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By Jeffrey MacCormack & Nancy L. Hutchinson

Students writing in class

Even in a world where we have easy access to spell check software on our computers and smartphones, the ability to spell is important. Some researchers consider spelling to be among the highest regarded skills of expressive writing and spelling is often considered to be an indication of education level or intelligence (Vaughn & Bos, 2009). Spelling is an important skill because it has a positive effect on reading and expressive writing outcomes (Kohnen, Nickels, & Coltheart, 2010; Sayeski, 2011; Wanzek et al., 2006).

Spelling is particularly challenging in English because English is a morphophonemic language, which means that the spelling of words is more related to the meaning of the word rather than the letter/sound relationship. For example, the letters ‘qua’ in square may be confusing to someone trying to align the sound with the spelling. However, that spelling makes more sense in light of the word’s relationship with other words such as quadrant and the original Latin exquadrare.

For all learners, effective spelling requires that the individual can hear the sounds (phonemic awareness) and then transfer those sounds to written text (alphabetic knowledge; Ehri, 2000). Even though spelling can be a challenge for students of all abilities, spelling is particularly difficult for students with learning disabilities (LDs). Spelling may be the most common challenge faced by students with LDs (Bos & Vaughn, 2006). In fact, students with LDs are often much less capable spellers than younger typically developing students (Friend & Olson, 2008).

Spelling is more difficult for students with LDs for two main reasons: (a) they may struggle with identifying the sounds of words (Wendling & Mather, 2009); and (b) they may have difficulty generalizing skills between contexts (Wanzek et al., 2006). Generalization is the application of learning from one context to another context. Being able to generalize is an important part of spelling competence because spelling patterns have to be generalized to unfamiliar words to be effective (Kohnen, Nickels, & Coltheart, 2010). The challenges recognizing word sounds and generalizing spelling patterns means that even if students with LDs are initially successful in spelling programs, the knowledge may not be retained past the end-of-week tests (Morris, Blanton, Blanton, & Perney, 1995).

Spelling Programs

spelling program

To develop programs that help students with LDs, it is important to know about spelling programs that have been developed for all students. Early in the 20th century, educators began using spelling lists as a strategy because it was believed that the complexity of spelling rules made teaching general strategies useless (Schlagal, 2002). By the 1960s, that perception had changed because rule-based programs had been shown to be able to effectively improve spelling. It is now believed that rule-based programs are the most effective way to support learners with LDs (Wanzek et al., 2006).

Historically, three basic types of spelling programs have been used in the classroom: (a) incidental; (b) developmental word study; and (c) basal spelling programs (Schagel, 2002). Incidental writing programs focus on correcting words that are misspelled while completing other work (e.g. students add words to spelling list that were misspelled on science report). Developmental word study programs focus on developing remedial strategies that are appropriate for the individual’s strategy stages (e.g. students complete an individualized program based on their needs). Basal spelling programs develop skills based on incrementally more complex words by grade level (e.g. students complete spelling lists for their grade level).

Regardless of which spelling program is utilized in the classroom, researchers have found that learners follow through four general stages of spelling strategies. When confronted with an unfamiliar word, students use one of the following four strategies:

  1. sound-to-letter (APL for “apple”);
  2. sound-to-letter mapping (PLES for “please”);
  3. sound-pattern representation (EEL for “peel”); and
  4. meaning-pattern representation (adding a suffix for past tense).

While researchers used to think that learners moved through the strategy stages in turn (Stage theory; e.g. Ehri, 1991), current research suggests that learners move back and forth fluidly between the stages (Overlapping waves theory; e.g. Varnhagen et al., 1997).

How We Can Help

The types of spelling programs that are effective for typically developing students may not be effective for students with LDs. For example, many spelling programs rely on independent work at home or at school, but these strategies may not be as effective for students with LDs. Students with LDs do best when they have continuous feedback (Sayeski, 2011). Also, spelling programs developed for typically developing students may teach spelling rules by developing a foundation of spelling words (end-of-week spelling lists). The spelling word list may not be effective for students with LDs because they may have difficulty generalizing spelling rules to unfamiliar words (Wanzek et al., 2006).

When we teach small numbers of words and constantly review them, students with LDs have shown great gains in their spelling competence. However, without being able to generalize this competence to unfamiliar words, students with LDs risk never being able to develop a large spelling vocabulary. Effective spelling programs for students with LDs are discussed in four categories:

  1. features of instructional delivery;
  2. computer-assisted instruction;
  3. multisensory training; and
  4. study and word practice procedures (Wanzek et al., 2006).

