gets a word correct, praise him. If he cannot spell a word, get out the cards for the word and go through the procedure for teaching a new word again.

You should expect that words will need to be taught a number of times before the child can spell them reliably. If your child cannot spell a word he has already learned, say something like, ‘That was a good try, let me get out the cards of this word and you can look at them one by one’. The whole process of ‘playing cards’ to learn spelling should be treated in a warm, positive manner. End the session with a statement like, ‘That was terrific, let’s do it again tomorrow’.

In this method of teaching, the parent is helping to break up the words into sections, giving the child time, and encouragement, to memorize each section, and then testing the child in such a way that there is opportunity for success.

Another way of helping a child with his spelling is through the use of computer spelling programs. Educational software can be bought for a home computer, or small computer ‘toys’ can be purchased that are pre-programmed to teach spelling.

Software and preprogrammed computers must be carefully selected, so that they are educationally sound. An example of a good program is one that shows a picture and then asks the child to type the correct spelling, giving him a reward if he does. This sort of program will often motivate a child to spend more time practising his spelling because he finds it enjoyable. There is a danger that instead of doing the spelling program, the child will play other computer games, so supervision is needed. Sometimes the other games can be used as a reward for time spent practising spelling.

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