Spelling Difficulties

How do most students learn to spell?

(Chapter 4 from the book Dyslexia An Explanation)

Before we look at how we learn to spell, let us consider briefly how we use our memory to remember spellings. In Chapter 2 we discussed how we all learn differently – some of us are visual learners, some of us are auditory learners and some of us are practical/kinaesthetic learners.

What are the different types of memory?

There are three different types of memory corresponding to these three sensory styles – visual memory, auditory memory and practical/kinaesthetic memory.

Visual memory:
Is used to remember a picture in our mind e.g. a place we have been, a face that we know or a house that we have visited.

Auditory memory:
Is used to remember sounds e.g. the words of a song, a poem or a nursery rhyme.

Kinaesthetic (practical) memory
Is used when we remember how to do something with our body, e.g. swinging a golf club or a tennis racket, kicking a football or casting a fishing rod.

As you will see below most children first learn to spell in school by sound (i.e. phonetically), that is to say by using their auditory memory, and then progress naturally to spelling by sight using their visual memory.

Short Term Memory

Why can my child read small words but have difficulty with longer words?

Each of our eyes has a field of vision and the area where the two fields of vision overlap is the where we see words when we are reading. In simplistic terms, if the overlap is small then we will be able to see only small words, whereas if it is large, we will be able to read large words.

Diagram 5.1 – integrated vision

Some people with reading difficulties may have a small area of overlap. These people are relatively content to read a passage, which contains only small words. However, when challenged to read a passage with longer words then one of the following occurs. They may just stop reading when they come across longer words. They will be confused and have little comprehension of what they are reading. The other possibility is that they will continue to read but will guess the ends of words e.g. the following words all begin with th:, those, there, their, through. The following sentence

The man bought those apples
could be read in the following different ways:

  • The man bought there apples.
  • The man bought their apples.
  • The man bought through apples.

The first two sentences cause confusion, whereas the third sentence does not make any sense at all.

We refer to the size of a word, i.e. the numbers of letters it contains, as the “chunk size”. As children get older and read longer words then we say that the chunk size is increasing. When we choose reading material for a child of a certain age we consider two things. First, we consider the degree of comprehension required to follow the story and second, the vocabulary, in particular the length of the words. How often have we said “that is a very big word for someone your age to know”?

If a child has difficulty, understanding material, which is apparently age appropriate, it may be that he has a small chunk size rather than that he has a problem with comprehension. Very often these children have a very wide spoken vocabulary and yet seem to have difficulty reading books considered suitable for their age.


Take a piece of paper and cut a hole in it that is wide enough to hold only five letters and read the preceding paragraph. Your degree of comprehension will be greatly reduced but, more importantly, you will understand how someone with a small chunk size reads.

How are most students taught to spell in school?

At school most students are first taught to recognise letters and their associated sounds. They then progress to recognising short words and the sounds associated with those words. This phonetic strategy, using the sounds of words, seems to suit most students and by introducing words with similar sounds they learn to generalise spellings.

For example:

  • bad
  • Dad
  • had
  • lad
  • mad
  • sad

By using this method students learn to spell several words just by changing one or two letters of a known word. In the above example, the student learns to spell and identify six words by learning to spell one particular sound, in this case the “ad” sound. The student is then introduced to short sentences, which contain the words that have been learned individually. For most students, this method is very useful for about half of the words in the English language that are spelt phonetically i.e. as they sound. It is not a coincidence that the list of the 100 words most often miss-spelt by children contain words that are not spelt as they sound e.g. their, through, clothes, people, believe, because, thought.

This phonetic method works very well in shallow orthographic languages, e.g. Italian and Spanish in which most of the words are spelt as they sound. However, English is a deep orthographic language, less than half the words being spelt as they sound. Consequently, the phonetic method of spelling is less useful.

Teaching students to spell words by sound has the advantage that it gives them “word attack skills”. This means that when they read a word that they do not recognise they can break it into sections and by pronouncing each section can “build up” the word. For example, imagine a student trying to read this sentence:

At the zoo the boy saw a hippopotamus.

