Cast a Spell!


A new focus on spelling within the curriculum has meant that we are all cursing the vagaries of the English language. Reading, spelling and handwriting are often integrated within specialist literacy programmes. Whilst many dyslexics learn to read; difficulties with spelling can persist and different skills to reading are required. Read on and help ALL of your struggling spellers!

  • I was curious about the etymology or history of the word ‘spell’, did it have any connections with magic ‘spell’?? For some children the ability to spell is acquired effortlessly, like reading, as if by magic.

Turns out the Middle English ‘spell’ meant to ‘preach, speak, talk and tell‘. The Proto-Germanic ‘spellan‘ meant ‘to tell’.


The first recorded instance of ‘spell’ to indicate individual letters in a word, was the early 15th Century. Naturally, children are now expected to do most of their ‘talking’ i.e. spelling, on the page.

For many children, some dyslexic, the ability to spell does not happen by magic… but after many hours of frustration, hard graft, shame and often tears.

  • What is it with the English Language??

We have one of the most opaque languages around with */44/ sounds (*two lines denote a sound) and only 26 alphabet letters! For languages with a more direct, one-to-one grapheme (letter) – phoneme (sound) correspondence: Spanish, Italian, Finnish, spelling is almost as easy as talking! …Lets just move to Spain.

We have a pick ‘n’ mix language with latin, greek and anglo Saxon influences. It’s no wonder children (and adults) get confused!

There are particular dyslexic spelling traits to be found, this isn’t exhaustive but keep them in mind. Remember the clues from my last post :Finding the Elephant in the classroom.

  • Persistent difficulty spelling High Frequency Words (common in the English language) i.e. lots of different ways ON THE SAME PAGE!
  • Not knowing when a word looks wrong.
  • Transposition of letters e.g. sliver for silver.
  • Missing part of a blend e.g. /s/ in /st/ or the /m/ in /mp/.
  • Not being able to identify the separate sounds in a word.
  • Missing whole syllables out (because they can’t hold them in working memory).
  • Unusual attempts at spelling, often over-reliant on phonics because they can’t picture the word.
  • Once learnt, an over-application of a spelling rule e.g. ‘e’ on the end of every word, just in case! (split digraph rule)…but never on an actual split digraph where it SHOULD go aaarrrgggghhhh!

The Role of Memory and Spelling.


Memory is thought to comprise of Working, Short Term and Long Term; incoming information is processed via the Central Executive. Working Memory can be thought of as a shelf for temporary information; everyone has a different size shelf and overload causes items to ‘drop out’ or off.


  • ‘I don’t know’.

Dyslexic learners, in particular, can start to loose faith in their memory. When put on the spot in class, it often fails them and they give up! The connections that dyslexic children make are often circuitous and complex. Give them time to find the words and they will surprise you and themselves! The act of trying means that more effective connections are made and they will remember better next time. Please, please, please, give them time.

Within short-term memory, we are thought to have the phonological loop (auditory) and the visuospatial sketchpad (visual). Importantly, these two aspects do not work together but are integrated at the Central Executive stage. In dyslexia, whilst auditory memory is often poor, the visuospatial sketchpad is unimpaired and is thought to be a strength. (Swanson, H. L., 2006)

The Central Executive is thought to drive the whole thing, as well as attention and is the boss!

Types of memory and how we can apply it to spelling:

  • Working Memory.

Auditory information can be retained better if it is chunked or repeated, so teach syllable division, it might be better supported by using visuals.

Tip: A useful app for this is Chimp Fu (Nessy)

  • Short Term Memory.

Do> use spelling routines that engage several senses SIMUTANEOUSLY e.g. writing the word, saying each letter, using scented pens. (Smell has strong links to memory).

Do> use colour, as this stimulates the visual memory e.g. You can colour each syllable differently.

Do> use tactile and some gross motor activities such as playdoh, skywriting and writing in scented salt. Gross motor activities will give feedback into the shoulder girdle and help further with a motor memory.


because 3d
Making words out of play doh
  • Long-term memory is thought to comprise of the following:
  1. Declarative (knowing that): semantic (facts) and episodic (autobiographical and experiential – strong in dyslexics).
  2. Procedural (knowing how). This is rote learning; doing something over becomes automatic. For some,  particularly dyslexics, this takes longer. (see Automaticity/Cerebellar Theory, Nicolson and Fawcett, 1999)

Do> use etymology (history of words), this provides meaning (semantic memory). Students should also be clear on the meaning of the word and know how to use it.

Do> use spelling rules (for the same reason!).

Do> let the child make up mnemonics (episodic/autobiographical) and make up stories or characters around spelling rules. Make it funny!

Do> use cursive (joined) handwriting, this will build up a motor memory (procedural). Dyslexic learners will take longer to do this. e.g. Use ‘rainbow’ writing: writing over the same word in several different colours.


  • Explicit teaching, what struggling spellers need to know:
  1. Teach letter names and encourage children to use them in spelling, each letter only has one name but can make many different sounds – confusing!!
  2. Tell the child a letter is a ‘picture’ of a sound, a letter has a name AND a sound. This is the ‘Alphabetic Principle’.
  3. Make sure they know all the vowel letters and that vowels can use their name AND sound in words. Y helps out and is a ‘semi-vowel’.
  4. Vowels are said with the mouth open and they create a syllable in a word.
  5. When a vowel makes a ‘short’ sound, it is usually in a closed syllable (closed in by a consonant). With a ‘long’ sound (saying its letter name) the syllable is called an ‘open syllable’.
  • Consonant = con/with, son/sound.

