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Reading and spelling are essential life skills. Those of us who can read reasonably well take for granted the role that reading plays in daily life – selecting grocery items at the supermarket; follow street signs; corresponding with others and surfing the internet. Many jobs are impossible to do without the ability to read – some jobs even demand a good command of the English language.
Each day we also rely on our spelling skills to achieve many basic tasks – writing notes, letters, or emails that others can read; filing alphabetically; looking up words in a phone book, or dictionary; recognising the right choice from the possibilities presented by a spell checker – and even playing parlor games – are all dependent on spelling.
In a literate society, the ability to spell is expected and anything beyond a few small errors is equated with ignorance and incompetence. An employment application is doomed if it is poorly spelled.
Learning to spell and learning to read rely on much of the same underlying knowledge – such as the relationships between letters and sounds. Both require the learner to possess the ability to complete a number of complex tasks.
An inability to perform any one of those tasks is not a sign of reduced intelligence – many very smart people with high IQs struggle with reading and spelling.
Do you remember how you learned to spell? One technique you were likely to use was to associate speech sounds with the letters of the alphabet. For example, to read the word bat, you said the B sound, the A sound, and the T sound, then put it all together: B … A … T, BAT! This sounding-out, or phonics, approach is a common method used to teach children how to spell and is featured in many popular spelling and reading programmes.
To be successful, the phonics approach relies on a child having the ability to do three important tasks:
Spelling difficulties can arise if the child or young person has difficulty with any one of these three tasks.
The ability to sound out letters is only the first step in reading. We learn to read by carefully sounding out each letter of each word and blending them together to form meaningful wholes – words. Sounding out the words on a page is a skill often referred to as word-attack abilities or decoding.
As we become more familiar with the words letters form, we rely less and less on “sounding out” – we begin to recognise the overall pattern of the most frequently encountered words, an ability that is referred to as sight-word reading. It is only when we encounter new, unfamiliar words or difficult language that is outside our normal realm of experience, that we instinctively fall back on our earliest experiences with reading: sounding out the words or sentences.
The transition from word-attack to sight-word reading is a developmental process. However, as we all know, the English language can cause much confusion as not all words are spelled the way they sound. (For example phlegm, subtle, psychology) Such words must simply be memorised through sight word reading.
In order to read competently and effectively we must use all the abilities necessary for spelling – hear and interpret sound, see and recognise letters, and put sound and symbols together. We must also possess the following abilities:
If we have difficulty with any of these tasks, it can impact upon our ability to read well.
Difficulty with spelling and/or reading is commonly associated with dyslexia. However, dyslexia is only one possible cause of spelling and/or reading difficulties. Other known causes include:
It is important to understand why your child is struggling as that will help you determine the best course of action to take from the range of options available. An assessment with an appropriately trained professional is recommended.