Learning to read and spell is a complicated task which requires mastery of lots of different skills. These skills are:
- Being able to process the sounds in words; either breaking the word down into its individual sounds to spell or blending individual sounds together to read words. For example, to write the word ‘cat’ a child needs to be able to sound out ‘c-a-t’. To read the word ‘cat’ a child needs to be able to blend the sounds ‘c-a-t’ together.
- Knowing letter-sound correspondences for reading and writing. Letter-sound correspondences refer to the link between what is heard and what is written (the letter/letters that represent a sound) as well as what is seen (read) and what is spoken, i.e. ‘d’ (as in dog) is written with a letter ‘d’ and ‘ch’ (as in chair) is written with the letters ‘c’ and ‘h’. In English this is especially difficult as often sounds can be represented in a multitude of ways, particularly vowel sounds. For example, the sound ‘or’ can be written as ‘or’ in for, ‘our’ in four, ‘al’ in talk, ‘ough’ in bought, ‘augh’ in caught, ‘ore’ in before, ‘oor’ in door, ‘ar’ in warm, ‘oar’ in oar, ‘aw’ in paw and ‘au’ in cause. Furthermore, the rules defining which form should be used are often inconsistent or non-existent. You simply have to know which one is correct.
- Holding onto the sounds being read or the word being sounded out in your working memory as you decode new/unfamiliar words.
- Having strong fine motor skills which allow you to control the pencil when writing.
- Having good vision skills in order to see the letters on the page with ease.
A breakdown in one or more of these areas can lead to difficulty learning to read and spell. Difficulties can present in many ways, some of which are more obvious than others. For example:
- A child might present with obvious reading and spelling difficulties, such as not being able to read or write anything after many hours of instruction.
- A child might have difficulty remembering spelling words from one week to the next but do well in their weekly spelling tests.
- They might reverse their letters when writing; a common error is b/d confusion, which is an appropriate error when a child is in Primary 1, but not in Primary 3.
- They might retrieve the wrong sound when reading; again this happens frequently with b/d in the early years of reading.
- A child may struggle to sound out words accurately, frequently omitting letters, putting additional letters in or mixing up the order of letters in a word.
- They may do well in early years reading and spelling, and appear to suddenly develop reading and spelling difficulties in later years as the skills required become more complex.
- There may be a big difference between a child’s reading and spelling skills. Reading and spelling skills are stored in different systems so develop separately. Therefore, one area can be strong whilst the other is weak.
- There may be a big difference between a child’s cognitive skills and reading/spelling skills.
- Poor performance in writing tasks can also be an indicator of underlying reading and spelling difficulties, although this can also be an indicator of underlying language difficulties.
Children with a family history of difficulty in learning to read and spell, as well as those children who have a history of language and/or articulation difficulties, are at risk of developing reading and spelling difficulties. Therefore, it’s important to monitor their reading and spelling development closely. Reading and writing become increasingly important and integral to a child’s learning as they move up the years in school.
If you are concerned about your child’s reading and spelling skills you should talk to your child’s class teacher. Ask whether the teacher has concerns about the child’s development and what they suggest you do to assist with their development. You could also try using the following tasks to boost your child’s underlying reading and spelling skills. The stronger their foundation skills are, the more able they will be to read and write unknown words.
With all the strategies/games below it is imperative to use sounds, not letter names. For example, ‘d’ not ‘dee’, ‘s’ not ‘es’, ‘z’ not ‘zed/zee’, etc.
1. Talk to your child about what reading is: seeing something on a page and making it come out of your mouth. This may seem obvious, but children who have reading difficulties need to be specifically taught about the metalinguistics behind reading.
2. Practise blending sounds together without reading them. Give your child some sounds that they have to put together to guess the word. Start with small words and increase the length, sound by sound. For example, ‘s-ee’ ‘see’, ‘u-p’ ‘up’, ‘s-ea-t’ ‘seat’, ‘s-t-ea-m’ ‘steam’ and ‘b-e-s-t’ ‘best’. If your child finds this task tricky, encourage them to repeat the sounds before trying to blend them together.
3. Put all the letter-sound correspondences your child is expected to know for their age (their class teacher will be able to tell you which ones they have been taught) on blank playing cards and practise reading each sound. If you make two sets of cards, you can play old-fashioned card games, such as Snap, Memory, Go Fish and many more. The aim is for your child to be able to read each letter-sound swiftly and accurately. The quicker your child can retrieve each sound they need when reading, the less dependent they are on their working memory to support their reading skills and the quicker they can read for meaning.
1. Talk to your child about what spelling is: saying something with your mouth and making it come out of your pencil. Knowing the metalinguistics behind spelling can help children master their spelling difficulties.
2. Practise sounding out words without writing them down. Give your child a word and break it down into its individual sounds. Start with small words and increase the length sound by sound. For example, ‘see’ ‘s-ee’, ‘up’ ‘u-p’, ‘seat’ ‘s-ea-t’, ‘steam’ ‘s-t-ea-m’ and ‘best’ ‘b-e-s-t’. If your child finds this task difficult, encourage them to think about what their mouth is doing as they say the word. By developing your child’s ability to sound out accurately, you are supporting their spelling skills.
3. Play Speed Racer to practise writing the letter-sound correspondences your child is expected to know for their age (once again, this information can be sought through their class teacher). You say one of the sounds your child should know how to write and they write it down as quickly and as neatly as they can. It’s then a race to beat their personal best. How quickly can they write down ten sounds that you give them? The quicker your child can retrieve the sounds they need when spelling unknown words, the less dependent they are on their working memory to support their spelling skills.
If you have tried the games above and progress remains minimal, you might consider more formal individual or small group support. This could be from a tutor or speech and language therapist who specialises in reading and spelling difficulties.
Nic Parker is a paediatric speech and language therapist with 12 years’ experience. Her practice is based in Sai Kung. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.