Why is Spelling so Difficult for Learners With Dyslexia?

Whilst dyslexia is a spectrum, meaning some people have worse symptoms than others and there are a lot of individual differences in how it affects people, the one thing that all people with dyslexia have in common is a difficultly with spelling. Due to this struggle dyslexic learners have with spelling, and the advanced skills tutors need to help these learners, Betteridge (2011) says that if you can get spelling instruction right with a child or adult with dyslexia, you can get it right with everyone.

Normal Spelling Development

Frith (1980, 1985) produced compelling research for literacy development containing three phases:  Logographic, Alphabetic and Orthographic.

Logographic: This is the first stage and it involves instantly recognising familiar words. The letter order in the words isn’t important and cannot be reproduced by the child. Where a child doesn’t know the word, they will either not be able to produce an attempt at the word, or will make a wild guess based on other clues in the context, either the words or any pictures.  There are no associations with sounds and phonological processing. Frith highlights that phonological processing is not the first initial system for reading and writing. This stage is all to do with what letters and words look like and how it’s familiar with what a child can recognise.

Alphabetic: Letter order and phonological factors are now important and are more immediate. It is systematic in that attempts at phonemes to graphemes are regularly made. At this stage attempts at reading and writing nonsense words are possible.

Orthographic: This stage does not require any form of phonological processing in terms of the separate units of sounds within words; there is no need to sound it out. The child does not need to visualise the words either, as they are freely automatic and fluent. The words are seen as larger units (rather than the small units of sound). These larger meanings are mainly the words meaning and the concept of the word. The reading is fluent and automatic.  It requires the top-down processing we talked about in a previous course.

Ehrin and Wilce’s 1987 research is a great example of the Orthographic stage. Try this visual below. 

Another example of this automatic Orthographic or top-down processing stage is the Stroop test.

Stroop experiment.

What is known as the Stroop Effect was first described in the 1930’s by John Ridley Stroop. He was researching how the brain processes information.  The Stroop experiment is a powerful experiment as you can replicate it easily and the effect is always the same no matter who you are.

Try the experiment for yourself

  1. Take out your phone or any device you have that has a timer or stopwatch on it.
  2. From the list of words below read each word out loud and time how long it takes you to read the word. Having someone to time you will make the experiment more accurate.
  3. Record your time.

Stroop experiment part 2.

  1. As before, grab a timer or stopwatch and someone to help you time yourself.
  2. This time, don’t read the word, say the colour of the ink used to print the word. 
  3. Compare how long it took you to name the colours to how long it took you to read the words in the first experiment. What did you notice?

Naming the colours takes a lot longer than reading the words. Once we are familiar with letters and their sequence, we see them as whole units and reading becomes fluently automated.

Russian version of the Stroop Experiment.

As we can see, unless you are fluent in Russian, when the words are in a different language you don’t know, you have no problems naming the colours.

Using the three-phase model, we can see that Dyslexia spellers seem to miss out on the alphabetic stage. They move from the Logographic stage (although some are stuck in it), and then due to the tendency to use top-down processing, become very automated with their spelling and reading errors.

Gentry (1981), building on Frith’s model, and through his years of comparing dyslexic and non-dyslexic spellers proposed there are five stages of spelling development.

Precommunicative: This is where children scribble and make marks on the page, normally accompanied by drawings.

Prephonetic: This is the creative and inventive spelling, where one or a pair of letters can represent a group of words. (e.g H for high)

Phonetic: Where words are transcribed letter by letter (e.g Hi for High)

Transitional: The spellings are close to standard spellings and influenced by rules and word origin. Although sometimes the wrong spelling rule is applied (e.g Hye for high).

Correct: Standard spelling. (e.g high)

Where many children naturally pass through these stages, dyslexic spellers tend to get stuck in the earlier stages and try to automate incorrect spellings or need to guess.

Spotting the difficulty

Miles (1993), through his years of dyslexia research in regard to spelling, describes 13 ‘dyslexic milestones’. These milestones are common dyslexia spelling errors.

