My 4th grader has a number of mild but significant challenges: dyslexia, ADHD, auditory processing disorder, poor coordination, and maybe a couple of other things. I have done a lot of work getting her help, and right now she is in a good spot. She likes school a lot. She has 40 minutes 4x per week of one-on-one special education for reading in her public school. My question is about spelling tests in the mainstream classroom. My daughter has struggled through several years of spelling tests, and it’s been OK to do, it hasn’t caused damage, let’s say. This year the words are much harder, she only has to study the first 15 (out of maybe 25), but it has become very hard for her. She gets 5 out 15, or 8 out of 15, and she feels stupid. Generally just because she is able to spell a word this week, does not mean she can spell that word next week. It feels a bit futile to study for these tests—probably 1.5 to 2 hours a week, to get a 6 out of 15, and forget them next week. Now she is talking about wanting to trade her “dumb dyslexic brain” in, because of these spelling tests. Should we persist with spelling tests? Should I give her an easier list? I tell her I want her to be able to read the words, her scores don’t matter. I want to do what is best, obviously, so if that means spelling tests, that’s fine. If not, I think I can work with her teacher to come up with an alternative. Thanks for any thoughts you might have.


Dr. Pierson's Response: 

Your daughter's story is a familiar one to any parent of a kid with LD. My short answer is if her teacher is willing to make some accommodations, then I think that is the route to go. One of the most important things is to preserve her self-esteem and her belief in herself as a learner.

Many of the spelling curricula seem to have no rhyme or reason to them, particularly when we think about teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, and morphological awareness to kids. The progression may or may not make sense. Furthermore, all those red marks on a returned test do nothing to boast self-esteem. A little guy—1st grader—with whom I am working recently came in to me with the saddest face because he'd missed ALL of the spelling words on the weekly pre-test and his teacher had, of course, marked them all wrong with one of those awful red pens. (When I taught pre-service teachers, I told them to toss those pens out!) When I looked at the errors he'd made, he had only made 2 rule-based errors; and had she taught him the rules, I suspect, actually I know, the outcome would have been very different. Within 7 minutes, I taught him those 2 rules, which he recalled for his mother at the end of our 60 min. session; and then they were able to practice those rules at home. And, he scored 90% on the post-test.

In regards to the question about giving her an easier list—she needs to continue to be exposed to the vocabulary that her peers are, otherwise she will fall further behind them. So, I would continue to expose her to the spelling words in context, so that she learns the meanings; and then find a way to assess her understanding of the word so that she experiences success. For example, she could verbally use the word in a sentence to demonstrate that she understands its meaning.

Relative to learning to spell the words, at your daughter’s age word study should definitely include learning Latin and Greek roots, prefixes, and suffixes. I actually begin work with inflectional morphology (e.g., word endings that mark plurals and verb tense) as young as first grade. Learning Latin and Greek derivational roots (i.e., where many of our English words are derived from) is important for spelling because the roots tend to have the same spelling across the varying words that contain them. Once a student knows how to spell a Latin or Greek root in one word, she can usually predict its spelling in another word. For example, if I know how to spell struct, I can be successful at spelling construct, deconstructed, reconstruction, etc. Similarly, if I know that struct means “to build” and that con means “with” then with the help of the context of the sentence that I am reading, I can begin to understand the meaning of a word that I may not have seen before.

Targeting Latin and Greek roots is quite rewarding as well for the older student because she meets with success at reading multisyllabic words, rather than focusing on words she might consider “childish.” I have found great success using visual images to help support learning of these roots. Moose Materials has a nice, reasonably priced set of roots with the definition accompanied by a picture that helps the student recall the definition. One 6th-grader with whom I am working frequently says, “What’s the picture?” to herself, brings it to mind, then verbalizes the picture, and then gives the definition! Once she has learned the image and definition, it works every time. Although this article is written for professionals, it explains the importance of targeting morphological skills in students with dyslexia and other language-based disorders.

So, in summary, I do recommend making accommodations to the spelling tasks and tests so that she can feel successful. And then, importantly, she needs to start being exposed to and taught morphological roots, beginning with inflectional, if she does not have those understandings (i.e., every time she hears a regularly past tense word, whether she hears ‘t’ as in “kicked” or ‘d’ as in “bugged”—she always spells it with -ed) and then quickly moving on to the derivational forms. A very good book to learn more about the role of oral language in reading and spelling is Louisa Moats's Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers—2nd Edition.