Frequently Asked Questions About Spelling

The information below has been adapted from Helping Students with Spelling Difficulties (2001), a SPELD SA information sheet written by Rose Price and Karen Hodson, psychologists, Dyslexia – Action Plans for Successful Learning (2003), a storehouse of step-by-step strategies, by Glynis Hannell and Reading and Spelling Made Simple an easy to follow guide to helping anyone aged 7-70, by Mary Andrew, (1997) Revised by Barbara Griffith (2010)

The use of the first person indicates that this is the author’s professional opinion.

Understanding spelling difficulties and how to help

Developmental Process

Why do some children have spelling difficulties? top

Learning to read and spell doesn’t come naturally. People do not have an area in the brain dedicated to the acquisition of written language skills. Instead a number of different areas in the brain work in concert through a complex network of connections to enable us to read and write. The pathways used in reading are different from those used for writing.

My child is a good reader. Why can’t s/he spell? top

Spelling a word is more difficult than reading a word. This is because it is easier to recognise a word than remember how to spell it. Furthermore, when reading a word, the reader can use additional cues such as pictures, context, grammar and phonics to help them. When spelling, the writer has to spell the word correctly without having other cues to help.

Does the spelling of the English language have any rules? top

Because English is made up of words from many languages, it may seem to have no logic. However, approximately 80% of English words follow regular spelling patterns. English is an alphabetic language. For the majority of words, the sounds in the word are matched with letters of the alphabet according to particular rules. These rules can be learned and applied to aid correct spelling.

How do you teach children to spell words like ‘said’ that don’t follow rules? top

Words that don’t follow rules have to be learned individually but there are strategies and tricks that can help. A comprehensive, multisensory approach to learning how to spell irregular words has been included below.

Why does my child spell the words correctly for their spelling test on Friday and forget them by Monday? top

Students who can learn for a test but do not retain the spelling of the words in their written language have not reached a stage where they have automatic recall of the spelling of the words. You can see this particularly among students who get the words right if they are presented in the order in which they were learned but get confused if the order is changed.

Students with this kind of memory difficulty reinvent words whose spelling is not stored in their automatic memory bank. This helps to explain why they may spell a word correctly on one page and incorrectly on another or spell the word in a number of different ways in a single piece of writing.

For some children, achieving automaticity takes a lot of intensive practice.

Should the teacher correct all my child’s spelling mistakes? top

I don’t think so. From a student’s point of view when a piece of work has been handed in, that is the end of it, other than hoping the teacher will have written something positive at the bottom when they get it back. Correcting errors will not in itself enable your child to spell the words correctly and is more likely to have a demoralising effect. This can, in turn, stifle a student’s creativity as they may restrict their vocabulary to words they know how to spell and reduce the quality of their work in the process.

Children who are not natural spellers need to be taught spelling rules and phonic word families and be guided in how to apply them to words they use regularly. They also need to learn how to spell the irregular words they use often.

Why is it that some people can spell and some people, despite a lot of time and effort, can’t? top

Not fair is it! Some people are natural spellers. They have the innate ability to grasp the phonic patterns and language structures of speech and written language and apply them to spelling. They also have a good memory for the ‘look’ of words.

How should I respond when my child asks me how to spell a word? top

This really depends on the situation, the time you have and whether it is reasonable to expect your child, at their current level of ability, to be able to spell the word themselves. It is fine to give your child the correct spelling of a word or you can encourage them to have a go themselves if you think they might be able to manage it. For reception and year 1 students, writing the letters for the key sounds in the word, eg, ‘bk’ for ‘book’ is acceptable.

For students in year 2 and above, a personal dictionary (possibly made from an address book) with words they consistently mis-spell is a useful aid.

How many spelling words should my child have to learn a week? top

For students who struggle to remember the spelling of words, the goals are success and long-term recall. These are my criteria:

  • The child should be able to read the words
  • The words should be commonly used so that s/he has lots of opportunities to apply their knowledge
  • Word lists should include up to four words that share a phonic pattern, spelling rule, particular prefix or suffix and two irregular words
  • No theme words unless they fit the above criteria. Instead, give the child a printed list, or word bank on the computer, with theme words needed for written assignments and remind them to copy them carefully and correctly.