Tip: one way to introduce the idea of open and closed syllables is to cut words up!

cut up words

Cut up words
Cutting words into syllables


Top Ten Spelling Strategies; be inquisitive, spelling detectives!

  1. Teach spelling rules.

Struggling spellers are often relieved to find there are rules to spelling as they have spent most of their time making random guesses! Teach a few at a time and ensure that they are being consistently applied before introducing more e.g. ‘e’and ‘I’ turn ‘c’ and ‘g’ into soft sounds. Encourage the student to self-check.

2. Teach your students to use a dictionary.

Using a dictionary will build fluency around the use of letter names. It builds independence and encourages analysis of words, broadening vocabulary too. It is ‘discovery’ learning.

3. Teach prefix, root and suffix.

Students can start to ‘build’ words if they understand that the same components can be removed and changed around e.g. root ‘press’ can be de+press, then de+press+ing, there is a formula to spelling, like maths.

You can connect parts of words like blocks.

4. Teach onset and rime.

This helps students to understand that there are patterns in spelling and it is not as random as they thought. e.g. cat, can be pat, sat, hat etc by changing the first letter! Use analogy e.g. book… gets to cook and look.

5. Teach morphology and analysis; certain groups of letters can be seen as a unit, they appear in the same place. Taking the above example, ‘press’ can be express, depress, impress etc.

  • What are my spelling choices? Which out of the digraphs and trigraphs are the most/least common in a given position? e.g. from 5 choices for long e: /ee/, /ea/, /i.e./, /e_e/,/e/- (open syllable).

6. Use a mirror. See what the lips, tongue, teeth are doing. Feel for air, vibration etc. This will help to differentiate between sounds e.g. /b/ and /p/.

7. Say the word in a funny way e.g. Wed nes day, fru it. Look for words inside words e.g. ‘here’ is in ‘there’.

8. Use multi sensory techniques: say the letter names as the word is written, play spelling tennis, make the word in play doh, write it in scented salt, write over the same word in different colours.

9. Teach cursive handwriting. This creates a motor memory and writing will flow.

10. Teach to chunk into syllables. Tip for counting syllables – place hand under chin, feel the jaw move. A syllable is created by the vowel, vowels are uttered with the mouth open.


NB for spelling tests try to group like spelling patterns together and limit spellings.

Remember: there are always exceptions to the spelling rules! Teach them.


  • NLP (memorising words as pictures).

There’s a lot of controversy around this, I personally like to use it and children enjoy it!


Further Reading:

Bell, N. (1992) Visualising and verbalising for Language comprehension and thinking. Paso Robles. C.A. Academy of Reading Publications.

Berninger, V. W., Abbot, R. D., Nagy, W., Carlisles, J. (2010) Growth in phonological, Orthographic, and Morphological Awareness in Grades 1-6. Journal of Psycholinguist Research. Vol 39. Iss. 2, pp. 141-163.

Brooks, P. & Weeks, S. (1999). Individual Styles in learning to spell: Improving spelling in children with literacy difficulties and all children in mainstream schools. London: DfEE.

Dinehart, L. H. 2015 Handwriting in Early Education: current research and future implications. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy. vol 15 (1) 97-118.

Gathercole, S.E., Alloway, T. P. (2008) Working Memory and Learning: A Practical Guide, Los Angeles: Sage.

Henry, L., (2012) The Development of Working Memory in children. London: Sage.

Kelly, K. & Phillps, S. (2011) Teaching Literacy to Learners with Dyslexia, London: Sage.

Nunes, T and Bryant, P. (2006) Improving Literacy by Teaching Morphemes. London: Routledge.

Saunders, K. & White, A. (2002) How Dyslexics Learn: Grasping the Nettle. Patoss.

Stanton, Lidia (2016) 200 Tricky Spellings in Cartoon: Visual Mnemonics for Everyone.

Swanson, H. L., (2006) Working Memory and reading disabilities: Both phonological and executive processing difficulties are important, in Snowling, M. & Hulme , C. (Eds) Working Memory and Neurodevelopmental Disorders pp 58 – 88. Hove, Psychology Press.

Thompson, M.ed (2004) Dyslexia: Perspectives for classroom Practitioners. BDA – great book if you can get your hands on it!



5 Comments on “Cast a Spell!

  1. Pingback: AWARE! Dyslexia – thinkpix

  2. Based on my own teaching and life experience I have found the following:
    There are different forms of dyslexia and the best ways to help learners and readers are many. Learners will get frustrated by their lack of progress – irrespective of the teaching approach. They may always suffer from intermittent ‘optical buzz’ effects and ’emotional’ difficulties but motivation and intellectual engagement will help them to learn to manage themselves. They may also have special abilities e.g. many engineers, artists, craftspeople and architects are dyslexic but have extra three dimensional cognitive skills. Dyslexics often have great oral language/memory/debating skills e.g. actors and politicians. They can come to recognise and relish long words but continue to falter over small ones. All children need a lot of sensory and practical engagement in learning – and emotional support and dyslexics more so – plus routine every day very short repetition such as the Toe by Toe Course in order to establish neuronal connections.


  3. Pingback: Siiiiiigh …..t words! – thinkpix

  4. Pingback: Siiiiiigh…..t words: what to do?! – thinkpix

  5. Pingback: Dyslexia: KS2 support – thinkpix

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