How Various Learning and Attention Issues Can Cause Trouble With Spelling

By Peg Rosen

At a Glance

  • Spelling is a complex activity that involves many skills.
  • Trouble with spelling can be a sign of dyslexia.
  • Several learning and attention issues that are not directly related to reading can affect spelling.

Spelling can be hard for children with dyslexia and other kinds of learning and attention issues. Some kids may be fast thinkers but slow spellers. Trouble with spelling can limit their productivity because it takes so much time and energy just to write down a few words.

Spelling is a complex activity that involves many skills. Spellers have to quickly and accurately think about how words sound and then translate those sounds into print. There are lots of spelling rules to memorize. And, in English, there are many exceptions to those rules.

Spelling also requires knowing the different meanings of words that sound the same and choosing when to use which spelling. Examples include sentcentscent and therethey’retheir.

Use this guide to see how different kinds of learning and attention issues can affect kids’ ability to spell. Keep in mind that it’s not uncommon for some of these issues to co-occur.

How Dyslexia Can Affect Spelling

What it is: A brain-based issue that involves difficulty with reading and processing language in ways that can also affect writing.

The spelling connection: Dyslexia makes it hard to isolate the sounds in words, match those sounds to letters and blend sounds into words. Learning to spell may be even harder than learning to read for some kids with dyslexia.

Specific difficulties: Kids with dyslexia frequently confuse letters that sound alike. Vowels can be very tricky and may even get left out (dnsr for dinosaur). Kids may mix up the order of letters (felt for left) and misspell common sight words, even after lots of practice. They may memorize words for spelling tests and quickly forget them once the test is done.

Strategies to try: Help kids with dyslexia build a strong foundation that teaches them to connect letter sounds with letter symbols. This is most effectively achieved through reading instruction that uses a multisensory approach. Use an evidence-based approach to spelling instruction that emphasizes word structure, word origin and word meaning.

How ADHD Can Affect Spelling

What it is: An issue with brain structure and chemistry that makes it hard to pay attention. Many but not all kids with ADHD are hyperactive or overactive and also have trouble controlling impulses.

The spelling connection: When kids aren’t focused and rush through what they are writing, they can easily make spelling mistakes. ADHD can make it harder to commit words and spelling rules to memory. Attention issues can make it harder for the brain to organize information and retrieve it when needed.

Specific difficulties: Kids with ADHD may substitute, leave out or switch the order of letters in words.

Strategies to try: Help younger kids stay engaged while memorizing spelling words. Try forming the letters out of clay or bouncing a ball while chanting the letters in a word. For older kids, try spelling out loud while clapping or finger tapping with each letter or syllable. Encourage kids with ADHD to slow down and to proofread. Provide a list of items to check before they hand in their work.

How Auditory Processing Disorder Can Affect Spelling

What it is: A condition that makes it hard for the brain to process what the ear hears, such as recognizing subtle differences in the sounds that make up words.

The spelling connection: Children with auditory processing disorder (APD) struggle to process and make sense of the sounds they’re hearing. This can make it hard to follow the teacher’s spelling lessons, especially in a noisy classroom.

Specific difficulties: If a child is told to spell the word seventy, he may write seventeen. He may skip vowels or confuse the order of syllables (samalander for salamander). He may also struggle to grasp and follow multi-step directions.

Strategies to try: Seat kids with APD away from noisy doors and windows and near the teacher so they can see her face. Give spelling tests one-on-one in a quiet room or with headphones playing a recording of the words that need to be spelled. Speech therapymay help improve perception of individual sounds in words. It may also help kids develop active listening skills.

How Visual Processing Issues Can Affect Spelling

What they are: Brain-based issues that make it hard to perceive or “make sense” of what the eye sees.

The spelling connection: There are several different types of visual processing issues. Some kids may struggle to memorize common spelling patterns. Some kids may have trouble reading cursive or less common fonts, which can make it harder to remember or figure out how to spell those words.

Specific difficulties: Visual discrimination issues can make it hard to “see”—really, to perceive—the difference between two letters like p and q. Kids with visual sequencingissues may reverse the order of letters. Recognizing and spelling sight words can be tough for kids with visual memory issues. All of this can affect early word recognition/automaticity, which kids need to become good spellers. (Automaticity is the ability to recognize words with little effort or attention after long periods of training and practice have made this aspect of reading automatic.)

Strategies to try: Don’t crowd spelling words together on a page. Give each one some space. Use paper that has dark lines or raised lines. Teachers can provide oral as well as written instructions when teaching spelling rules. They can also encourage kids to look for and learn patterns of letters in words.

How Dysgraphia Can Affect Spelling

What it is: A brain-based issue that makes it hard to write legibly and at an age-appropriate speed. Many children with dysgraphia also struggle to put their thoughts down on paper. This is sometimes called a disorder of written expression.

The spelling connection: Kids with dysgraphia have issues organizing information that’s stored in memory and then getting words on paper by handwriting or typing them. They may have a hard time remembering how to write a word. Their work is often difficult to read and filled with errors.

Specific difficulties: Kids with dysgraphia may have a tough time holding a pencil properly. They may struggle to write within the margins. They may spell correctly orally but make spelling errors in their writing. They may also misspell the same word in many different ways.

Strategies to try: Occupational therapy can help kids with dysgraphia develop fine and gross motor skills that make writing easier. Tools like pencil grips and slant boards can also encourage neater writing. Computer programs like Handwriting Without Tears can be very effective, too. Some, but not all, kids with dysgraphia benefit by using a keyboard. Teachers can also give oral instead of written spelling tests.

A Note About Spell-Checking Programs

Computer spell-checking programs can be a big help for kids and adults who struggle with spelling. But these programs won’t help build kids’ spelling skills. Focus on building a solid foundation. Educators typically don’t recommend spell-check for kids before fifth grade.

Use Tech Finder to search for expert-approved apps that can help build spelling skills. You may also want to read about the evaluation process. A thorough evaluation can help you and your child’s teachers address what’s causing his spelling challenges.

Key Takeaways

  • Learning to spell may be even harder than learning to read for some kids with dyslexia.
  • Evidence-based language arts instruction at school is particularly important for kids with learning and attention issues.
  • Computer spell-checking can be a good support for older kids, but it doesn’t replace the need for basic spelling skills.