Instructional Delivery

Error Imitation

Some positive gains have been made when the teacher uses error imitation analysis (e.g., repeating the error before correcting it; Fulk & Stormont-Spurgin, 1995; Gordon et al., 1993). After the student completes the pre-test, the teacher corrects the mistakes by writing the mistake down and stating “this is how you spelled this word.” The teacher then writes the correct word and says “this is how you spell it correctly.” When using this strategy, be sure to establish that the corrected spelling aligns with an overall spelling rule (e.g. the ‘e’ is dropped when a suffix is added). There is some evidence to suggest that even though this process can be effective, it may also be perceived by the student as a punishment (Nulman & Gerber, 1984).

Unit Size

Students with LDs do better learning spelling rules when the instructor limits the number of new words learned to three or fewer words. Rather than include a mixed assortment of words at one time, students with LDs do better when a few words are taught every day. This is especially true for words with irregular spellings. Some researchers believe that the most effective method is to include a maximum of three words with irregular spellings at a time (Gettinger, Bryant, & Fayne, 1982).

Self-regulation strategy development (SRSD)

A team of researchers (Graham and colleagues, 2003, 2005) have developed techniques to help students with learning disabilities monitor their own learning. For spelling strategies, researchers recommend using a self-monitoring checklist such as generate-and-test or spelling-by-analogy (Reid, Lienemann, & Hagaman, 2013).

Generate-and-test: The generate-and-test checklist includes a series of questions such as “do I know the word?” and “how many syllables do I hear?” Students follow the checklist to remind themselves of the steps to effective spelling.

Spelling-by-analogy: The spelling-by-analogy strategy categorizes words by their sound-families. For example, a student can apply their knowledge of the spelling of ‘game’ to spell related words like ‘flame’ and ‘shame’.

Click here to learn more about Self-Regulation Strategy Development.

Morphological problem-solving

Morphological problem solving is the method by which unfamiliar words can be decoded through the analysis of meaning elements (e.g. prefix, base, suffix). Students learn about the origin and construction of words. Rather than using a shallow and wide method (teaching many words), morphological analysis provides deep and narrow instruction about the meaning elements of (fewer) words. Even though recent literature has demonstrated that morphological instruction improves reading and spelling competencies (Carlisle, 2007) it has not been widely accepted in classroom programs (Nunes & Bryant, 2006). Morphological problem-solving strategies such as word matrix and word sum development are effective classroom tools (Bowers & Kirby, 2010). Morphological instruction may help learners with irregular word spellings, which is a challenge that has received little research attention (Kohnen, Nickels, & Coltheart, 2010). If educators are interested in learning how to teach morphology in their classrooms, they can find more information on the WordWorks Literacy Centre webpage. Click here to visit the webpage.

Computer-Assisted Instruction

Computer-assisted instruction has been effective at teaching spelling to students with LDs when the software incorporates the time-delay technique (Fulk & Stormont-Spurgin, 1995). The time-delay technique involves a brief delay between the student’s attempt and the subsequent corrective guidance. Usually, as the student becomes more skilled, the waiting time is increased (progressive time delay). For some students, it is better if the time delay is constant. Computer-assisted instruction is well suited for this type of strategy because current computers can recognize spoken language, provide dynamic feedback, and speak words to the student.

Multisensory Training

Multisensory training refers to the use of tools, objects, or devices that increase sensory input of the learning experience. Multisensory training might involve keying the letters into a computerized toy. The Speak and Spell learning toy was an extremely popular multi-sensory device in the 1980s. Modern devices such as iPads run similar spelling apps (e.g. Speaking Spell). Multisensory devices use strategies, such as write-and-say, for rote practice and dynamic feedback. Computerized spelling toys are ways to practice the write-and-say technique because using the toy can be motivating for students. The write-and-say technique has been used effectively for math skills as well (e.g., learning multiplication tables).

Study and Word Practice

Study and word practice procedures include strategies such as copy-the-word or cover-write-compare. These activities provide students with opportunities to practice the spelling of a developmentally appropriate list of words with a teacher present. Students with LDs may not demonstrate as many gains when using study and word practice independently. Improved spelling outcomes have also been achieved using structured peer tutoring. For younger students with LDs, practice activities should be introduced as soon as the students can recognize 15 letters of the alphabet (Harwell, 2001). For older students with LDs, study and word practice should be conducted in meaningful contexts.

Components of Effective Instruction

Wanzek and colleagues (2006) conducted a synthesis to identify the components that are required for effective instructional strategies. Wanzek and colleagues identified four key components that are required for any spelling program for students with learning disabilities:

  1. systematic study;
  2. immediate corrective feedback;
  3. repeated practice; and
  4. teaching of rules and/or morphology.

