In this guest post, Joanna Nijakowska, author of Dyslexia in the Foreign Language Classroom (2010), explores the difficulty of spelling among dyslexic learners of English, and how the use of the red pen only enforces incorrect spelling.
Spelling mistakes constitute a notorious feature of dyslexic writing. Teachers often highlight or circle the mistakes (especially with a red pen) bringing them to the surface of the text but in that way students focus their attention on and consolidate the erroneous forms instead of learning the correct spelling.
In similar vein, writing the words on the blackboard and asking students to compare them with their own spelling attempts does not work very well with learners with dyslexia.
The occurrence of mistakes is sometimes indicated on the margin in a given line of the text; however, if we do not specify where exactly the mistake is, we make the correcting task much harder for our students with dyslexia.
Another technique is to simply count down the mistakes and give the total at the bottom of the text, often with no indication of the exact position of the mistakes. Unfortunately, even very careful looking at words and searching for mistakes cannot guarantee identifying the misspelled ones, just the opposite, it happens that perfectly well-spelled words get ‘corrected’ mistakenly.
It proves much more effective and less time-consuming to cross the misspelled word and write the correct spelling above or next to it. In that way it is the correct form which is made visible and, hopefully, integrated.
Words whose spelling is difficult for students to remember require decent practice, frequent repetition and consolidation – much more that would seem standard. However, mechanical repetition (e.g. spelling a word a hundred times) seems rather useless, it evokes boredom and decreases motivation. Students tend not to concentrate and often rewrite the practised words with mistakes.
To make the task more interesting, we may model the sound-letter structure of words with the use of tokens, finger tracing of letters and words on various surfaces, colour-coded card sorting with simultaneous verbalising of the orthographic rules.
These activities can be followed by blackboard drills, regular paper-pencil tasks and games. Forming word families for the misspelled words, designing mnemonics and multisensory movable devices which involve the kinaesthetic-tactile elements of learning and enormously enhance remembering helps to anchor the correct spelling in memory.
Below are some examples of movable teaching aids used for practising various spelling choices of the long vowel /ai/ in English. Words are grouped into families sharing a given spelling pattern.
- Students manipulate a movable device comprising three piles of cards joined at the top with a spring to form words containing the /ai/ sound spelled with the letters ‘igh’ in the middle. They read and spell the words.
- Students manipulate word slides to form words. They read and write the words down.
- Words containing the /ai/ sound spelled with the ‘i-e’ letter pattern.
- Words containing the /ai/ sound spelled with the letter ‘-y’ at the end.
Joanna Nijakowska is Assistant Professor in the Institute of English at the University of Łódź, Poland. A specialist in psycholinguistics, foreign language acquisition and didactics, and learning difficulties, she runs teacher training courses for ELT students and practitioners. She has authored and edited books and papers on EFL and dyslexia, presenting her research at European and American academic centers.