Is there a ‘best way’ to teach children how to spell? top

While there is no one way to teach children how to spell, children need to develop certain skills to become good spellers. While these skills develop naturally and easily for some children, others need a lot of explicit teaching and practice.

The following are pre-requisites for good spelling:

  • Speech. Children need to be able to pronounce correctly the word they want to write down
  • Phonemic awareness. Children need to be able to distinguish the sequence of individual sounds in spoken words. This is called phonemic awareness.
  • Knowledge of the alphabet. Children need to know the sounds of the letters of the alphabet and to be able to form the letters correctly. Letter-sound matching needs to be automatic to be able to spell words.
  • Visual memory. Children need to be able to remember visual patterns so that they can spell words by analogy. They also need to be able to remember the ‘look’ of irregular words.

My child is in Reception. She is having a lot of difficulty learning to spell words. The trouble is she doesn’t really understand the relationship between letters and sounds. top

Understanding the relationship between letters and sounds is very difficult for some children and they will not be able to learn to spell until they have grasped this fundamental concept. For children who are at school, I suggest you combine phonemic awareness (learning to identify the individual sounds in words) with lowercase letters in a multisensory way.

Books with pictures of words beginning with a particular sound and a cut-out of the letter are a good place to start. This allows your child to form the shape of the letter and say the sound at the same time They also learn how to relate the letter-sound to the beginning sound of a word.

Once your child has learnt three letters and their sounds, you can go through the following developmental process. If your child is struggling, go back and check that they can manage earlier steps with confidence. Do not move on until your child has mastered each stage. Some children need a lot of practice.

Developmental Process—Step 1: using letter sounds on cards top

  • Write two (then three) individual letters on separate cards. Say three-letter words, emphasizing the first sound, and ask your child to point to the sound they heard at the beginning of the word. Listen to this word, ‘s-sit’. What sound comes first? Point to the letter. If your child has difficulty, spend time with letter/sound books above and oral phonological awareness activities.
  • Identify beginning sounds and match to the correct letter. Write two individual letters on separate cards and have one blank card. Place the cards on a table with six pictures of items beginning with three different letters that your child has learnt. Show your child how to do the task first.

This is a picture of a pin. Pin starts with /p/. I am going to put the pin with the ‘p’ card.

This is a mat. There is no ‘m’ card, so we will write ‘m’ on the blank card.

Continue until the six pictures have been placed with the three letter cards (the two you wrote and what was originally a blank card). Try not to have the same number of pictures for each letter.

  • Give your child two (then three) individual letters written on separate cards. Say three-letter words beginning with the letters on the cards and ask your child to say and point to the sound they heard at the beginning of the word. Emphasize the first sound.
  • When your child can match initial sounds in a word with the correct letter, start to work with final sounds. Use the same procedure as above for learning end sounds.

Many children find identifying the middle sound in a word difficult. Give your child two individual vowels written on separate cards. Say three-letter words and ask your child to say and point to the sound they heard in the middle of each word.

Listen to this word, ‘cat’. What is the middle sound? Say the sound and point to the letter.

Developmental Process—Step 2: using plastic letters top

To help your child place letters in the correct order, get a set of lowercase plastic letters and show them how to make words, using the following progression.

2.1 Word building: Choose a three-letter word eg sit. Put out only the letters needed for the word. Say Watch, I can make the word ‘sit’ with these letters, s-i-t, sit

Once you have shown your child how to make the word, scramble the letters and push them towards your child. Say, Now you make the word ‘sit’.

Remind your child to say the sounds as they position the letters. If your child is not sure what to do, show them again and then put the first letter in place. Let them complete the word.

Repeat this stage many times with many different three-letter words, showing your child what to do first and then getting them to build the word.

2.2 Once your child is confident, stop demonstrating first.

Say the word eg, hat. Put out only the letters needed for the word.