The interventions listed above include various levels of these four components. It should also be noted that students with LDs did best when the program included explicit instruction of spelling rules in combination with immediate feedback from teacher or peer (Telecsan, Slaton, & Stephens, 1999; Wanzek et al., 2006).


Technology for spelling can be broken into two main categories: (a) technology designed to improve spelling skills (e.g. software titles that teach spelling rules) and (b) technology designed to compensate for limited spelling skills.

Technology to Instruct

Computer-assisted instruction is related to increased motivation and positive gains in spelling when used in combination with time delay instructional delivery (Fulk & Stormont-Spurgin, 1995; Gordon et al., 1993; Wanzek et al., 2006). Gordon, Vaughn, and Schumm(1993) reported that students with LD prefer multisensory training that includes a range of components such as auditory feedback (e.g. the write-and-say method) and keyboard input for practice (e.g. spelling software package). It should be noted that teaching spelling without explicit instruction of rules does not improve spelling of words with unpredictable spelling (Kohnen, Nickels, & Coltheart, 2010).

Technology to Compensate

Technologies such as spell check and word prediction do not directly improve students’ abilities to spell. There are advantages to using these tools, however. By “outsourcing” the task of spelling to the software, the student is able to concentrate on higher-level mental tasks such as planning the writing and organizing ideas. In some ways, using spelling technology as compensatory means that the teacher is putting more emphasis on the quality of the expressive writing, rather than the accuracy of the spelling. Teachers should carefully consider the overall goals of each writing task when deciding which technology to use.

Related Resources from the LD@school Website

The article, Helping Students with Learning Disabilities to Improve their Spelling through a Reading-Writing Workshop, offers educators a four-step approach to helping students improve their spelling skills. Click here to access the article.

Click here to access the Ask the Experts answer to the question How can technology be used to help students with spelling difficulties to edit their writing?.

Click here to access the evidence-based article, Strategies to Develop Handwriting and Improve Literacy Skills

Click here to access the evidence-based article, Interventions for Students with Writing Disabilities

Click here to access the Ask the Experts answer to the question, "What strategies can be used for teaching reading and writing to intermediate age students with LDs?", answered by Nathalie Paquet-Bélanger

Additional Resources

LDonline has put together a short list of suggestions for teaching spelling to students with LDs. Click here to access the list from LDonline.

LDonline has also put together a set of five guidelines that you can share with your students who are struggling with learning to spell. You can share the strategies directly with your older students or guide your younger students through them. Click here to access the guidelines from LDonline.


Bos, C. S., & Vaughn, S. (2006). Strategies for teaching students with learning and behavior problems (6th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Bowers, P. & Kirby, J. (2010). Effects of morphological instruction on vocabulary acquisition. Reading and Writing, 23, 515-537.

Carlisle, J. F. (2007). Fostering morphological processing, vocabulary development, and reading comprehension. In R. K. Wagner, A. E. Muse, & K. R. Tannenbaum (Eds.), Vocabulary acquisition: Implications for reading comprehension (pp. 78–103). NY: Guilford Press.Carruthers, P. & Smith P. (eds). 1996. Theories of Theories of Mind. Cambridge University Press.

Ehri, L. C. (2000). Learning to read and learning to spell: Two sides of a coin. Topics in Language Disorders, 20(3), 19–36.

Friend, A. & Olson, R. (2008). Phonological spelling and reading deficits in children with spelling disabilities. Scientific Studies in Reading, 12,  90-105.

Fulk, B. M., & Stormont-Spurgin, M. (1995). Spelling interventions for students with disabilities: A review. The Journal of Special Education, 28, 488–513.

Gordon, J., Vaughn, S., & Schumm, J. S. (1993). Spelling interventions: A review of literature and implications for instruction for students with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 8, 175–181.

Gettinger, M., Bryant, N. D., & Fayne, H. R. (1982). Designing spelling instruction for learning-disabled children: An emphasis on unit size, distributed practice, and training for transfer. The Journal of Special Education, 16, 439–448.

Graham, S., & Harris, K. (2003). Students with learning disabilities and the process of writing. In H. L. Swanson, K. R. Harris, & S. Graham (Eds.), Handbook of learning disabilities (pp. 323–344). New York, NY: Guilford.

Graham, S., Harris, K. & Mason, L. (2005). Improving the writing performance, knowledge, and self-efficacy of struggling young writers: The effects of self-regulated strategy development. Contemporary Education Psychology, 30, 207-241.

