Spelling Strategies For Weak Spellers

Learning that your child is struggling with an aspect of their education, particularly if it is something as fundamental as spelling, is no doubt worrying. Without the ability to spell, every other facet of your child’s development and education simply cannot happen; therefore, it’s completely natural to feel anxious and concerned. If you are feeling like this, it’s essential to take a step back and understand that many things can be done to help your child gain and improve this foundational skill, both in and out of school. As a parent of a child who struggled with spelling, I know exactly how you’re feeling; not only the worry that their education will be adversely affected but also the negative impact it can have on their confidence and self-esteem. The last thing any parent wants to see is their child anxious, stressed, and upset because they’re having a hard time doing something. 

You may have noticed that I spoke on the past tense when mentioning my son’s spelling difficulties; that’s because, despite being a really weak speller for many, many years, he’s now pretty damn good at it! So I know from first-hand experience that a child’s spelling fortunes can be flipped 180 degrees, turning them from a struggling and nervous speller to a child who is confident and enjoys learning to spell! Of course, there is no magic potion for this. Every single child is different; they will learn at various speeds, and it may take several different approaches to finally have success. BUT it is achievable. 

Ok, so at this point, I’m sure you’re no doubt wondering what you need to do and how you need to do. Well, in today’s post, you will learn exactly that. While there is no 100% guarantee that each piece of advice contained within this article will work, what’s included has helped many parents to help their children learn to spell and continue to improve their spelling skills as their development progresses. 

To begin, let’s discuss five things that every struggling speller needs to become a more accomplished speller. 

Five Things Every Struggling Speller Needs

#1 – Hands-on Learning

Children who struggle with spelling need hands-on learning and instruction. Although worksheets and workbooks are useful tools, they cannot be relied upon to help a struggling speller improve their spelling skills. Instead, focussing on manipulating, organising, categorising, comparing, and studying words, letters, and patterns is the best approach to take. Letters cards, letter magnets, and the like are perfect for this. 

#2 – Instruction Must Be Organised and Logical

Rather than merely studying lists of words that are not linked in any way (a strategy often used when teaching spelling), focus on words that have something in common. Weak spellers really benefit from this because it helps them to see patterns in words, which makes learning to spell that little bit easier and less intimidating. 

#3 – Break Down Words Into Their Most Basic Components 

Use exercises, games, and activities that break down words into a very basic level. By breaking down words into phonograms, it makes learning words – and how to build them – a much easier task for children who struggle with spelling. From personal experience, it was doing this that really kick-started my son’s spelling skills. Taking learning back to basics and to its simplest form is often the best starting point; not only because it makes things easier to understand but also because it typically boosts confidence more quickly too. Don’t be afraid of doing this if you feel your child is too old for this; it works, trust me!

#4 – Spelling Instruction on THEIR Level

Teaching your child on THEIR level is an absolute must if they are to make progress. It can be frustrating to admit that your child’s spelling level is lower than their age, but it will do them a world of good if you teach your child according to their level. Unfortunately, many activities, exercises, games, and books are centred around specific ages or school years, which can make it difficult to find the right material for your child. If you’re struggling to find suitable spelling material, ask your child’s teacher to point you in the right direction; they will always be willing to help!

#5 – Provide Support When They’re Writing

Even children who aren’t weak spellers misspell words when writing; therefore, it is imperative that those who struggle to spell (and are, therefore, more likely to make mistakes when writing) have support during independent writing activities and exercise. Let’s face it, for a weak speller writing is a nightmare; therefore, making them feel more at ease will do wonders for their confidence and, ultimately, their spelling skills. Be on hand to point them in the right direction and help them to understand letters, words, meanings etc.

Spelling Strategies for Struggling Students – Three Golden Rules

#1 – Speech is Key

In order to learn to spell, children must develop their ‘spelling voice’ (inside their head). This is a voice that is aware of root words, has the ability to consider alternatives, and can recall tricks and rules related to spelling. This ’spelling voice’ is crucial to the overall process of learning to spell. 

Children who have the ability to spell can be thought of as linguistic problem solvers, something that develops through interactions with their peers and other learners around them. Therefore, learning with other children of a similar spelling level should be encouraged as this will allow your child to discuss how a word might be spelt before attempting to spell it. Children often remember conversations with friends more readily than a learning strategy they’ve been taught.

#2 – Help Your Child To Understand and Fix Errors

In recent years, more emphasis has been placed on spelling than ever before. Why? Because knowing how to spell is a vital aspect of becoming a successful writer. Lack of spelling ability not only stifles creative flow; it also limits (the broadening of) vocabulary because children will always opt for easy-to-spell words rather than those that are more complex or complicated. 

