It happened again. I was in an IEP for a student with dyslexia who is struggling with spelling the most. This GATE-identified young man is in the 5th grade and spelling phonetically, yet he was not receiving services for spelling last year – which is why I am now involved in the IEP process. The meeting was somewhat tense from the beginning, but when we got to the spelling goal this is what was presented: Thomas will be taught to memorize and spell 200 of the most common sight words. Hmm. Ok. So, my response: Can we change this goal so that we are actually teaching him to spell versus just memorizing some words? This is when I got the death stare and then silence. I interpreted the silence to mean that the RSP teacher didn’t know how to write the goal because she did not know how to teach a kid who is spelling phonetically how to spell. Then she said it, and the general ed teacher agreed with a nod of his head: He is going to middle school next year and he really doesn’t need to know how to spell anymore. I mean they don’t give spelling tests. My heart started to pound and then she added the ubiquitous suggestion: He can just learn to use spell check.
So, I decided to put their theory to the test. Does knowing how to use spell check negate the need to know how to spell? I typed a story written by this very student into Microsoft Word and then I used spell check. Here is the student’s story (about Diary of a Wimpy Kid) as he wrote it, verbatim:
Greg Heffley is manly a stik figer for the Movie greg whor a white shert and black shors. Diery of a whimpy is by Jeff Kinney. Greg has three hars stiking out of is head. for the school they yost for schools. for the basketball cort, the gym, halls. Greg and roly cam frens. But they condent see eshother after the movey. after the move it has hard for the actors to get to thar moms. The actors had to whar serten clos. greg manly whor a whith shert and black pats. Roly whor sherts that lokt like his mother pict them out, and fregly whor werd stuf.
There are 108 words in this passage and I do give him immense credit for his ability to keep writing despite the obvious struggle. Not including the proper names, there are 30 spelling mistakes which is 27% of the words. There are 5 capitalization mistakes and one word that was written correctly, but it is the wrong word (is should have been his). Microsoft Word was able to correctly identify what he meant to write 9 times which is only 30% of the misspelled words. So, if this student solely relied on spell check he would still misspell 20% of total words written. Is this acceptable? If it is, then spell check is the answer. If it is not, then read on and we will look at what his spelling mistakes tell us about this student. Lastly, is the content representative of his true ability and thoughts or is his writing hampered by his spelling? If it is hampered, what will happen as school begins to require more writing?
First, let me offer you some background about this student. He is formally diagnosed with dyslexia. He was held back in the first grade. He is currently in the fifth grade and reading 90 correct words per minute, which is about 1.5 grades behind. You have seen his spelling, so you know that he is struggling the most with that skill. He has a documented deficit in phonological memory along with phonological awareness, which makes spelling very difficult.
It is obvious that this young man is writing phonetically. Interestingly, he is spelling many of the sight words correctly, which he has been working on with his teacher. This is great news and evidence that he can learn when the skill he needs to strengthen is the focus of his intervention. The rest of his spelling illustrates that he has not been taught about syllabication, syllable types (closed, open vowel-consonant-e, consonant-le, r-controlled and digraph and/or vowel team), basic spelling rules, such as (e.g. ff, ll, ss, zz), when to s versus c, and he is not been taught to spell syllable by syllable. Not to mention morphological awareness and etymology. He has not been taught to spell, period.
Let’s take a moment to analyze the content of this GATE-identified student’s writing sample. His sentence structure is very basic. There isn’t much organization. The content is pretty superficial for someone who loves these books and can orally convey much more complex ideas. This student has had dysgraphia and executive function problems ruled out through private testing. We can agree that speech to text would be great for him, but does that mean he shouldn’t learn to spell? If he was not experiencing cognitive overload while spelling (even on a word processor) would the complexity of his writing change? Would just knowing how to spell change that aspect of his writing? Of course. So should we teach this child to spell?
So, now that you know all of this about this student, you have seen his writing sample and I have provided a list of what he needs to learn to improve this spelling, should we give up on teaching spelling to this GATE-identified 5th grader? Will spell check help him? What will happen when he tries to use the internet without appropriate spellings? Is knowing how to spell important? I say it is and I say learning to spell will also improve reading, not to mention self-esteem.
Dyslexia is real and it really affects spelling.
Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley is the co-founder of the Dyslexia Training Institute (www.dyslexiatraininginstitute.org and www.dyslexiadr.com.) She is currently writing Putting the D in to the IEP and you can read excerpts at www.dyslexiadr.blogspot.com. She received her doctorate in Literacy with a specialization in reading and dyslexia from San Diego State University and the University of San Diego. Dr. Sandman-Hurley a Certified Special Education Advocate assisting parents and children through the Individual Education Plan (IEP) and 504 Plan process. She 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 (SCLLN). She is a professional developer for California Library Literacy Services (CLLS) as well as a Literacy Consultant for the San Diego Council on Literacy. She was awarded the Jane Johnson Fellowship and the Commission on Adult Basic Education (COABE) scholarship. Kelli has presented at numerous conferences as well as provided professional development for k-12 teachers. She is currently working on her book, Putting the D in IEP: A guide to dyslexia in the school system. Join the Dyslexia Training Institute at www.facebook.com/dyslexiatraining