Harwell, J. (2001). Complete Learning Disabilities Handbook (2nd Ed.) San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kohnen, S., Nickels, L., & Coltheart, M. (2010). Skill generalisation in teaching spelling to children with learning difficulties. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 15, 115-129.

Morris, D., Blanton, L., Blanton, W. E., & Perney, J. (1995). Spelling instruction and achievement in six classrooms. Elementary School Journal, 96(2), 145–162.

Nulman, J. & Gerber, M. (1984). Improving spelling performance by imitating a child’s errors. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 17, 328-333.

Nunes, T., & Bryant, P. (2006). Improving literacy by teaching morphemes. New York: Routlege.

Reid, R., Lienemann, T. & Hagaman, J. (2013). Strategy instruction for students with learning disabilities: Second edition. K. R. Harris & S. Graham (Eds.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.  

Sayeski, K. (2011). Effective spelling instruction for students with learning disabilities. Intervention in School and Clinic, 47, 75-81.

Schagel, R. C. (2002). Classroom spelling instruction: History, research, and practice. Reading Research and Instruction, 42(1),44–57.

Telecsan, B. L., Slaton, D. B., & Stephens, D. B. (1999). Peer tutoring: Teaching students with learning disabilities to deliver time delay instruction. Journal of Behavioral Education, 9, 133–154.

Vaughn, S. & Bos, C. (2009). Strategies for teaching students with learning and behaviour problems (7thed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ, Pearson.

Varnhagen, C. K., McCallum, M., & Burstow, M. (1997). Is children’s spelling naturally stage-like? Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 9, 451–481.

Wendling, B. & Mather, N. (2009). Essentials of evidence-based academic interventions. A. S. Kaufman & N. L. Kaufman (Eds.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Wanzek, J., Vaughn, S., Wexler, J., Swanson, E., Edmonds, M., & Kim, A. (2006). A synthesis of spelling and reading interventions and their effects on the spelling outcomes of students with LD. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 39, 528-543.


Searches were conducted of the literature for content appropriate for this topic that was published in scientific journals and other academic sources. The search included online database searches (ERIC, PsycINFO, Queen’s Summons, and Google Scholar). The gathered materials were checked for relevance  by analysing data in this hierarchical order: (a) titles; (b) abstracts; (c) method; and (d) entire text.

The search of the literature included three stages. The first stage gathered studies and reports if they aligned with the keywords (learning, disabilt*, spelling*, skill*, meta analysis, technolog*) and were published during the years 2000-2013. For the second stage, I read the studies gathered in stage 1 and used the reference lists to retro-analyze the origin of the conceptual foundations. Based on the hand-search, I sought out a series of meta-analyses conducted in the late 1990s which appeared to constitute the theoretical knowledge base about learning disabilities (Swanson & Hoskyn, 1998). I also located non-digital sources such as Complete Learning Disabilities Handbook (Harwell, 2001) and Strategy Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities: Second Edition (Reid, Lienemann, & Hagaman, 2013). For the third stage, I hand-searched the publications of the last four years of key journals such as Reading and Writing to manually find any items that were previously missed.

The process I described above uses searches that are specific to systematic keyword, content, and journal title as recommended in the literature (Card, 2012). It incorporated elements of the standard literature review method (O’Connor, 1992) and Network theory method (Ryan, Scapens, & Theobald, 1991).

Card, N. (2012). Applied meta-analysis for social science research. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

O’Connor, S. (1992). Network theory: A systematic method for literature review. Nurse Education Today, 12, 44-50.

Ryan, R., Scapens, R., & Theobald, M. (1991). Research methods and methodologies in accounting and finance. London, UK: Academic Press.

horizontal line tealPhoto of Jeffrey MacCormackJeffrey is a PhD student at the Faculty of Education, Queen's University, with a focus on cognition. He is a teacher certified by the Ontario College of Teachers with 9 years of experience teaching elementary school. He worked as an instructor at Queen's University and has taught and authored online courses for educators. He is currently conducting research on several topics including: learning disabilities, autism, emotional well-being, and youth development.

Nancy L. Hutchinson is a professor of Cognitive Studies in the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University. Her research has focused on teaching students with learning disabilities (e.g., math and career development) and on enhancing workplace learning and co-operative education for students with disabilities and those at risk of dropping out of school. In the past five years, in addition to her research on transition out of school, Nancy has worked with a collaborative research group involving researchers from Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia on transition into school of children with severe disabilities. She teaches courses on inclusive education in the preservice teacher education program as well as doctoral seminars on social cognition and master’s courses on topics including learning disabilities, inclusion, and qualitative research. She has published six editions of a textbook on teaching students with disabilities in the regular classroom and two editions of a companion casebook.