If the student does not recognise the word “hippopotamus” he breaks the word into sections such as:


By pronouncing each section separately, he can build up the sound of the word “hippopotamus” and is able to understand the word hippopotamus and hence the whole sentence.

This is one of the reasons why spelling skills are often taught using a phonetic strategy, however it does not suit all students.

Most students, having learned how to spell words using a phonetic strategy, progress naturally to identifying words by sight i.e. by using their visual memory. People who do not have a reading difficulty do not use a phonetic strategy to read. As you are reading this chapter, are you reading each word by the phonetic sound or are you reading because you can visually identify each word easily? It seems that, after we learn to spell a word by using a phonetic strategy, our brain automatically converts the memory from an auditory memory to a visual memory.

The following words are “new” words if you are over the age of 25. (These words did not exist 25 years ago, in everyday language!)

  • e-mail
  • Internet
  • Word processing
  • Spreadsheet
  • Database

An average reader easily identifies these “new” words, even though they have not been learned initially using a phonetic strategy. We may have learned to spell in school using a phonetic strategy but most of us have since abandoned it in favour of a visual strategy for learning words. It seems that the phonetic strategy for learning spellings is a useful starting point for most people learning to spell. However, it is not necessarily suitable for all students and especially not for some students who have dyslexia.

A phonetic strategy depends on reading the word in context as a word spelt in identical form may sound different and have different meanings.


Read the following sentences and notice the same spellings but different meanings and yet your brain is able to sort these out by looking at the words in context.

I was too close to the door to close it.
After a number of injections my jaw got number.
I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
The bandage was wound around the wound.
The farm was used to produce produce.
The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
We must polish the Polish furniture.
How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?
He could lead if he would get the lead out.
When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
I did not object to the object.
The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
The buck does funny things when the does are present.
A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
The wind was too strong to wind the sail
Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.

Some of the above sentences are easier than others due to the closeness of the two ambiguous words within the sentence and others due to grammar whilst others are more common in everyday use. Some students with dyslexia only read one word at a time and thus find it difficult to sort meaning by context.

Why does a phonetic strategy not suit all students?

If a student is severely colour-blind, he has a physical reason why he cannot recognise all the colours and this is a simple concept, which most people readily understand. We would not try to teach a colour-blind person all of the colours, as we would understand the difficulty and the impossibility from the student’s point of view. If we were to try to teach all the colours to a colour-blind student we would fully understand his frustration. Imagine how great that frustration would be if this teaching were continued over a period of weeks, months and years.

In the same way that colour-blind students are unable to learn all the colours, some students with dyslexia have severe difficulty learning the sounds of a word and linking these sounds to the visual spelling of the word. Parents and teachers have been aware of this difficulty for some students for quite some time.

Until relatively recently, cognitive psychologists were of the view that dyslexia is a specific disability that affects only reading and writing, not speech or hearing, because generally students with dyslexia are able to communicate well orally. A major breakthrough in understanding dyslexia occurred when it was accepted that people with dyslexia often have subtle hearing difficulties. One particular difficulty often found is the inability to separate a word into its individual phonemes, or sounds, if these follow each other too rapidly.

Research currently being carried out by Dr. John Gabrieli and Dr. Torlel Klinberg at Stanford University suggests that this difficulty may be connected with the speed at which the sound signals are transmitted along the nerve fibers. If the signals travel too slowly they may crowd into each other with the result that the brain cannot process them correctly. The research is examining the physical causes of this problem and it seems possible that inadequate myelin insulation of nerve fibers may be involved.

When two groups of adults, with and without dyslexia, were given a standardised reading test, DTI scans of their brains indicated that there was a difference between the two groups in the degree of myelination in the temporoparietal region of the brain’s left hemisphere. This is the section of the brain that seems to control most language processing.
If the problem of recognising the sound of individual sections of a word such as hippopotamus above is indeed a physical problem, or a cognitive problem, then a different method of learning to spell is essential for individuals with this particular problem.