Ask your child to say the sounds as they place the letters in order and to say the word when they have finished: h-a-t, hat.

2.3 Increase the number of letters to choose from. For a three-letter word, give five letters.

2.4 Swapping sounds. Your child builds a three-letter word with plastic letters and then takes one letter away and replaces it with another letter in order to make a new word. Demonstrate the task first, saying the sounds as you move the letters.

Then say Use the letters to make the word ‘hat’. Change ‘hat’ to ‘cat’. Change ‘cat’ to ‘bat’.

Practice this task using plastic letters with other three-letter words focussing on

  1. Initial sounds, eg, change rug to bug
  2. Final sounds, eg, change men to met
  3. Middle sounds, eg, change hat to hit

Once children can use plastic letters to make words, it is time to teach them how to form the letters themselves.

My child is in Reception. When writing, he starts letters on the line and goes upwards. Can you recommend a strategy to help him overcome this habit? top

The following strategy focuses on correct letter formation, NOT on neat bookwork. The aim is to teach your child to form letters correctly first.

Note. Children need to learn how to correctly form letters and relate them to their sounds at the same time.

Teaching correct letter formation. Teach your child to form letter shapes in the following way:

  1. Introduce the letter and ask your child to provide words which begin with the sound
  2. Present a large, clear letter on a vertical board and trace the letter, describing the movements aloud as they are made. See website for correct letter formation.
  3. Your child traces the letter in the air several times. As they skywrite, watch to see where they start and the direction of their movements
  4. The use of the whole arm is encouraged as this aids ‘motor memory’.
  5. Your child traces over your model on the board and then copies the letter underneath
  6. Your child says the sound of the letter before they write it. This helps establish the link between the symbol and its sound.

Children having difficulty may need:

  1. To copy you as you skywrite the letter
  2. You to guide their arm to skywrite the letter
  3. More tracing
  4. Their hand guided over the letter on the board
  5. To close their eyes so they concentrate on the motor pattern

Note: Some students find it helpful to verbalise their movements.

Letters can be practised using chalk on a blackboard, Textas or large crayons on newsprint, with a finger in sand, over sandpaper, finger on carpet.

Is there a special order for teaching the formation of the letters of the alphabet? top

For children, learning to write letters for the first time, take the order from that of the program being used for teaching letter sounds at school so your child learns the sound and how to form the letter at the same time. For children who have been introduced to all the letters of the alphabet but do not form them all correctly, letters can be grouped according to the initial movement of the hand. Using the approach outlined above is particularly important to overcome incorrect habits.

Letter-groups based on initial movement of the hand

  • Long sticks l h b k t p
  • Short sticks i n m r u
  • Walking sticks v w x y z
  • Ball letters (all start at 2 o’clock) c a d g q o
  • Letters with tails j q p g y
  • Special practice e f s z

Over time, the size of the letter is reduced to a more normal size.

When the movement pattern is learned, students are ready to work on worksheets.

Use practice worksheets with a correct model to copy and additional dotted models to trace.

Popular bookshops often have workbooks to help with handwriting.

Where can I get worksheets to help with letter formation? top

Fonts for making your own worksheets

Popular bookshops often have workbooks to help with handwriting. Note. When buying a workbook, make sure than the handwriting style is the same as the one used at your child’s school.

To make your own worksheets, dotted fonts can be downloaded free from

Download the font to suit your computer platform and save it in your c drive. You will need to unzip the folder before installing.

In windows go to control panel/fonts/file/install font and choose the font you wish to install.

Which font do you recommend for Junior Primary aged students with learning difficulties? top

For young children, who are in the early stages of handwriting, I prefer comic sans, as it has a round a. Choose a font size that is comfortable for your child.

My child is 5/6/7 years old and has difficulty with handwriting despite a lot of help and practice at home and at school. What can I do? top

For students who struggle with pencil control and eye/hand coordination, occupational therapists are the specialists to see.

My child is in Year 4 and still can’t write neatly. What should I do? top

For children from Year 4 upwards who have dysgraphia and/or handwriting problems, Speld SA recommends the use of a computer keyboard and, for some children, voice input software.

