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Dyslexia and Spelling: The Chicken or the Egg?

By Kelli Sandman-Hurley
 | Sep 29, 2015

chicken or egg photoSpelling is the red-headed stepchild of literacy instruction, derided as crazy and declared unimportant. Spelling lists are created with random unrelated words and taught via rote memorization techniques. Spelling is taught out of context and isolated from grammar, a disastrous combination for students with dyslexia and troublesome for many students without dyslexia. Of course, many students will learn to spell without a hitch, but does that make these practices OK?

Swap the letter wall for a phoneme wall

Almost every elementary school classroom has the alphabet on the wall. On each letter card is usually a picture of something that begins with the letter on the card. For example, the <a> is almost always accompanied by a picture of an apple, which is trying to convey that “<a> says /a/ like in apple.” The problem is that /a/ is just one of many sounds that the grapheme <a> represents, so we are setting up students for confusion when they come to a word like awake.

The solution is to hang a phoneme wall, like the one that accompanies this post.

The beauty of this solution is that students can add words as they come up over the entire course of the year and they start to look for and notice sound options for graphemes.

Add a small, but important, qualifying word

In the letter wall example, I included the sentence “<a> says /a/ like in apple,” but that sentence is misleading. We can add one simple word to that sentence to help children understand our spelling system better. Which word could have that much power? The word can. The sentence would then change to, “<a> can say /a/ like in apple.”

Teach the story of the word

Remove the sentences “English is crazy” or “You just have to memorize these words” from your dialogue of teaching instruction. Instead, teach students there is a reason for every letter in every word and investigate that reason together. For example, instead of telling students that it is crazy to have an <l> in the word yolk, look at the story of the word and you will find out that the <l> is there to mark its connection to the color yellow, because yolk is yellow. So do you think students will remember the spelling because they understand the reason behind it or because they were told to memorize it? One great resource to help with sight words is Making Sense of Words That Don’t.

Make spelling lists of related words

The bane of my existence is when I see a list of spelling words that looks something like this:

high, every, hear, west, checked, grand, value, area, dress

This list has words with different spelling conventions, different grammatical features, and apparently no relation. It makes no sense. What about a spelling list like this one?

action, acting, activate, activation, reactivation, value, valuation, valued, invaluable

On the surface, it looks like students are learning only two words, but in actuality (which is another word we could add to this list), students are learning the underlying structure of words. They are learning that every word has a base and an affix or affixes and that those affixes are connected to grammar. Students learn that action is act + ion, and reactivation is re + act + ive + ate + ion. They learn that the single silent <e> in the suffix <ate> is elided because of the vowel suffix that follows it. They learn that <ing> is an inflectional suffix that can make <act> a noun and an adjective and that the <ive> + <ate> can make the word a verb. How cool is that? With this information, students are able to find those patterns in thousands of other words.

Think about this for a minute: If you can spell a word you can read it, but being able to read a word does not guarantee you can spell it. That sentence could have profound implications for how we introduce literacy skills to our youngest children. Should we teach spelling (orthography) before reading?

Kelli Sandman-Hurley is the co-owner of the Dyslexia Training Institute. She received her doctorate in literacy with a specialization in reading and dyslexia from San Diego State University and the University of San Diego. She is a trained special education advocate assisting parents and children through the Individual Education Plan (IEP) and 504 Plan process. Kelli is an adjunct professor of reading, literacy coordinator, and a tutor trainer. Kelli is trained by a fellow of the Orton-Gillingham Academy and in the Lindamood-Bell, RAVE-O, and Wilson Reading Programs. Kelli is the past president of the San Diego Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, as well as a board member of the Southern California Library Literacy Network. She co-created and produced “Dyslexia for a Day: A Simulation of Dyslexia,” is a frequent speaker at conferences, and is currently writing “Dyslexia: Decoding the System.”



Leave a comment
  1. Leslie | Jan 04, 2017

    I have a private practice in North Carolina and use the Orton-Gillingham approach to teach reading, spelling and writing.  I wish all classroom teachers had this training!  I'm also a teacher consultant and work with schools, teachers and other educational professionals that often don't know how to teach spelling in an organized, systematic, multi-sensory way.  Orton covers all these bases and I only wish school districts would get wise and make education a priority by getting teachers trained in what is researched base that works with all children, not just children with dyslexia!

