5 Spelling strategies for dyslexia

5 Spelling strategies for dyslexia
Read and Spell blog
5 Spelling strategies for dyslexia

English is a particularly difficult language when it comes to spelling. There are so many exceptions to the rules of spelling and grammar. I before E except after C is a case in point.

We received (okay, there’s the rule in practice) but what we received was a weird and feisty heist. Also common sense dictates that, for example, if you are wearing a ruff, you might not want to get involved in rough play.

Spelling can even change depending on the context of the word. Teaching English spelling to children and adults is hard enough, but give a sympathetic thought then to the student who struggles with dyslexia.

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a learning difficulty - also called a learning difference – which can affect the skills involved in reading and spelling. It is a difference in the brain and the way in which it processes language, and can affect visual and auditory processing as well.

Dyslexia is quite separate from intelligence and is found across the range of intellectual capabilities. You can be of normal intelligence and mildly or severely dyslexic, or you can be absolutely brilliant and mildly or severely dyslexic. It is thought that up to 10% of the population is affected personally by dyslexia; some believe it’s even more than this.

They say 60% of people with dyslexia are affected mildly to moderately - or you might be in the 40% who have to live with more severe consequences.

Learn more about mild dyslexia.

how dyslexia affects spelling

How dyslexia affects spelling

Fedwedred. These English words are from a very early module in Touch-type Read and Spell. They each have three distinct sounds. To be able to differentiate between the sounds is to have phonemic awareness.

This, and the ability to make connections between sounds and letters and letter combinations, is required to develop fluid reading and spelling skills.

Dyslexia can impact on spelling when students are not able to hear the small units of sound that represent meaning. They therefore have difficulty in encoding and decoding sounds, skills which are necessary in order to manipulate them. 

Remember that ten per cent or more statistic? It applies right across the world. However, you won’t necessarily see the same percentage spreads reflected in spelling skills. When it comes to spelling, there are some interesting cross-cultural differences.

Phonemes in Spanish and Italian words, for example, are more consistent and therefore easier than English ones. This is because they are orthographically transparent. Written Chinese is another example. It is constructed of symbols or pictures which are more easily remembered visually.

Strategies for spelling

Dyslexia in a school environment

School spelling tests can be a nightmare for dyslexic students. Because dyslexia affects working memory, a student might study for a spelling test and do well, and then tomorrow, not be able to spell what they spelled correctly on the test.

This can get students in trouble, especially when the dyslexia has not been identified. In these cases, they might be assumed to be not trying or doing it deliberately. This is particularly true as many people with dyslexia are highly articulate and bright, which can seem inconsistent with the literacy and spelling struggles they experience.

Students with dyslexia have good days and bad days.

Often, students with dyslexia will choose the simplest words available to spell, and so their writing does not reflect the richness of their vocabulary. This is one reason why students who have been assessed as being dyslexic may be awarded extra time in exams. It can take dyslexic students more time than the average reader to sort sounds into words.

When children without specific learning difficulties learn to read, they can frequently learn to recognize and spell sight words easily and without trying. These are the linking words like in - andbut - the – which make up much of the language in newspapers, magazines and school tests.

But for the child with dyslexia, the sight words may have to be taught. Quite often a dyslexic person will struggle over and over to spell the same list of commonly used words.

TIP: A strategy here is to develop your own list of specific words you have difficulty with, and keep it in your pocket so you can refer to it whenever you need to.

Dyslexia can be resistant to traditional teaching methods and so the term “dyslexia friendly teaching” has emerged to identify practices that work. Everyone, dyslexic or not, can learn from dyslexia friendly approaches to reading and spelling, which include multi-sensory learning delivered at the pace of the learner in small incremental steps, with lots of repetition and positive reinforcement. A little praise goes a long way. 

Dyslexia in a school environment

Spelling strategies that can help

What follows is by no means the definitive list of specific strategies to be followed but it does contain some suggestions, which may prove helpful.

  1. Early recognition and appropriate dyslexia friendly intervention are key. Dyslexia is usually something you are born with and often runs in families. What helps greatly is to recognize the dyslexia as early as possible and find and apply the strategies that work best for an individual's particular circumstances. That applies not just to spelling. Here’s an example: If someone has difficulty remembering left from right and is about to take a driving test, a red painted fingernail, or a red dot on the right hand can make the difference between pass and fail when the instruction is given to turn right at the next corner.
  2. Choose a teaching strategy based on phonetics and linguistics. One particularly well-respected approach to learning to spell is to be found in Alpha to Omega: The A-Z of Teaching Reading, Writing and Spelling by Beve Hornsby and colleagues, published by Heinemann Educational Publishers. Dr Hornsby firmly believed that a dyslexic individual following her programme should not be asked to spell anything which hasn’t been specifically taught. The word lists from Touch-type Read and Spell are based on the word lists found in this book. 
  3. Learn to touch-type the TTRS way. Touch-type Read and Spell students say that taking the course gives them a new strategy for remembering spelling. They visualize the keyboard, and “watch” where their fingers fall. Students with dyslexia need to overlearn to get spelling from their short-term into their long-term memory.
  4. Don’t worry about spelling rules. So strategy number four is a bit tongue in cheek as teachers might not let you get away with it, but don’t worry too much about the rules of spelling. Find a way that works - for example touch-typing, and learn the words until they become automatic. Let your fingers develop a memory of their own. Master this skill as early in life as you can, and then rely on automatic spell checks to help you out.
  5. Learn the English words that sound the same but are spelled differently. There are several strategies which come under the heading of “mnemonic devices.”  These are memory tools or learning tricks to help you to memorize by using phrases, rhymes, acronyms etc.

There is more than one way of spelling many words, depending on the context.

      She can write, right?

      This is a base for the bass.

      Long may she reign in the rain.

Rely on the finger memory that comes from the automaticity of touch-typing, and the strategy mentioned above where the student visualizes a keyboard and watches where the fingers fall.

Then, design some dictation exercises to practice over and over.

Another mnemonic device is to work out a creative sentence or phrase where the first letter of each word spells out something you have difficulty remembering.  An example is a way to spell BECAUSE – a word which commonly causes difficulty. So here we go with Big Elephants Can’t Always Use Small Exits.

The directionality of letters and numbers can be a problem. Here, as one example, is a way to remember the letter “b.” Think of the down-stroke as a bat “l” and then add the ball “o” to give “I o” and put them together “b.” Learn more about letter reversals and dyslexia.

If you design mnemonic devices for yourself, you will have an easier time remembering them. Be creative; be silly. In fact, the sillier the better to make it easier to remember!

Learn more about the different types of dyslexia and helping children with dyslexia in the classroom.

Do you have any spelling strategies to add to the list? Join the discussion!

Touch-type Read and Spell

Typing a word, a phrase, or a sentence over and over again helps the brain retain it. With touch-typing, word retrieval and writing it down can become automatic and fluid. This can be helpful for homonyms too. Learn more about the Touch-type Read and Spell course for students with dyslexia.

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About the Author 

Chris Freeman

Chris Freeman has a BA cum laude in Sociology, and has undertaken post grad work in education and educational technology. She spent 20+ years working in public health and in the charity sector.
Reviewed by 

Meredith Cicerchia

Meredith Cicerchia is a teaching affiliate at the University of Nottingham, an education consultant, and a freelance writer who covers topics ranging from speech and language difficulties and specific learning differences, to strategies for teaching English as a second and additional language.
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