Can you recommend a Typing Tutor software program? top

There are a number of programs for improving keyboard skills on the market. Free typing tutors are also available by typing free typing tutor in Google. Some programs can be downloaded, for others you have to be on-line. One of the websites is

My child finds learning to type very boring. What can I do? top

Speld SA’s IT specialists recommend the following approach.

Because children tend to find typing practice boring, keyboard training works better if your child knows how long they have to do it for.

  1. Set aside 10 minutes practice per day for 3 weeks.
  2. Then give the typing program a rest for a while.

Note. We suggest you use a timer (microwave, oven, stopwatch) for the 10 minutes and let your child count off the days on a calendar, like a count down to Christmas.

Follow up with a week’s practice periodically and a reward!

What is voice input technology? top

For information on voice input (speech-to-text) technology, go to computerinfo. If you are looking to buy a speech-to-text software program, we recommend a face-to-face or telephone consultation with a member of the SPELDSA IT team. SPELD SA software advisers are teachers with specific knowledge of the programs available for students with specific learning difficulties. They will demonstrate and let you try suitable programs.

How do you teach the spelling of regular words? top

It is useful to follow a commercial phonics program that incorporates a recognised structure and sequence and appropriate learning activities.

For junior primary children in a classroom setting, the effectiveness of Jolly Phonics, a program that presents the 46 sounds of the English language in a dynamic and fun way, is supported by a number of research studies.

Programs that can be followed at home include:

  • The Fitzroy readers
  • Reading Freedom programs
  • Beat Dyslexia

What is the usual sequence in which phonic patterns are taught? top

A common developmental progression for teaching phonic patterns might look like this. (Note: When teaching phonic patterns, use words that include ONLY the pattern being taught. This is why I have given the maximum number of letters for words used as examples.)

  1. Three-letter, regular consonant-vowel-consonant, words eg, sat, pig, den, rob, cut

  2. Four-letter words with a beginning consonant blend eg, spot, flag, grin, step

    followed by words with an end consonant blend eg, belt, mask, list, lump

  3. Four-letter words where two consonants make a new sound eg, /th/ in thin, /sh/ in wish, /ch/ in chip, /wh/ in when, /ng/ in king

  4. Four-letter words where a vowel and a consonant make a new sound eg, /or/ in fork, /ow/ in down, /ir/ in dirt, /aw/ in yawn

  5. Long vowel sounds can be written in three ways. At the learning stage, stick to words with four letters

    1. silent ‘e’ at the end (Rule: When a word has the vowel-consonant-final ‘e’ pattern, the final ‘e’ makes the vowel say its long sound (or name) eg, take, pole, race, tune

    2. with two vowels (Rule: When two vowels go walking, the first vowel does the talking and says its name) eg, coat, seat, rain, week

    3. using ‘-y’ eg, tray, my, they

  6. Five-letter words with a 3-letter string of sounds eg, strip, scrub, squid

  7. Silent letters eg, know, gnat, knee, gnaw

  8. Some word endings

    1. Plurals eg, /s/ in dog-s, cat-s; /es/ in box-es, dish-es, potato-es

    2. /ing/ Rule 1: Short vowel often has two consonants following the vowel eg, sitting, cutting, flapping, rubbing

    3. /ing/ Rule 2: Long vowel often has a single consonant following the vowel eg, riding, taking, hoping, caring

    4. /le/ words eg, table, apple, candle, uncle, ankle, bottle

  9. Five and six-letter words where four letters make a new sound eg, night, would, motion

  10. Longer words that include two or more phonic patterns eg, fishing, flight, church, sailing

  11. Prefixes, suffixes and compound words eg, untidy, harmless, sunshine

Are there special methods for teaching children who find spelling hard? top

Yes. Research indicates that these children need

  • Explicit teaching
  • To follow a structured and sequential program
  • To learn through multisensory strategies so they can use many senses at the same time – seeing, hearing, speaking and writing - to establish the spelling firmly in memory
  • Repetition. Probably much more than they and you have the patience for! Try to vary the practice, make it fun by playing games, setting goals and providing rewards, keeping sessions short (5-10 minutes using a timer) and frequent (preferably daily)

