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Julie Myre-Bisaillon, Anne Rodrigue, Véronique Parent, Carole Boudreau, and Annick Tremblay-Bouchard

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In this summary, the researchers identify spelling skills as problematic for many students with learning disabilities (LDs), which is supported in the literature. The literature also indicates that, in order to be effective, spelling instruction must include several key strategies (listed in the “Existing Research” section of the summary). The researchers developed an intervention aimed at improving the spelling skills of students with LDs, specifically by improving their ability to focus on the position and sequence of letters in written words. The intervention involved 24 students between the ages of 9 – 14 who were divided into a control group and an experimental group. The students participated in a four-step reading and writing workshop that began with a guided reading and discussion, followed by structured writing tasks (each of the steps is listed in detail in the “Description of the Approach” section). Following the 5-month intervention period, the researchers reviewed and compared the results of both groups and discussed the implications of this particular intervention to improve spelling skills for students with LDs (“Conclusion” section).

Existing Research

For students with learning disabilities, spelling is often a persistent problem (Berninger, Lee, Abbott & Breznitz, 2013). The research indicates that these students find it difficult to overcome this challenge and respond more slowly to intervention, yet specific interventions can be effective. The research also indicates that, in order to be effective, instruction in spelling must include the following:

  • Teaching alphabetic principles within the context of reading (with the student naming the phoneme that corresponds to the grapheme he/she is reading) and in the context of writing (with the student naming the grapheme that corresponds to the phoneme he/she is hearing), so that reading supports spelling and vice versa (Mehta, Foorman, Branum-Martin, & Taylor, 2005);
  • Focussing on written production and on the integration of reading and writing (Berninger, Nielsen, Abbott, Wijsman, & Raskind, 2008);
  • Taking into account the fact that the working memory of students with learning disabilities tends to be weaker, explicitly teaching self-regulation strategies so that these students can more adequately manage tasks involving language and attention and the connection between what is heard and what is written (the phonological loop and the spelling loop) (Berninger et al., 2006; Beringer et al, 2008; Berninger, Abbott, Nagy & Carlisle, 2010; Desmond, Gabrieli, Wagne, Ginier, & Glover, 1997; Richards et al., 2009; Swanson, 1999; Swanson & Siegel, 2001);
  • Explicitly teaching silent spelling strategies in the case of irregular grapheme-phoneme correspondences (Berninger et al., in press; Fayol, Hupet, & Largy, 1999; Fayol, Largy, & Lemaire, 1994; Fayol, Thevenin, Jarousse, & Totereau, 1999; Olson, Datta, Gayan, & DeFries, 1999; Olson, Forsberg, & Wise, 1994; Olson, Forsberg, Wise, & Rack, 1994; Pacton, Fayol, & Perruchet, 2005; Pacton, Perruchet, Fayol, & Cleeremans, 2001);
  • Teaching the relationships among phonology, spelling, and morphology (Henry, 1989, 2003; Henry & Redding, 1996).

Context of the Research

The goal of the approach presented in this article is to improve the spelling skills of students with learning disabilities by improving their ability to focus on the position and sequence of letters in written words. To accomplish this, a four-step reading and writing workshop that took these conditions into account was created. Twenty-four students who met the researchers’ criteria for dyslexia in Grades 4 through 9 (i.e., 9- to 14-year-olds) were divided into two study groups. There were 12 students in each group and two subgroups of six students with a researcher. The students took part in a writing workshop at the university outside of regular classroom time, i.e., 30 one-hour lessons over a period of five months, twice a week.

Description of the approach

Each intervention program consisted of common activities for integrating reading and writing. Each session started with a guided reading by the teacher and a discussion on the selected reading. This reading activity was always followed by a writing activity. The writing activities included: summarization (Steps 1, 2, and 3); journaling or writing a personal reflection about a story (Steps 2 and 3); writing a critical piece about a book to share personal thoughts with the other students (Steps 2 and 3); and writing a report after reading an expository piece (Step 4). The students were taught specific strategies for connecting reading and writing: summarizing (finding the main idea and details that supported it); taking notes while reading; using notes to generate ideas (planning); and composing a text and then revising and correcting it. In order to motivate and engage the students intellectually, the workshops were organized around topics of interest to them.