  2. Patricia Okongwu | Oct 20, 2015
    Thank you. This is very helpful.I teach kindergarten students . Please in your opinion  when is the right age to test a child who has some signs of dyslexia.
  3. Alicia Force | Oct 16, 2015

    Lighten up people...  

  4. (Mr.) Gurprit Bains | Oct 07, 2015


    Very useful.

  5. Alma Rosa Martinez | Oct 06, 2015
    Your message is explained in a simple "teacher friendly" manner that can be used to explain to parents that demand a weekly spelling list. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. Just an FYI in spanish spelling is taught precisely in this manner it is called "derivados de palabras."
  6. KimberlyH | Oct 06, 2015
    Wonderful Article! Thank you for sharing! I got it and I'll use it!
  7. Saidov Halimjon Azizovich | Oct 06, 2015

    Firs t of all, I would like to express my special gratitude to the representatives of the International Literacy Association, for joining me to this group.  Looking through of these materials we can get more information about different scientific points! And it will improve our capabiliy and productivity in different spheres! Of course, with great satisfaction we can gain more experience.

    Sincerely, Halimjon Saidov from Tajik national University! 

  8. Suzanna | Oct 02, 2015

    Last week a student had a spelling list as described above (beginning, void, creation, follow). I felt so frustrated that we were wasting time of students who struggle with reading. Can't wait to show this article to my colleague!

    As to the red headed stepchild, I am a stepchild and have always been bothered by negative allusions to stepparents and stepchildren. My unfailingly kind stepmother of over 30 years doesn't fit this stereotype of disinterested, neglectful, hurtful parenting. 

    Kelly, thank you for continuing to speak up,  this isn't the first article of yours that I've printed and passed around. I'm sure it won't be the last!

  9. Marlene | Oct 01, 2015
    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge.  Great.
  10. Annie | Oct 01, 2015
    I am a red head and was a step child. It's funny, not offensive. Thanks for the ideas. Brilliant!
  11. Kelli Sandman-Hurley | Oct 01, 2015
    For those of you who were offended by the 'red-headed stepchild' reference, please accept my apologies. My business partner and friend happens to have red hair and when I ran this by her, she thought it was hilarious. I am quite certain most people will understand what the intent of the reference was and did indeed read on to get to the actual content. 
  12. ilisa kearns | Oct 01, 2015
    What an appalling bi-line to try and entice readers to your post. Imagine if you had used a statement that made a reference to race, age or sex- what an outcry.  Im not someone who is too overly PC but your comment is not clever or useful and I didnt want to read on. Your point was lost- such a shame as research and resourcing into this area is needed. Bad call!
  13. Barb Koumjian | Sep 30, 2015

    I've always used these techniques with my adult English language learners, except for the "story of the spelling" idea, which sounds a) useful and b) fun!!! Will try, thanks for the great tip.

    Now for the less positive critique: using phrases with pejorative connotations ("red-headed stepchild"), no matter how entrenched in our language and culture, perpetuates negative stereotypes.  I know it's challenging to find novel ways to express things but when we do, we encourage ourselves to enlarge our viewpoints and stifle unconscious biases. 

  14. Kris Clark | Sep 30, 2015
    As a dyslexia tutor, learning the rules for spelling, as recommended here, has had the greatest positive impact on my dyslexic students!  Imagine what a positive impact it could have in every classroom across America!
  15. JFormna | Sep 30, 2015
    I would look into Orton-Gillingham. It might make your life much easier once she has to delve into spelling on a serious level.  Best of luck. As an educator be patient with your child. I know it is harder for me as a mom to be patient with my own child when it comes to reading and sounds. I am sure you have done tons of research about Apraxia of Speech, I have a good friends son that was diagnosed.  Please look into Orton it will help your child be able to recall sounds when they are having trouble. 
  16. Really | Sep 29, 2015

    That was not a very nice thing to say about red headed step children.Was it!

  17. Stacey | Sep 29, 2015

    My daughter has Childhood Apraxia of Speech, CAS. Many kids with CAS are diagnosed with dyslexia once they reach school-age. Therefore, I'm always on the look-out for resources that make sense. A phoneme wall makes LOTS of sense. Love this idea!

    This is such a brilliant read! Thank you for sharing your expertise with us.

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