Recognised programs include those derived from Orton-Gillingham principles. These include:

  • The Hickey Multisensory Language Course by Jean Augur, Suzanne Briggs, Margaret Combley
  • The Writing Road to Reading by Romalda Bishop Spalding, Walter T. Spalding
  • The Lindamood Bell LIPS program

What is the best way to teach my child to spell commonly used words? A high frequency word list recently came home from school. top

There are a number of lists of commonly used words. These words are used so often that it is hard to write a sentence without including at least one of them. Some have regular spelling, such as ‘and, dad, me’, some are spelt irregularly, such as ‘was, said, have, of’. If you do not have a list, go to Oxford University Press/The Successful Teacher for The Oxford Wordlist . This new list contains the 307 words, most frequently used by students in their first three years of school.

High frequency and irregularly spelt words are taught individually. The best way to teach these words is using multisensory strategies and overlearning. See below for a comprehensive multisensory strategy and practice program.

How do I teach my child to spell irregular words? top

The best way to teach irregularly spelt words is using multisensory strategies and overlearning.

The following is a comprehensive approach to teaching spelling that includes multisensory strategies and a practice program. Multisensory strategies use many learning channels at the same time – seeing, speaking, thinking, hearing and writing.

  1. Read the word aloud.
  2. Look carefully at the word. Look for any tricky bits. Highlight or underline the tricky letters.
  3. Say the word while looking at it. Pronounce each syllable in the word to stress the sound units (eg dic/tion/ary), or break a single syllable word into its sounds. With irregular words, say the word aloud as it is spelt (eg Wednesday = Wed-nes-day).
  4. Spell the word aloud using letter names (eg S-A-I-D)
  5. Trace over, then copy the word saying the letters as they are written. Let the student choose whether they use letter sounds or names – don’t expect them to be consistent from word to word
  6. Commit the word to visual memory
  7. Write the word in as many different settings as possible eg sand, white board, chalk, large crayons, fat Textas, sky writing, pencil on paper, finger on carpet
  8. Cover the word and visualise it in your mind’s eye
  9. Write the word from memory
  10. Check the spelling of the word.
    If the spelling is correct, repeat the steps once more for each word being learned. If your child is having trouble, repeat the steps.
  11. Make up your own mnemonics eg to remember the spelling of was your child might refer to the first letter of each word in the sentence, We ate sausages and draw a picture to go with the sentence.

Note: As a fun way to practise, ask your child to write the word as many times as they can along one line of a page, as quickly as they can, to develop automaticity.

Students who find spelling difficult need a lot of practice to learn to spell words as well as regular revision of previously learned words. Below you will find a method for monitoring this kind of practice.


3 containers labelled – ‘words I’m learning’, ‘words I know’, ‘word bank’; and a stack of blank cards.

To start:

  1. Select words from the high frequency list.
  2. Pre-test your child until they have 3 incorrect.
  3. Write each incorrect word on a separate card.
  4. Place the cards in the ‘learning’ container.

To practise:

  1. Select a card from the ‘learning’ container.
  2. Teach the word using the above strategy until the child is able to spell it correctly on five consecutive teaching sessions.
  3. When your child correctly spells the word place a tick on the back of the card.
  4. When there are 5 ticks on the back of the card, place it in the ‘I know’ container.
  5. If less than 5 ticks, place the card back in the ‘learning’ container.
  6. Select a different card from the ‘learning’ container and repeat from step 2. Note: 3 words maximum from the ‘learning’ container per practice session.
  7. Start each new session with 3 words from the ‘learning’ container, followed by 3 random words from the ‘I know’ container. When there are 5 ticks on the back of a card from the ‘I know’ container, put the card into the ‘bank’ container.
  8. When you need new words, go back to the list and pre-test until you have another word spelt incorrectly. Place the card in the ‘learning’ container.
  9. Once a week, spend an entire spelling session on words from the ‘bank’ container. Use a different colour to tick the back of cards taken from the ‘bank’ container. If a word is incorrect, cross out the ticks on the back of the card and return it to the ‘learning’ container to get 5 new ticks. It is important to reteach the correct spelling of a word using the method overleaf each time your child gets it wrong. The card then goes into the ‘I know’ container.
  10. Words with five ticks from the ‘bank’ container can be discarded. Your child might take pleasure in tearing the card up and highlighting the word on a master word list to show they have learnt it.