Outlined here is the content of the lessons, for each of the steps:

Step 1 - Teaching the correspondence between graphemes and phonemes in reading, in order to improve decoding:

With the Talking Letters program, the students use cards that feature illustrations of a grapheme and a word containing the grapheme in order to automate the procedure for linking graphemes and phonemes. The students look at and touch the graphemes, name a word that is illustrated and that contains the phoneme associated with the grapheme, and say the corresponding phoneme. They also learn the other phonemes associated with the grapheme and strategies for identifying words with a silent e. The students then complete activities for applying this knowledge and decoding pseudowords used repeatedly in the lessons. The students receive immediate feedback (modelling the correct answer) when they make mistakes. The time required to complete the activities in the Talking Letters program and the level of accuracy in decoding the pseudowords are recorded in a table so that the teachers and the students are able to see the progress they are making. The lesson ends with the students reading a guided reading piece and discussing it.

Step 2 - Continuation of alphabetic training within the context of reading and the addition of instruction in spelling within the context of writing for the experimental group:

The students complete a guided reading piece and discuss selected paragraphs of a text. There are also summarization activities, journaling activities, and literary criticism activities. The students also continue to receive instruction in the grapheme-phoneme correspondence seen in Step 1. However, the students in the experimental group also receive instruction in alphabetic principles in the context of writing, with a spelling component, whereas Group B receives instruction in phonological awareness (tapping out the number of syllables in a word with their fingers and counting the phonemes in a word on their fingers using the multisyllabic names of birds), without a spelling component.

Step 3 - Continuation of alphabetic training within the context of reading for the control group and within both contexts for the experimental group and the addition of two specific spelling strategies for the experimental group:

The students continue to receive training on the alphabetic principles in reading and writing for the experimental group and in reading only for the control group. With the help of word lists, both types of spelling training are presented to the students in the experimental group only. One type of training targets spelling; the other targets reading speed.

The students in the experimental group are taught two silent spelling strategies (to create and access accurate representations of words without phonological access). Each of the steps in these strategies is repeated with each of the words on the word list. The words contain at least one letter that has a variable grapheme-phoneme correspondence, depending on the context.

The photographic Leprechaun asks the students to:

  • Name each letter in a given word;
  • Take a mental photograph of the written word;
  • Close their eyes and visualize the written word;
  • Name the letter or letters in various positions in the word;
  • Open their eyes and check to see whether their answer was correct, by looking at the written word;
  • Listen to the teacher’s feedback.

The proof-reader’s trick asks students to:

  • Look at the word very carefully once again;
  • Close their eyes; picture the word in their mind; and spell it backwards;
  • Look at the word and check their spelling from right to left.

Using a computerized rapid-accelerated-reading program (RAP), the students’ reading speed and the accuracy of their answers to comprehension questions is evaluated. This evaluation is then used to program the software, which prepares paragraphs to read to the students with ever-increasing speed, for as long as the students are able to answer the comprehension questions with a sufficient degree of accuracy.

The lesson ends with students in both groups completing a guided oral reading and discussing selected paragraphs of a text, as well as summarizing, journaling, and literary criticism activities.

Step 4 - Development of morphological awareness for the experimental group and the addition of two spelling strategies for the control group:

Step 4 does not involve any training on alphabetic principles for either group. As the students in the experimental group engage in activities that involve sorting words into categories, they receive instruction that enables them to develop morphological awareness and to coordinate morphology with spelling and phonology. The words are sorted based on prefixes and suffices; these words enable the students to think about whether the morphological, orthographic, and phonological clues in certain written words are linked. The training in spelling working memory for comprehension continues. Both silent spelling strategies are introduced for the second group, with no RAP training and no introduction to morphology.

Both groups complete a guided oral reading exercise and discuss selected paragraphs of a text; there are also activities to build fluidity and instruction in the application of self-regulation strategies for writing activities that involve expository texts.

