Spelling is Rocket Fuel to Reading

This is a guest post by Georgina Mavor, an experienced literacy tutor who works with children, young people and adults who often come with significant barriers to learning, particularly dyslexia. When people ask if TRT and TST work for dyslexics, my answer is, ‘Yes but more slowly than for those without’. This post explains that process and why we should never give up on getting dyslexic students to read and spell.

Now from Georgina:

I stand by my assertion that spelling is the ‘rocket fuel’ to reading. I should just say spelling is ‘rocket fuel’.

Most of my work involves providing Tier 3 remediation to the 5 – 15% of students who find it extremely difficult learning to read. But, given that I work with good quality linguistic phonics programs, I am always confident that every child/adolescent/adult that comes my way will learn to read.

Spelling is a significant part of every lesson and contributes powerfully to the acquisition of reading. Where I get really surprised (and excited) however is in the improvement in spelling accuracy by those students who teachers (and initially myself) have considered impossible to teach spelling to. These students all have severe impairments due to their dyslexia, but I have taught them using the method and activities outlined in That Spelling Thing, I have requested that they work with multi syllable words (with a target sound) for classroom spelling AND they practice independently at home 2 – 3 times per week.

Their performance on classroom spelling tests improved immediately. But I consider this an incidental result rather than the main game. What’s really interesting is the growth in their sound/symbol schema that underpins spelling – even on sounds and spellings I have not explicitly covered.

For example, this week I worked with a student on the /air/ sound. In my introduction to each sound I usually try to ascertain what already exists in long term memory. I asked if they knew any spellings for the /air/ sound. The student wrote ‘air’ on the mini whiteboard. “Did they know any others?” The student wrote ‘ir’. Mmm, I needed to take another tack.

“What about if I ask you to write the word ‘bear’. Don’t think about it too much, just say the sounds and see what comes out of the end of you hand.” They wrote ‘bear’. Continuing with this approach they added ‘care’ and ‘there’. Then I inquired about ‘their’. I got two versions, ‘thir’ and ‘ther’ – partial Mental Orthographic Images. More work was needed.

But overall I was shocked at how many accurate spellings this student had produced! Six months ago I would not have said it was possible. Our spelling work had made a significant difference to the development of the sound/symbol neural schema that underpins reading and spelling.

Ditto for several other students, one of whom has had to work with 35 words a week! Their brain’s ability to work with the range of spellings for sounds in words is stronger and faster. It doesn’t happen overnight but slowly I see the growth in their work with individual words. Their brains are different. Spelling is ‘rocket fuel’ to neural development.


You can connect with Georgina on Facebook at The Reading Coach OZ and Twitter @GeorginaMavor