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Have you ever wondered why some people can speak and read well but are terrible at spelling? In order to understand why, you have to take a look at language in general. Not long after a baby is born, he begins to babble by mimicking others around him. Before you know it, he is saying words and th...

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Why Is Spelling So Hard for Some Kids?

Posted by: Livia McCoy on Jan 10, 2013 in Livia McCoy, Kids Writing, Kids Reading


Livia McCoy
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Have you ever wondered why some people can speak and read well but are terrible at spelling? In order to understand why, you have to take a look at language in general. Not long after a baby is born, he begins to babble by mimicking others around him. Before you know it, he is saying words and then sentences. This is pretty natural, and many experts believe humans might have been speaking to one another for at least 100,000 years. Communicating through oral language is easy for us.

But reading and writing came along much later (about 5000 years ago), and learning to read and spell is more difficult. And, if we examine the difference between reading and spelling, it is easy to see why spelling is much more difficult than reading. There are a limited number of sounds in any language. For example, there are approximately 44 different sounds in the English language with some variations because of different accents. Once a person learns the possible sounds different letters or combinations of letters can make, she can then decode (figure out) what a given word is when reading. If she sees the letter combination /tw/ she thinks, “That ‘w’ can be silent like the ‘w’ in ‘two’ or it can make a sound like it does in ‘twin.’” There are only two possible ways to say the word. It she is trying to read the word “twelve,” it is obvious what the word is since it only makes sense one way. She probably wouldn’t even have to go through this thought process because it is rare that “w” is silent and she would have tried the most common pronunciation first.

However, when spelling a word, she has to figure out which spelling is the correct one to use. There is nothing on the page to help her, and she has to know all the possible ways a given sound can be spelled. Think about the word “delicious.” The /sh/ sound can be spelled 13 different ways! (Is it delitious? Delishus? etc.) This doesn’t even take into account how to spell the rest of the word! Fortunately, if she can get close enough to the correct spelling, a spelling checker can help fix her mistakes. Even that isn’t perfect, though. I often have students who pick the wrong word from the list of choices the spelling checker offers. They might write, “The apple pie was delirious,” which was one of the choices my spelling checker gave me for “delitious.”

This can help to understand why children who are receiving remediation for reading and spelling learn to read more quickly than they learn to spell. There are fewer choices to make when reading than when spelling, and fewer rules to learn for decoding words.

If your child is a poor speller despite working very hard at it, it is reasonable to ask a child’s teacher for accommodations that help. They should at least be allowed to use a computer to produce their written work.

For more about spelling problems, see my earlier blog about accommodating for a spelling disability.

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