Supports to Make the Approach More Effective

Between the pre-test and the post-test, students in both the experimental group and the control group demonstrated significant improvement in spelling and decoding speed, but not in the spelling of pseudowords. They also demonstrated improvement between the pre-test and the end of Step 4 in automatic letter writing and writing fluidity. In terms of the impact of the intervention, there was no significant difference between the groups at Steps 1 and 2. However, at Step 3, the experimental group demonstrated more improvement than the control group in decoding speed after the two silent spelling strategies and RAP were introduced. Where instruction in spelling working memory was concerned, the students in the experimental group improved their letter processing speed significantly. Although not by a significant degree, the students in the experimental group also demonstrated improvement in their level of comprehension (responses to questions). The students in the experimental group demonstrated significant improvement in the fluidity of their silent reading of words and sentences, starting at Step 3. Adding the morphological component does not appear to have improved the performance of the experimental group as compared to the control group.


Students with learning disabilities benefit tremendously from the teaching of both the alphabetic principles and spelling strategies (e.g., contextual rules). The teaching of silent spelling strategies, interventions involving spelling, and a system to increase the speed at which students are able to process letters all appear to improve performance in writing and support decoding speed. Feedback on the conventional spelling of a word when a student makes a mistake supports the development of spelling. This has been shown to be relevant even when preschool students and early elementary level students use creative spellings (Rieben et al., 2005).


The LD@school website includes numerous resources (print, webinars, videos, podcasts, etc.) to support Ontario educators working with students with LDs:

The LD OnLine website provides information, articles and resources on learning disabilities, learning disorders, learning differences and ADHD:


Berninger, V. W., Lee, Y., Abbott, R. D., & Breznitz, Z. (2013). Teaching children with dyslexia to spell in a reading-writers’ workshop. Annals of Dyslexia, 63(1), 1-24.

Berninger, V. W., Abbott, R. D., Nagy, W., & Carlisle, J. (2010). Growth in phonological, orthographic, and morphological awareness in grades 1 to 6. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 39(2), 141-163.

Berninger, V. W., Abbott, R. D., Thomson, J., Wagner, R., Swanson, H. L., Wijsman, E. M., & Raskind, W. (2006). Modeling phonological core deficits within a working memory architecture in children and adults with developmental dyslexia. Scientific Studies of Reading, 10(2), 165-198.

Berninger, V. W., Nielsen, K. H., Abbott, R. D., Wijsman, E., & Raskind, W. (2008a). Writing problems in developmental dyslexia: Under-recognized and under-treated. Journal of School Psychology, 46(1), 1-21.

Berninger, V. W., Winn, W. D., Stock, P., Abbott, R. D., Eschen, K., Lin, S. J. C., & Nagy, W. (2008). Tier 3 specialized writing instruction for students with dyslexia. Reading and writing, 21(1-2), 95-129.

Berninger, V., & Abbott, S.(2003). PAL reading and writing lessons: Research supported instruction. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation.

Desmond, J. E., Gabrieli, J. D., Wagner, A. D., Ginier, B. L., & Glover, G. H. (1997). Lobular patterns of cerebellar activation in verbal working-memory and finger-tapping tasks as revealed by functional MRI. The Journal of Neuroscience, 17(24), 9675-9685.

Fayol, M., Hupet, M., & Largy, P. (1999). The acquisition of subject-verb agreement in written French: From novices to experts' errors. Reading and Writing, 11(2), 153-174.

Fayol, M., Largy, P., & Lemaire, P. (1994). Subject–verb agreement errors in French. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 47A, 437–464.

Fayol, M., Thevenin, M. G., Jarousse, J. P., & Totereau, C. (1999). From learning to teaching to learning French written morphology. In Learning to read: An integrated view from research and practice (pp. 43-63). Springer Netherlands.

Henry, M. K. (1989). Children's word structure knowledge: Implications for decoding and spelling instruction. Reading and Writing, 1(2), 135-152.

Henry, M. (2003). Unlocking literacy. Effective decoding and spelling instruction. Baltimore: Brookes.

