Teaching Spelling to Students with Learning Disabilities

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

Spelling can be tough for students with learning disabilities. This lesson explores difficulties that may arise among students with learning disabilities who are learning to spell and identifies strategies teachers can use to help them succeed.

Spelling and Students with Special Needs

Harry is a young student who was recently diagnosed with a learning disorder that interferes with his reading skills. His educators have worked hard to modify his learning experiences, changing them in a way that allows Harry to make progress. Although his diagnosis focuses on a disability in the area of reading, he also shows struggles with spelling. This may be because of difficulties with skills that affect both reading and spelling, such as phonemic awareness (the ability to identify sounds in speech) and a grasp of phonics (understanding sound-letter relationships).

Harry may also struggle with spelling because of his lack of reading experience. Children learn important relationships about letters, sounds, and words (called the alphabetic principle) by frequent exposure to reading. For example, when a young reader learns the letters a and n work together to make the sound an, they can begin to apply that knowledge to other words, like can and fan. Being able to rely on these relationships between letters and sounds helps build spelling skills. Many students with special needs lack skills necessary to read and, therefore, lack a basic understanding of the alphabetic principle.

More About Spelling

As we've discussed, young children need an understanding of sounds in speech, or phonemes, and the predictable relationships between those sounds and the letters used to represent them--phonics. Students need to understand, for example, that the letter c is the first sound in the word cat. They can then rely on this knowledge and apply it to other words.

But things aren't always this easy when spelling. Knowing and understanding phonics isn't always enough for students, especially those with learning disabilities, to find success. Many words have irregular spellings--they don't rely on typical phonics--like the word of or the. Also, many words that do follow the rules of phonics can have multiple possibilities for spelling. The word hurt, for example, could be spelled hirt or hert. It is only when students are familiar with the word in print and have seen it spelled hurt often that they will be able to remember the proper spelling.

Finally, as students advance in their understanding of spelling, they'll rely on their morphological knowledge. Morphological knowledge is the understanding of word parts that are particularly significant, like root words, prefixes, and suffixes, which allow students to build on their basic spelling knowledge.

In other words, three areas are important to spelling development:

  • Basic understanding of phonics
  • Knowledge of regular and irregular words
  • Morphological knowledge

For students with learning disabilities, teachers need to develop specific and intentional programs to help them find success in these areas. Let's take a look at ways to help students with learning disabilities succeed.

Teaching Spelling to Students with Learning Disabilities

When designing spelling lessons for students with learning disabilities, teachers should find methods to help these students notice, remember, and later recall and apply phonics, phonemes, and morphological skills. How can teachers help students like Harry learn to spell? Let's explore some strategies to help them make progress and become stellar spellers.

Use Direct Instructional Practices

One of the most basic ways teachers can help students like Harry learn spelling is to use a method called direct instruction. While some students are able to infer or easily piece together concepts from traditional instruction, children like Harry benefit from explicit methods of teaching. For example, Harry's teacher may put a list of words on the board with the heading 'Short A Words' and give no explanation. Harry, however, will need the teacher to follow through and explain the commonalities of the list and describe how it incorporates words with that phoneme.

Direct instruction can also include incremental lessons, which are sequential and build on basic skills first. Using this method, Harry's teacher can progress from basic skills, allowing the student to master content and build confidence, before moving on to the next concept.

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