Here’s how you can help:

First draft errors should be forgiven: If your child is aware that you’ll be marking their first draft of a piece of work for spelling errors, it is likely they will become more conscious and anxious – particularly with regard to their spelling. Therefore, always encourage your child to check their spelling as they write but don’t be too hard on them if they make errors in their first draft. 

If your child is aware they have made a spelling error, encourage them to highlight or draw a line underneath it; you can then go back to the words they have highlighted at the end, rather than interrupting their writing flow.

Peer Assistance and Editing: Writers have their work checked over by editors before it is published, so why shouldn’t children have the same privilege? After all, our own brains find it nigh on impossible to notice our errors due to the fact our grey matter will often fill in missing pieces of information and ignoring the mistakes altogether. To give your child an ‘editor’, pair them with a classmate who is a proficient speller, encouraging them to why words are misspelt and discuss methods and strategies to help learn the correct spelling.

Encourage a Wider Audience For Their Work: To quote an old adage, “familiarity breeds contempt” – a phrase that is (surprisingly) relevant to the topic of teaching a child how to spell. How? Well, your child is unlikely to see the jeopardy in spelling a word wrong if you are the only people who are aware of it. 

For example, if I’m writing down a shopping list and make a mistake, my wife will tease me about the error, but there isn’t a real consequence of the mistake. However, if I was advertising some form of online training, I’m unlikely to get as many clients if I make a spelling error in the sale pitch than if I didn’t. The wider the audience is, the more critical accurate spelling becomes. Encourage your child to share their work with more people – family, friends, classmates, or even online on a blog or website. In short, give your child a reason to really care about accurate spelling. 

#3 – Pair Spelling Strategies To Your Child’s Needs

Teachers are fantastic at identifying errors but, due to time constraints and having numerous pupils to deal with, they may not be able to spend sufficient time analysing the origin of spelling errors and why they’re occurring. Error analysis is absolutely crucial; once you’re able to identify why your child is spelling words incorrectly, it is far easier to find a strategy that matches their needs.

Creating words pyramids, drawing words shapes, or highlighting or underlining problematic parts of words are effective visual methods for some children, but they don’t for every single child.

To illustrate this, I’ll take my son as an example. He used to encounter difficulties when words contain ’schwas’ sounds, which are typically described as guttural, unstressed sounds that sound like a short “u”, albeit weaker, such as “uh” or “er”. He had to guess the letter because he wasn’t able to hear or see it was. For example, if we take the word ‘definitely’, you are able to hear the first vowel, but the following two are schwas, and the last vowel is silent. To help him overcome his problems with the word ‘definitely’, we used the following strategies:

– Emphasising the unstressed vowels to help him hear both where they go and what they are.
– Creating a mnemonic to help him remember the vowels, e.g. he has two eyes (i’s) and two ears (e’s).
– Breaking the word into its component pieces as saying each portion according to how it is spelt, e.g. ‘def-i-ni-tely’.
– Saying each letter aloud and adding in a rhyme for each one to create a tune he could remember.

Another word my son struggled with was the word ‘before’; he often forgot to add an ‘e’ at the end. Given that the word ‘before’ is a very common word and was used fairly frequently, it often becomes disheartening and upsetting for him when he forgot to add the final ‘e’. These are strategies we used to help him remember the final letter and ones that you can use too if your child is missing out letters, regardless of where they are situated within the word.

– Encourage writing the word in the air over and over again.
– Writing on a friend or family member’s back.
– Creating a collage but cutting out each letter of the word, making sure to use a different colour for the difficult letter or part.

Spelling Strategies For Weak Spellers: A Summary

While it would be impossible to include absolutely everything you a) need to know, and b) can try to help your child transform from a weak speller to a strong speller (this article would be thousands upon thousands of words long if we tried!), the above information should provide you with a solid foundation on which to build.

As I stated in the introduction, each child is different, and what works for one might not work for another; therefore, it is always best to try a wide array of spelling activities, methods, and strategies when attempting to bolster your child’s spelling skills. That being said, don’t give up on a technique too quickly; always give it time, as it may simply take your child a while to get to grips with it and understand the concept. 

Another piece of advice I highly recommend following is speaking to your child’s teacher(s). The quickest and most effective route to developing spelling skills (and any other learning0based skills for that matter), is through a combination of classroom and home-based learning; therefore, discussing your child’s progress and asking for assistance from their teacher(s) is always advisable.