Henry, M. K., & Redding, N. C. (1996). Patterns for success in reading and spelling. A multisensory approach to teaching phonics and word analysis. Baltimore: Paul S. Brookes.

Mehta, P. D., Foorman, B. R., Branum-Martin, L., & Taylor, W. P. (2005). Literacy as a unidimensional multilevel construct: Validation, sources of influence, and implications in a longitudinal study in grades 1 to 4. Scientific Studies of Reading, 9(2), 85-116.

Olson, R. K., Datta, H., Gayan, J., & DeFries, J. C. (1999). A behavioral-genetic analysis of reading disabilities and component processes. Converging methods for understanding reading and dyslexia, 133-153.

Olson, R. K., Forsberg, H., & Wise, B. (1994). Genes, environment, and the development of orthographic skills. In The varieties of orthographic knowledge (pp. 27-71). Springer Netherlands.

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Pacton, S., Fayol, M., & Perruchet, P. (2005). Children's implicit learning of graphotactic and morphological regularities. Child Development, 76(2), 324-329.

Pacton, S., Perruchet, P., Fayol, M., & Cleeremans, A. (2001). Implicit learning out of the lab: the case of orthographic regularities. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130(3), 401.

Richards, T., Berninger, V., Winn, W., Swanson, H.L., Stock, P., & Liang, O. (2009). Differences in fMRI activation between children with and without spelling disability on 2-back/0-back working memory contrast. Journal of Writing Research, 1(2), 93–123 (an open access peer-reviewed journal available online: Download articles from the JOWR web site).

Rieben, L., Ntamakiliro, L., Gonthier, B., & Fayol, M. (2005).Effects of various early writing practices on reading and spelling. Scientific studies of reading, 9(2), 145-166.

Swanson, H. L. (1999). Reading comprehension and working memory in learning-disabled readers: Is the phonological loop more important than the executive system? Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 72, 1–31.

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horizontal line tealJulie Myre-Bisaillon is a full professor at the Département des études sur l’adaptation scolaire et sociale (Department of Academic and Social Accommodation Studies) in the Faculty of Education at the University of Sherbrooke. She is in charge of the Collectif de recherche sur la continuité des apprentissages en lecture et en écriture (CLÉ) (Research Group on the Continuity of Learning to Read and Write), a research team with roughly twenty members. Her research interests focus on teaching accommodation for special education students, using by-project approaches based on children’s literature from a multidisciplinary perspective, and on reading and writing awareness in disadvantaged areas. She has also taught at the high school level and performed remedial work.  

Carole Boudreau teaches at the Département d’études sur l’adaptation scolaire et sociale (Department of Academic and Social Accommodation Studies) at the University of Sherbrooke. Before accepting this position, she worked as a remedial teacher in the school environment, as a guidance teacher specialized in hearing impairment and as a project officer for the Quebec Ministry of Education’s Direction de l’adaptation scolaire (Academic Accommodation Branch). Her research interests focus on reading and writing difficulties as well as remedial instruction. She is a member of the Collectif de recherche sur la continuité des apprentissages en lecture et en écriture (CLÉ) (Research Group on the Continuity of Learning to Read and Write).

Véronique Parent is a psychologist and professor at the Département de psychologie (Department of Psychology) at the University of Sherbrooke. Her research interests focus on cognitive disorders related to learning disabilities and accommodation. She is also interested in using novel intervention approaches in school environments, such as the use of cognitive training programs, to promote the development of special education students’ learning potential. She is a member of the Collectif de recherche sur la continuité des apprentissages en lecture et en écriture (CLÉ) (Research Group on the Continuity of Learning to Read and Write).

Anne Rodrigue is a Ph.D. student in the Département des études sur l’adaptation scolaire et sociale (Department of Academic and Social Accommodation Studies) at the University of Sherbrooke. She was trained as a remedial teacher and for over 10 years has been dividing her time between research at the University and practice in schools.

Annick Tremblay-Bouchard is a Masters student in Education Science focusing on academic accommodation at the University of Sherbrooke. Trained as a primary school teacher, she specializes in students with hearing disabilities.