  1. The impossible trigram:  This is a sequence of letters that are impossible in the English language ‘lqu’ for liquid ‘cwiyatly’ for quietly.
  2. The misrepresentation of the sound: of consonants and of vowel sounds.  Such as ‘cet’ for ‘get’ and ‘pad’ for pat, which shows a misrepresentation of the consonants.  Also ‘cot’ for cut and ‘mat’ for met, which shows a misrepresentation of the short vowels. Miles stated this is not an auditory difficulty, but the errors are resulting from an ‘auditory confusability’. Children who make these errors are often referred to hearing clinics and they will find nothing wrong.
  3. Wrong boundaries: Words may be run together (e.g halfanhour for half an hour) or incorrectly separated (e.g a-nother instead of another).
  4. Wrong syllabification: Either too many syllables (e.g sundedly for suddenly) or not enough syllables (rember for remember).
  5. Inconsistent spelling: The word is spelt in different ways on the same page (e.g schole, skool, scole)
  6. The wrong letter doubled: (e.g eeg for egg).
  7. All the letters of the word are used, but in the wrong order: (eg form for from, gte for get), this is often caused by poor visual sequencing skills and memory.
  8. A false match for order: The letters in the word are correct, but parts are in the wrong order. This incorrect order is similar to the above but more than just one or two letters. (e.g Sitser for sister, poelpe for people).
  9. The omission of sounding letters: (e.g amt for amount).
  10. Duplication for one or more sounding letters: (eg piyole for pile).
  11. Incorrect phonetic attempt to spell a word: (e.g yuwer for your, yoos for use).
  12. Intrusive vowels: (eg tewenty for twenty, miy-yils for miles).
  13. B-D substitution: (e.g bady for baby, decos for because).
Source: Miles T. R (1993) Dyslexia: The Pattern of Difficulties (2nd edition) Whurr Publishers Ltd London:75-85

Montgomery (2007) states that all the above spelling errors are seen in all early years children learning to spell, as they reflect poor syllabic and phonetic knowledge. Non-dyslexic children seem to pass through this spelling stage more easily, whereas dyslexic children get stuck in this stage.

Hornsby’s (1994) error analysis describes 9 dyslexia-related spelling mistakes:

      1. Writes letters inside the word in the wrong order: (e.g tiem for time)
      2. Mirrors words: (eg nomiS for Simon)
      3. Reverses b for d and p for d.
      4. Inverts n for u and m for w.
      5. Mirror writes.
      6. Spells phonetically: (eg bizzy for busy)
      7. Spells bizarrely with spellings unrelated to the word: (e.g lenaka for last), seems to suggest writing the initial sound of the word and then guessing the rest.
      8. Omits letters: (eg lip for limp, wet for went)
      9. Adds letters: (e.g whent for went, whant for what)
  1. Spelling is a memory and sequencing task

Something to think about when tutoring.

Reading is really a recognition task, whereas spelling is a recall task. There is a difference between recognising and remembering. When you are tutoring a dyslexic student, you will come across this difference and you may not even notice it. When the student is stuck or can’t remember, often the tutor will helpfully provide a hint or a prompt, this enables the student to ‘recognise‘ what they were meant to do. It is only when they can do it alone without any help can any student ‘remember’. It is so easy for the tutor to keep helping a student to recognise and think they are helping them to remember.

To be able to spell fluently (without pauses, breaks or a lot of concentration), spellers need perfect easy recall. They don’t need to work to remember, they just know.

Without fluency, spellers need a system to work it out. However, dyslexia normally makes systems operate differently, often not choosing the correct way. It is your job as a tutor or educator to help the learner find a system that works best for them and is also effective for spelling, even if that system is not the system you use for yourself. Meaning, it is not a system that you would choose to remember how to spell a tricky word.

Not only do we need to easily recall the letters that go into the words, but we also need to remember them in the correct order, and then use motor skills to write the words. This order is what we call ‘sequencing‘. Dyslexic children (and adults) can have a lot of difficulty with sequencing.  They know what they need to do but the order of it comes out wrong, you can sometimes hear this in their speech. Using motor skills to write words (handwriting) adds another layer of complexity into the sequencing; more opportunities for incorrect order to either make the word illegible or letters in the wrong place.

