My Child Struggles with Spelling. Could It Be a Learning Disability?

Spelling well can help us communicate clearly and effectively. Although spelling instruction has been deemphasized in English language curriculums in recent years, spelling knowledge helps children confidently use written language and free up attention for higher level thinking and the content of their writing.

If you’re worried about your child’s spelling abilities, you might fear struggles in school, post-secondary education and perhaps even within their professional endeavours. Spelling incorrectly carries stigma and invites ‘correction,’ even, or perhaps even more so, in this increasingly online world.

Are some people just “better spellers” than others? Could your child’s spelling difficulties be symptomatic of a learning disability?

Why Does Spelling Matter?

Spelling research is nowhere near as robust as reading research, but we know that direct spelling instruction is a vital and effective method of imparting literacy to the next generation.

90% of English words follow spelling rules and patterns, so learning spelling and phonics rules isn’t just empowering, it’s efficient. Understanding spelling rules can help free up cognitive resources for higher-level thinking while writing, just as understanding how to decode phonics can free up resources for comprehension while reading.

    With the advent of digital communication and emojis, spelling might be more important than ever. Sure, it’s totally acceptable to abbreviate and omit the odd punctuation mark in a text message, but spelling can make or break an important email, tweet, or text when it matters.

    And matter it does. Plenty of research shows that we’re being judged by our spelling. However unfairly, an inability to spell properly is perceived as a sign of lower intelligence and less credibility in social, academic, and professional settings.

    In the digital age we use written text, DM and email over in-person and phone communication more than ever in modern times. Misspelled words can taint our message and our reputation.

    How Dysgraphia Causes Spelling Challenges

    Dysgraphia is a learning disability which causes issues with writing and other fine motor skills. Symptoms of dysgraphia include difficulties with handwriting, word and letter sizing and spacing, legibility and spelling.

    Research shows that sequential finger movements and orthographic coding are both impaired in people with dysgraphia. Orthographic coding, or orthographic mapping, is the ability to create a permanent memory of the pronunications and spellings of words. 

    Most people with dysgraphia are diagnosed in early childhood, when writing instruction is introduced and challenges become quickly apparent. According to the International Dyslexia Associaton, children with dysgraphia may have only impaired handwriting, only impaired spelling (without reading problems), or both impaired handwriting and impaired spelling. 

    How Dyspraxia Causes Spelling Challenges

    Dyspraxia, or Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), is a neurological disorder that affects a child’s development of motor skills and coordination. Children with dyspraxia might appear to be ‘clumsy’ and are usually diagnosed at the age of 5 or later, as early childhood ‘clumsiness’ is less noticeable and rate of motor skill development can vary widely.

    According to the UK National Health Service (NHS), the causes of DCD aren’t definitively understood, but research-backed risk factors include:

    • being born prematurely, before the 37th week of pregnancy
    • being born with a low birth weight
    • having a family history of DCD
    • having been exposed to alcohol and/or other substances in utero

    Learning to spell and write requires massive and sustained mental effort for all students, but for learners with dyspraxia, spelling and writing requires physical effort beyond the norm. Writing may even be fatiguing and painful.

    How Dyslexia Causes Spelling Challenges

    Dyslexia is a common neurological disorder that affects as many as 1 in 5 learners and interferes with the ability to read and spell, regardless of cognitive ability. People with dyslexia have a deficit in phonological learning which makes recognizing and learning speech sounds more difficult.

    Key to dyslexia is a difficulty with decoding and producing written words. Dyslexic children will often have well-developed and even above-average skills in other academic arenas while struggling with:

    • Sounding out written words
    • Recognizing common words in text
    • Spelling
    • Reading accurately and smoothly
    • Understanding what’s read
    • Writing
    • Rhyming
    • Solving word problems in math

    The often wild difference between a child’s compromised abilities to read and write and their adequate or even heightened abilities in other areas is a hallmark of dyslexia. Learners with dyslexia often develop compensatory oral language, problem solving and creative skills to cope with their phonological deficit; although dyslexia can be reliably diagnosed as early as 5.5 years of age, some people with dyslexia go undiagnosed until adolescence or even adulthood.

    Other Causes of Spelling Difficulty

    Dyspraxia, Dysgraphia and Dyslexia are three diagnoseable disorders which might interfere with your child’s ability to spell and write, but not every child who has difficulty spelling will have a learning disability.

    Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can make it difficult for a child to sustain focus during writing tasks and spelling lessons. Learners with ADHD may be less likely to notice spelling mistakes or to organize their thoughts while writing, potentially causing more spelling errors.

    Difficulty with auditory or visual processing can also manifest as spelling difficulty by interfering with a child’s ability to make out speech sounds or view and process written language. These writing and spelling symptoms will be accompanied by broader auditory and/or visual deficits. 

    No matter the reason for your child’s spelling difficulties, research shows that a direct, science-based approach to teaching spelling rules and literacy skills is most effective.

    👉 Reach out to discuss a 1:1 Functional Literacy Assessment to discover where your child’s learning became interrupted and how to move forward with the tools and strategies they’ll need to communicate effectively now, and in the future.


    Did you discover your child was struggling to spell due to a learning disability or disorder? Share below!

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