Our seventh grader has been through extensive remediation. He reads beautifully now, but he still wants to work on his spelling. I am a huge fan of tutoring and he has had extensive tutoring just for spelling. The thing is he wants and is requesting of us to continue to work on spelling. And he does continue to improve each year on spelling, so it is not that he has plateaued. Is there a program a parent can do at home or a computer program you recommend for a middle schooler who has had (in spades) all of the direct 1:1 interventions and now just needs to gradually improve spelling?

Dr. Pierson's Response: 

Good for your son to want to continue to improve his skills. That is quite impressive for a middle schooler! Many times, they are so fed up with all of the extra hours of intervention that they just want out.

When we are teaching spelling, we need to make sure that the rules of orthography are made clear to our students. The English language has a bad rap and a myth around it that the spelling is unpredictable. This is not true. While, indeed there are many words that do not follow the rules, many, actually most, do. It is estimated that the spelling of 87% of English words is predictable. Roughly half of all words follow a one-to-one correspondence in regard to sounds (i.e., phonemes) mapping directly onto letters. Another 37% can be learned through instruction about letter combinations (e.g., -igh, -augh), base words and roots, and prefixes and suffixes. That leaves only 13% of the words not following the rules -- those “red” words. These words tend to be the older words in our language whose pronunciation has changed over time. The key to instruction is that we need to make the rules of orthography transparent to students. We need to teach them about the origins of the words in English (e.g., Anglo-Saxon, French, Latin, Greek).

For example, we teach that when you know a (regular) verb is in the past tense, you always spell it by adding -ed, no matter if you hear “/t/, /d/, or /ed/” (e.g., jumped, bugged, waited). We teach that the Latin root “struct” means ‘to build’ and the root spelling never changes. For example, when we say “constructed” we clearly hear the /t/ in “struct.” But, when we say “structure” that /t/ changes to a /ch/ sound (or /sh/ perhaps). Regardless, the root spelling doesn’t change, so I know to spell ‘struct’ and then add the suffix ‘ure.’ This is what I refer to when talking about transparency. These rules need to be explicitly and systematically taught to our students. And, then to tackle the remaining 13% of those pesky words that don’t follow the rules, we need to help the student develop memory hooks to recall those spellings. For example, one of my students always says, “My eye has a pupil” to remember the spelling of pupil. To remember that i in friend -- “I am a friend to the end.” This is actually quite fun as they think up their own ideas, words, and images. Additionally, which is challenging for our students with dyslexia, we know that to create those mental orthographic images (MOIs) that we have of words, reading contributes greatly. Given that our students with dyslexia typically do not read as much as their peers and are probably reading below grade level, they do not have the needed exposure to words. Therefore, we need to work on reading the words in conjunction with learning to spell them.

There are a couple of good resources for you. Marcia Henry's book, “Words: Integrated Decoding Instruction Structure” is a good resource that won’t break the bank. You could administer the pre-test and see where to begin. Dr. Henry addresses the origins of the English language, too. Moose Materials is a great resource for games that support learning Latin and Greek roots and affixes. These are really nice because they have pictures paired with roots and their meanings to assist in memory and comprehension. The Reading Teacher’s Book of Lists is an excellent resource for just that, lists of words. I have the list here.

I also like William Van Cleave's materials. This book by Diana Hanbury King is also excellent at helping understand the structure of the English Language. And, I have more on spelling here . I hope this is helpful. Given your son’s motivation, I suspect that with explicit instruction in the rules of our orthography for the rule-followers and strategies to remember the rule-breakers, he will meet with success.