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Ask Susan: My Son Struggles with Spelling

Hi Susan

My son, who is 10, has a problem with spelling. He reads adequately, however, he spells words as they sound to him. I am concerned that he is going to encounter a lot of problems when he hits high school. Sometimes I wonder if spelling even matters? What do you suggest?


Dear Bronwyn

The ability to spell correctly is one of the fundamentals that will never cease to be important. Not only can spelling difficulties cause problems at school, but the ability to spell is nearly essential for adult employment.

The advantage of a good spelling ability in the work place was indicated by a survey of 1,500 employers and employees, conducted by Office Angels, the UK’s leading secretarial and office support recruitment consultancy. This survey revealed that a full 84 percent of employers believe that the value of even the most excellent work can be debased by sloppy spelling and grammar. It further showed that 77 percent of employers regard a high degree of literacy as an essential skill, and that employees who demonstrate attention to detail are more likely to be on the fast track to promotion. Work peppered with sloppy spelling and grammar left 20 percent of employers fuming, while 53 percent perceived the employee as lazy and unprofessional. The same percentage of managers – 53 percent – admitted that they would not read any further once they had spotted literacy errors.

It is thus wise to make sure that a child’s spelling is on par.

Only one sequence is correct

Spelling is one curriculum area in which neither creativity nor divergent thinking is encouraged. Only one sequence or arrangement of letters can be accepted as correct; there is no compromise or leeway.

English spelling is particularly difficult. Over the centuries the pronunciation of English has deviated ever further away from the spelling. Many languages have reformed their spelling to adjust to such changes, but English has not. It teems with spelling and pronunciation challenges … words like buffet, cousin, canyon, cough and mosquito.

What makes spelling even more difficult is that the written form of the English language has an inconsistent pattern. Only approximately 50 percent of spellings follow regular phonetic rules.

Learning is a step-by-step process

When teaching we should always keep in mind that learning is a step-by-step process. Certain skills have to be mastered first, before it becomes possible to master subsequent skills.

Although learning to spell correctly is difficult for most children, it is especially difficult – and sometimes impossible – if there are underlying shortcomings. The skill of spelling embraces many subskills.

Subskills of particular importance are: 
  • The ability to analyze, i.e. to perceive the whole in its individual parts
  • Auditory perception of letter sounds and auditory memory
  • Decoding skills
  • Visual memory for sequences.

Shortcomings in one or more of these subskills can greatly affect a person’s spelling ability.

Edublox offers an online solution to overcome problems such as these. Reading Tutor aims at improving the cognitive skills that are foundational to reading and spelling, including auditory perception, auditory analysis, auditory memory, decoding skills and visual memory for sequences. The program also comprises a comprehensive exercise aimed at teaching reading and spelling, and at expanding vocabulary.

While doing Reading Tutor, spelling games like the four below can be played to teach and reinforce spelling.

Spelling game 1: Use board games, such as Monopoly

Play any board game that is normally played with a dice with the child – Monopoly, for example. The parent can continue to move her token forward in the normal way by throwing the dice, but the child must orally spell a word to move forward.

To select words that can be used, the parent can use words from the child’s schoolwork that he often misspells. She must make word cards of these words. It is best to use not fewer than 20 words and not more than 30. When playing a board game, the same 20-30 words can be used, or if the child already knows how to spell them, other words can be selected. The parent must thoroughly shuffle the word cards, and then put them in a pile upside down on the table between the two (or more) players.

When it is the child’s turn to play, the parent must take a word from the top of the pile and then say the word aloud. The child must spell the word. If the child spells the word correctly, he may move his token the same number of spaces as there are letters in the word. For example, for a word of seven letters he may move his token forward seven spaces. The word card is then put aside. If, however, he misspells the word, the parent must show the word to the child, and the child must spell the word aloud three times while looking at the word, and then three times without looking at it. Then the word is put at the bottom of the pile, so that it will come up again later. If the child misspells a word, he may also not move his token for that turn.

Spelling game 2: Hide and seek game

Use the letters of a particular word, and build new words with these letters. For example, if one decides to use the word ‘difficulty’, one would write this word on a piece of paper and put it in front of the child.

The aim of the game is that the child must make a list of all the words he can think of using only the letters of the chosen word. It can also be played as a competition, meaning the parent can play it with the child, and at the end, the one with the largest number of correctly spelt words, wins.

There are always many words that can be formed in this way, and in an indirect manner the spelling of the chosen word is practiced, while many other words are also tested for spelling. A few examples of words that can be formed from the letters of ‘difficulty’ are: if, left, cult, cliff, fifty, duty, etc.

Note that each letter may be used once only. The letter f appears twice in the word ‘difficulty’, and therefore a word like ‘fifty’ is acceptable. ‘Dull’, however, is not acceptable (two ‘L’s).

Some examples of words to use: alphabetical; misunderstanding; occasionally; postponement; mayonnaise; multimillionaire; credibility; determination; education; friendship; generosity; hippopotamus.

Spelling game 3: Word jumbles

Another interesting method of practicing spelling is by making word jumbles. The child then has to sort out the confused letters to come up with a word, which he has been taught before.

Words must be selected from the child’s schoolwork. Use a piece of paper, and write the word jumble on the paper. For example, if the letters ‘hergun’ are written on the paper, the child must rearrange them to form the word ‘hunger’.

Spelling game 4: Name, surname, animal and city/town

To play this game, the parent and child will both need a piece of paper and a pencil. Write the 26 letters of the alphabet on a piece of paper, and select a letter at random. The parent and the child must now, as fast as they can, write down a name, surname, animal and town that start with the selected letter. The one who finishes first gives the other party only five seconds, before shouting “Stop!” and then all pencils must be put down.

Ten points are awarded for each correctly-spelt word. If both parent and child had exactly the same word under one of the headings, for example, both had the same animal, only five points will be awarded if the word was correctly spelt.

Say, for instance, the letter ‘D’ was selected: Names: Douglas, Debbie, David. Surnames: Davis. Animals: dog, dinosaur, deer. City/town: Dallas, Durban.

Bronwyn, I trust the information provided will assist you in helping your son overcome his spelling difficulties.

Best wishes,


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More about Susan

Susan is an educational specialist in the field of learning problems and dyslexia and has a B.A. Honors in Psychology and B.D. degree. Early in her professional career Susan was instrumental in training over 3,000 teachers and tutors, providing them with the foundational and practical understanding to facilitate cognitive development amongst children who struggle to read and write. With over 30 years of research to her name Susan conceptualized the Edublox teaching and learning methods that have helped thousands of children who were struggling academically to read, learn and achieve. In 2007 Susan opened the first Edublox reading and learning clinic and now there are 40 Edublox clinics internationally. Her proudest moments are when she sees a child who had severe learning difficulties come top of their class after one or two years at Edublox. Susan always takes time to collect the ‘hero’ stories of learners whose self-esteem is lifted as their marks improve.