This is why it is often better to practice the spelling of the words without writing first, then add the writing aspect in later. We can achieve this practising of letter sequencing by using wooden or magnetic letters before adding the handwriting.

Just think of learning to play an instrument, perhaps learning to play the flute.  The music is quite long and complex, so you practise different bits of it until you can do those smaller pieces, then you put the music altogether. Perhaps you join an orchestra and start playing with other people for the first time. However, if you’re not used to it, all those other instruments and the timing of the music can put you off slightly; what was easy at home now feels a bit more difficult when practising all together. This is where the conductor comes in, they help musicians to know when and how to play, they control the timing and flow of the music.

Now let’s think of a learner with dyslexia. They will do better breaking the spelling up like the musicians needed to break the music up. However, the sequencing support that comes from the conductor will often be limited within the learner, as they are limited in their sequencing abilities. So, sometimes when handwriting is introduced, it will seem like the spelling is worse, it’s just something to work through and will take a while longer to master. Many people who have dyslexia can give up easily because when they feel they have mastered something or got better at something, they find they can’t do it as well when they try it combined with other activities. Dyslexic learners need support at this stage to remain motivated and not give up.

There is often an argument of not asking dyslexic learners to write at all, especially when taking exams, so their processing and sequencing is not overloaded. However, there is a lot of research that once a learner can master the sequence of the word, the motor memory is a great resource in helping the memory recall for that sequence.  You may have experienced your own motor memory when trying to remember a pin code you use on your phone or your debit card, you often have to type it to remember it.

Spelling is all about getting words into the long-term memory and being able to recall those words effortlessly so it does not affect the flow of writing.

Spelling lists versus free writing.

It is really important to understand why dyslexic children and adults may find it easier to learn a whole spelling list and perhaps get 10 out of 10 in a spelling test, but then struggle to write any of those words when they come to write a story or paragraph. Especially getting spellings wrong when that writing involves creativity and ideas (freewriting).

It can seem at first that the dyslexic speller isn’t trying to remember. Somehow being lazy with words and not paying attention. For years, dyslexic children have been branded as lazy and it can often look like they are not trying as their teachers have seen they can spell the words when tested. It can be frustrating for some spelling tutors, but hopefully, they can see it differently when there’s an appreciation for the difference between meaningless words and actually thinking and creating.

When you work with lists of words, there is no real meaning. Yes, there is the meaning of each word, but they are not embedded in meaningful concepts. Individual words are not linked to anything, and cause no strain on the working memory.  So, dyslexic individuals will find it easier to focus on the sounds and letter formations.

However, when writing a story, many dyslexic people describe it as their mind coming to life; they can see their imagination as if watching a film, it’s like their mind changes gear and the processing of sounds and spelling rules makes way for creative pictures and deeper concepts. It can be described as another dimension of the mind, one in which any hard work regarding phonics tuition gets left behind for many learners.

Listening to adults with dyslexia who could only begin to learn once they left an education system, that is based on one way of teaching literacy (mainly phonics), gives us huge insight into the dyslexic mind.

I’m a dynamic person, who thinks in pictures and uses three dimensional images in my head to understand concepts, yet I was being taught by a method that was rigid, structured and two dimensional. I’m an experimental learner and learn best when the information presented is as real as possible. Unfortunately, many of the subjects I was taught at school were not taught using that approach. When words are used in isolation to impart knowledge, I find it difficult to grasp even simple concepts. I learn the simple concepts in the contexts of more complex ones. …. Learning, was hard work for me because I was fighting my natural processing, which was very different from the one I was being encouraged to use…. Not only was this method inappropriate, it was also damaging. I was born with talents that my dyslexia had given me, these talents disappeared slowly, because I was being trained to think in a way that was alien to my very being…. My way of learning could have been an advantage at school, if it had been identified, respected and developed. I retain far more information in pictures than ever with words. Receiving information in this form provides an understanding that has not been narrowed down by words. Seeing a problem within a picture in space gives me the advantage of approaching a problem from many different angles”. (Morgan and Klein 2000, p.g 12).