One expert says English spelling is a system where most words have regular spelling and that 84% of words are straightforward, another argues that 80% of words are spelt irregularly. Who do I believe? top

I’m going to side step this one! I enjoyed both of the websites cited below and they take opposing views!

“English spelling is a system, and even English spelling is mostly regular: eighty-four per cent of words are straight-forward, thirteen per cent decently rule-abiding, and only three per cent so weird that we have no choice but to memorize them. But among those three per cent are 400 of the commonest words in the language: gone, done, of, and so on. These weigh heavily against the relative simplicity of the rest.” Margaret Visser, 1994, Manners and customs, Harper Collins


Can computer programs help with spelling? top

Computer software packages provide opportunities for repetition and revision of spelling patterns and rules through enjoyable, interactive games.

Some examples include:

  1. Wordshark 5 (ages 5-adult)
    Includes 65 activities using word lists including the Alpha-to-Omega program, which is a highly structured and sequential phonics-based spelling program.
  2. Literacy Planet
    A series of online, comprehensive, fully integrated, literacy activities, beginning with phonemic awareness, phonic and reading programs that incorporate the skills of word attack, comprehension, spelling and grammar.

What should I consider when choosing spelling software? top

Look for software that:

  • Is based on a structured and sequential approach to developing spelling skills
  • Enables you to make word lists that reflect the particular needs and interests of the student
  • Has activities that require the student to type in the words
  • Uses lowercase letters of a reasonable size in a clear font
  • Has sound. It is vital for the student to hear as well as see the words being practised
  • Has an Australian accent. Australian children have particular difficulty matching the letters to vowel sounds heard in an American accent
  • Provides enough support for the student to be successful
  • Provides incentives and rewards

Avoid software that:

  • Just presents the word and asks the student to type it in
  • Gives incorrect spelling for the student to correct
  • Accepts the wrong letter in a word. This is because it is important for the student to see the word spelt correctly.
  • Uses anagrams, jumbles of letters, or word finding games, as these are confusing for students with SLDs. The goal in spelling is for the student to be able to write the word automatically. Word recognition is a reading skill.

What spelling aids are available? top

  1. Hand-held spellchecker – This is an electronic aid that allows students to check the spelling of a word, giving a range of alternatives, much like a computer spell checker. It is important to choose a spell checker with English not American spellings. e.g. Collins Electronic Spellchecker and Dictionary
  2. Computer spellchecker – A computer word processor with spell checking function is an invaluable tool for students from about Year 5. However, students do need to be taught and encouraged to check the word meanings in the thesaurus rather than click the first word! Speld SA’s IT specialists also recommend
    1. that students write their first draft with the spell-checker turned off so they are not distracted by the red squiggly lines and
    2. that the number of incorrect spellings be limited to about 6 or time spent on spelling correction be restricted to 10 minutes. This will ensure that time is spent on content rather than spelling
  3. Handbook of English Spelling Rules and Definitions- An easy reference guide to the spelling principles to aid you when you edit your work. Spelling Essentials

How can I get hold of useful resources to help with spelling? top

SPELD SA has a range of resources to help with spelling that can be purchased or borrowed by members from the library.

What level of spelling can a person with dyslexia expect to achieve? top

Spelling difficulties can be enduring in individuals with reading difficulties, sometimes even after reading has been successfully remediated (Louise Spear-Swerling, 2005). On average, the spelling ability of people who have been taught using recognised methods of intervention, improves with practice but remains at a level just below the average range.

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