If a student with dyslexia has difficulty splitting up words into phonemes, or sounds, then he cannot start to learn to spell by using a phonetic strategy and it seems that such a student may also have difficulty progressing naturally to a visual strategy as other students do.

The dyslexia@bay™ System enables a student with dyslexia who has this problem to bypass the phonetic strategy, which he finds so difficult, and progress directly to a visual strategy for learning spellings. Not only will the student then have an effective strategy for learning spellings but also, by using his long-term visual memory rather than his short-term auditory memory, he will be able to remember the spellings he has learned in the long-term. Another major advantage of using a visual strategy is that students learn to identify words more easily when they are reading and hence learn to spell new words as they read. This may seem strange and yet this is the way that most of us learn new spellings.

How do most people who do not have a learning difficulty learn to spell new words?

We are able to identify the “new” words listed above because we have read them several times and learned to spell them using an unconscious visual strategy. If you think this is strange, try the following demonstrations.


Think of some everyday groceries that you use, perhaps a particular breakfast cereal, a particular jar of coffee, a particular packet of pasta or a particular carton of soup. As you think of this particular foodstuff, think of the packaging and you will remember the colours, the shape, the size and most importantly the name. Stop reading at this point and make a picture in your mind of the particular foodstuff in its packaging. Examine the picture in your mind for colours, shape and size and look at the name on the packaging.

When you have done this ask yourself whether you learned to spell the name phonetically by sounding it out or visually by seeing it on a regular basis?


Look at these words

excelent wunderful magnifisent

They “do not look right” do they? No they “look wrong”. Yet these words are spelt correctly using a phonetic strategy. These words do not “look right” because our visual memory recognises that these words are spelt differently from the memory it has stored of the correct spelling. It is the visual memory of the spelling, which allows us to remember how to spell words in the long-term.

Why do people, when asked to spell an uncommon word, write down the word to see if the spelling "looks right"?

When asked to spell a word, not commonly used, we usually like to write the word down. We do this to visually examine the word and compare it to the word stored in our visual memory. If the spelling of the word written on the paper is the same as the spelling of the word in our visual memory, then we get a “feeling” that the spelling is correct. The opposite is also true if the spelling written on the paper is not the same as the spelling of the word in our visual memory. We get a “feeling” that the spelling does not look right and we change the order of letters, or insert some new letters or delete some letters until we get a “feeling” that we see the correct spelling. The spelling of the word on paper now concurs with our visual memory of the word, which we have probably remembered by reading the word several times.


Take a pen and paper and write down some words leaving out one or two letters. Write down some other words mixing up the order of the letters and a few more adding in some extra letters.

You will now understand that you are remembering the look of the words in your visual memory rather than the sound of words in your auditory memory.

In conclusion, learning to spell using a phonetic strategy is a suitable starting point for most students who will progress naturally to a visual strategy to learn the correct spelling of words. Using a phonetic strategy seems to be an intermediary stage, or a stepping-stone, on the way to developing a visual strategy for spelling. However, if the student has difficulty using a phonetic strategy this intermediary stage is not available and hence the student has difficulty learning to spell. By using a “visual spelling programme”, having first developed his visual memory, the student is able to bypass the phonetic stage and progress directly to a visual strategy. This enables him to learn spellings in the long-term as well as in the short-term and, over a period of time using this programme, the student also learns to use the correct spellings for words when writing stories and can more easily recognise words when reading etc.

Using phonics isn't easy, is it?

It is easy for some but not others.

Eye have a spelling chequer
It came with my pea sea
It plainly marques four my revue
Miss steaks eye kin sea.

Eye strike a key and type a word
And weight four it two say
Weather eye am wrong oar write
It shows me straight a weigh.

As soon as a mist steak is maid
It nose bee fore two long
And eye can put the error rite
Its rare lea ever wrong.

Eye have run this poem threw it
I am sore your pleased two no
Its letter perfect awl the weigh
My chequer tolled me sew.