“It was like a TV channel that had the plug pulled. It went black inside my head. I can’t visualise and concentrate on phonics or remember a spelling rule at the same time – it’s a different way of thinking. Even if learning phonics raises your reading age it takes away what might be the most important thing in your ability to achieve in life. It’s like a duck; you can clip its wings and it may be able to waddle around on land, but it will never be able to fly. Only when I let go of what I’d been taught and connected my vision to language could I begin to express myself.” (Morgan and Klein 2000, p.g 158).

When dyslexic children and adults become creative and write, they often let go of the use of sounds and rules in literacy and use a much deeper part of their thinking. Teaching children to spell using these deeper visual and conceptual ways can help dyslexic learners to take those learnings with them when they write.

So, dyslexic learners can write lists of words and get most of the spelling correct, because when they do spelling lists they are in many ways not firing on all cylinders. However, when it comes to using their mind (not just their memory for word lists), they have a richer, deeper and more visual capacity. All the sound of words fades away. Therefore, so will your phonic tuition if you just rely on that method and nothing else.

One way to imagine it would be trying to express yourself fully and freely in a different language. If your native language is French, you will always express yourself better in that language no matter how well the tutor teaches you English words and English rules. So whilst you can be very proficient in English, when you truly want to be free and creative, you will revert to French.

The Use of Spelling Rules

Dyslexic children and adults struggle with and have a lot of difficulty with remembering and using spelling rules. However, when spelling tutors cling to the instruction of these rules, tutors often get steered down the wrong path thinking they will help. This misdirection happens because when the tutoring is happening, the dyslexic speller will often say how they didn’t know those rules and how they make a lot of sense as a pattern. This is normal as the rules will make sense in the dyslexic mind at that moment. However, the difficulty will be that the dyslexic mind will not retain the rules in the long term memory, or if they do, they will not be able to access them when it comes to free writing. Yes, the rules do make sense, but will they actually help next week or the week after?

The learning of the rules is often initially reassuring, but the application of them in free-writing requires a categorised way of thinking that doesn’t come naturally to many children and adults with dyslexia, so the rules will either get lost, mixed up or applied in the wrong situations.

“One of the things is remembering what the rules are… The rules don’t seem to have any kind of logic, they don’t fall into a kind of pattern that I can recognise. And to learn them becomes a big problem because then whenever I do come across a word where there’s something to be changed. I’m thinking, well, is it this word or not this word and why is it this word and not the other word? The rules confuse the issue rather than actually kind of help it.”(Morgan and Klein 2000, p.g 15).

Rules have difficulty settling inside a dyslexic learner’s mind, similar to left and right. Their mind is not categorised enough to follow the rules, just as it struggles to have innate left and right (sometimes up and down) distinctions.  The working memory struggles with the capacity to hold the knowledge and apply it in the right situations.

The Need for Meaningful Contexts

Meaningful contexts are when something fits or links to previous knowledge. You will often hear dyslexic learners ask the ‘why’ or ‘how’ something is at it is.  This is the learner communicating they are trying to link the learning material to their deeper memory systems and understanding. As soon as the learning material is linked to a conceptual understanding, it can be remembered and accessed a lot easier in the future. Just learning facts and rules gets eroded, and becomes very difficult to remember, if at all.

Proof of this need for meaning within context can be seen when dyslexic learners have their reading skills measured. When they are reading text that contains subject matter they already know a lot about, the reading skill and fluency increases compared to reading topics they know nothing about. It is easy to assume that this is just motivation, but it is often because there is already a huge memory bank of stored information and understanding, thus the reader can be more at home with the material and have more visual and conceptual representations for the words being read. You often find they just struggle with the non-visual words we discussed earlier.

