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Why Can’t My Child Spell?

Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic…learning those famous three ‘R’s of primary school education can prove immensely stressful for about 1 in 5 children in different ways.  There are many children who develop an apparent fluency with their reading, but always struggle to spell well despite testing high on the IQ score.

The reason for this lies in the way they read. To state the obvious then, the solution to it lies in changing their reading strategy.

Auditory Reading Style

There are two main reading styles: visual and auditory.  A conventional reader – 4 out of 5 children – will naturally use an auditory path.  These children map text patterns to the individual sounds in each word through their auditory cortex.  They then process the sounds as if they were the spoken.   This route engages the entire auditory and linguistic cortex that humans have developed over thousands of years of linguistic evolution.

Visual Reading Style

The alternative, often used by naturally visual learners and thinkers, is to process text purely using their visual memory.  So the word cow is processed in much the same way as a picture of a cow.  This explains why highly visual dyslexic children sometimes flip whole words like ‘was’ to ‘saw’. You can flip the picture of a cow and it will still be a cow, but unfortunately, the same technique doesn’t work in the English language.

Merging the Visual and Auditory Styles

It should be noted that some highly trained readers, like lawyers for example, will use a combination of both strategies.  They will scan whole pages of text visually at high speed to gather the gist of the meaning and then processing key passages using slower auditory strategies.

The challenge of Visual Readers

Bright children who seem to cope with reading but spell badly are almost always visual readers.

They can recognize the shape of common words from memory.  Words they do not know they will skip or guess from cues like the first letter, the length of the word and the context.   For this reason they will tend to make more mistakes when reading short words than long ones.  And sometimes you will see them read out a totally different word to the one on the page.

Reading and Spelling The Spelling Challenge

This reading strategy causes difficulty for them when it comes to spelling because they have not been truly engaged with the internal structure of the words through reading.  In the same way, there are many things that most of us can recognize, but would struggle to draw from memory with any accuracy.

This leads to two types of mistake when they write.  The first consists of little omissions and errors that an auditory reader would never make, like fist for first, smoak for smoke, snugle for snuggle.

The second type of mistake is to give a basic phonic rendering of the word, like furst, smok or snuggul.

Memory Challenge

Often they will do quite well in a weekly spelling test, because they can hold a virtually photographic memory of a list of ten words overnight.   But retest them a week later and the memory has gone.

The Solution

Having seen what the underlying problem is, you will understand that the only solution is a re-engineering of their approach to reading.  We need to engage the auditory cortex in the process so that they become familiar with the internal structure of the words.

That can be done by employing entertaining visual support mechanisms, which link imagery to all the different sounds in the words and appeal to their natural learning style. This brings the visual learners back into their comfort zone and allows them to build the visual-auditory synaptic links that they need if they are going to read in an auditory way.

Here are some tips:

Find a synthetic phonics course

Find a synthetic phonics program which offers this strong visual support while teaching about the internal structure of a word. The Easyread Spellmagic course that we produce is one example, and there are other synthetic phonics courses out there as well

Play A Game

Close-up view of coloful lettersWe can also recommend a few short games for you to play with your child to work on familiarity with word structures. For example, you can ask your child to propose a word and then ask him or her to break it down and then build it up again. So ‘children’ becomes ch-ih-l-dr-eh-n and then ‘children’ again.

You could also buy some letter fridge magnets, and working from a batch of ten or so letters, ask the child to build up some simple three letter words, including nonsense words which don’t exist, like ‘nin’ or ‘geb’. This targets phonemic awareness instead of sight memorization of real words.

This post was written by David Morgan

David is Managing Director of Oxford Learning Solutions and creator of the Easyread System, an online course which teaches children how to read. Easyread specializes in cases of children with dyslexia, highly visual learning styles and auditory processing deficits. For more information, please visit or find them on Facebook for the latest literacy news at

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Written on February 28, 2012 by:


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