Although writing about the topic of thought control rather than learning, Taylor (2004) describes something she calls cogwebs. Taylor’s cogwebs are best thought about in terms of cognitive spiderwebs; not made by spiders, but by adding knowledge in our minds.  As we know, spider webs are sticky to help the spider catch its prey. The aim is to make a big enough web for things to stick. So, when learning something new and having no prior knowledge, the brain is weaving the start of a cogweb through its neural connections. Initially, there will only be one or two strands for new things to stick to. However, when lots of learning has taken place on the subject, the cogweb will be bigger and any relevant information will be caught by it and absorbed by it. Think of dyslexic children and adults needing large cogwebs when learning.  That is, learning in context is always easier for dyslexic children and adults.

Non-Verbal Thinking

Non-verbal thinking is thinking without sounds. Instead, the thinking is in pictures, feelings and concepts. As we have spoken about before, it is how a lot of dyslexic children and adults perceive their imagination and access this imagination and their inner world when freewriting.

Visual information is a lot quicker than sound information.  Our phonological processing is slower and in some sequential order. Whereas our visual processing system – often described as our mind’s eye – is rapid and has logical order, thus it lacks any sequence.  Words are linear in how they are formed, there is a starting letter and a correct order until the end letter. On the other hand, pictures do not have a starting and endpoint, it’s subjective in the eye of the beholder where to start.  Therefore, this lack of sequence requires dyslexic learners to learn the letter sequence and link it to a picture when spelling. The picture will come to mind easier and be associated with a sequence.

Davis (2020) argues that the non-picture words (e.g also, about, went) cause literacy difficulties for dyslexic learners,  due to the absence of an associated picture to match the concept and understanding of the words. The lack of visual references causes a gap in the mind’s eye, which then triggers a type of confusion which, in turn, triggers further distortions within the mind’s eye. Hence, the spelling will now contain very messy handwriting and move about on the page. These multiple distortions disrupt the fluency and flow of reading and writing.

It is very common for dyslexic readers to miss the non-picture words out when writing, words such as the, and, as, a and also are missed from sentences. Additionally, the same non-picture words are missed when reading.  Davis states that dyslexic learners need to know what a word looks like (the letters used), what it sounds like, what it means and how it is represented in the mind’s eye (pictorial concept) before that learner can learn to spell the word and have freewriting fluency with it.

References and Further reading.

About. (2002, November 12). International Dyslexia Association. https://dyslexiaida.org/definition-of-dyslexia/

British Dyslexia Association. (2010). What is dyslexia? https://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/dyslexia/about-dyslexia/what-is-dyslexia

Chevin, G. (2009). Dyslexia: Visually Deaf? Auditory Blind? AuthorHouse.

Davis, R. D., & Braun, E. M. (2010). The Gift of Dyslexia: Why Some of the Smartest People Can’t Read…and How They Can Learn, Revised and Expanded Edition (Revised&enlarged ed.). Perigee Books.

Everatt, J., & Denston, A. (2019). Dyslexia: Theories, Assessment and Support (1st ed.). Routledge.

Grandin, T., & Sacks, O. (2006). Thinking in Pictures, Expanded Edition: My Life with Autism (Expanded ed.). Vintage.

Montgomery, D. (2006). Spelling, Handwriting and Dyslexia: Overcoming Barriers to Learning (1st ed.). Routledge.

Montgomery, D. (2017). Dyslexia-friendly Strategies for Reading, Spelling and Handwriting: A Toolkit for Teachers (1st ed.). Routledge.

Moody, S. (2020). Dyslexia: a teenager’s guide (1st Edition. ed.). Vermilion.

Morgan, E., & Klein, C. (2000). The Dyslexic Adult in a Non-dyslexic World (1st ed.). Wiley.

Ott, P. (1997). How to Detect and Manage Dyslexia : A Reference and Resource Manual (1st ed.). Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.

Reid, G. (2009). Dyslexia: A Practitioner’s Handbook (4th ed.). Wiley-Blackwell.

Sandman-Hurley. (2019). Dyslexia and Spelling. Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Taylor, K. (2017). Brainwashing: The science of thought control (Oxford Landmark Science) (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.