Many children are first identified as struggling readers/spellers at around age seven or eight, because they are smart enough to get by using faulty strategies for the first couple of years of school, but by the third year it’s obvious that their classmates’ reading and writing is taking off, and theirs is not.
These children often haven’t been systematically and explicitly been taught how to sound words out, and often have very little idea how to pull a word apart into sounds in order to spell it. On tests of phonemic awareness and spelling pattern knowledge (e.g. non-word or low-frequency word reading and spelling tests) they perform poorly.
Many or perhaps most of these children can still catch up, but there’s no time to waste.
Key concepts and knowledge
Your child needs to be absolutely crystal clear about the fact that spoken words are made of sounds, and letters/spellings are how we write them. Written words are not memorised like pictures. Nobody has enough visual memory for that. Looking at the first letter and the picture and guessing is not reading. Each word’s sounds and letters have to be worked through, from beginning to end. English spelling is complicated but learnable, and it’s time to get cracking and systematically learn it.
Your child may first need to learn to sound out little words with very simple spellings. Shelve words with spellings of two or more letters (such as “ar” and “ee” and “sh” and “eigh”) for later by sticking to synthetic phonics teaching materials like the ones suggested below. These start just with tiny, simply-spelt words like “in”, “on”, “up”, “top”, “dig” and “hat”. Different schemes start with different groups of letters, but as seven and eight-year-old children have generally already had a fair bit of exposure to letters, it may not matter which group of letters you start with. They might recognise most or all the letters, but just not know what to do with them.
Say sounds not letter names when working with your child. Sounds are where the rubber hits the road when it comes to decoding and spelling words. Letter names can confuse some children, and lead to them spelling “left” as “lFt” and “self” as “sLf”.
When you say a word for your child to spell, stretch it out and help your child “hear” all the sounds. Make letters available for them to choose from and copy at first, rather than having to remember how to form them, and where (sticking up? Hanging down?) from memory. If necessary, give very specific instructions about how to form each letter e.g. “start here” (drawing a dot) or “circle first” or “line first” or “go this way” (drawing a little arrow), or “this letter is a hanging-down one”. You can find good information about handwriting here and here.
When reading, encourage your child to say a sound for each letter and then blend the sound to make the word. When writing, ask your child to say the sound for each letter/spelling as he/she writes it. Just keep saying “I can’t hear you!” till you can. In the early stages, writing/spelling shouldn’t be a silent activity, because relevant sensory information (seeing the shape of the letters, feeling them in the hand and feeling the sounds in the mouth, hearing the sounds) helps lock sounds and their spellings together.
Once your child knows one sound for each letter, it’s time to start introducing sounds that are spelt with more than one letter, like “sh”, “ch” and “ng”, and combining consonants e.g. “mp” in “jump”, “gr” in “grub”. It’s hard to discern the inside consonants in such words, so this probably needs practice.
Some programs introduce consonant blending before introducing sounds that are represented by two letters (digraphs). Some work the other way around. At this age, the sequence is probably less important than making sure your child learns only one new thing at a time, and gets enough practice to make each new bit of knowledge or skill fast and automatic.
- Decodable books: Some 7-8 year-olds love the Pip and Tim books or apps, or the Pocket Rockets, but as they are designed for 5-6 year-olds, some older kids aren’t keen. Many 7-8 year-olds love the Magic Belt readers, which have simplified spellings but are full of adventure, wizards, goblins and explosions. The Totem and Alba readers then introduce more complex spellings. However, there are many other beginners’ decodable books available, including some free online ones.
- A moveable alphabet. That single-letter one on your fridge is fine for starters, but pretty soon you’ll need an alphabet with spellings like “sh” and “oo” and “ee” as single items, click here to find one. My own cheap-and-cheerful download-print-and-laminate version is intended to help you explain the complexity of our spelling system, and work on phonemic awareness skills without the extra motor demands of writing. With beginners I only use the single-letter vowel spellings (put all the other orange spellings aside). It comes with suggested word sequences to make e.g make “sit”, change it to “sip”, then “tip”, then “tap”…
- The Spelfabet workbook 1, Level 1 word-building games and free First Phonics Picture book. These are intended to be affordable and straightforward for parents and other non-experts to use, and to provide children with explicit information and plenty of practice at hearing sounds in words and learning how these are represented by spellings.
- Card games like Trugs box 1 or Milo’s Read and Grab games (yellow and light green at first, then pale pink and purple).
- The apps listed in this blog post (if you don’t have an iPad you can use Phonics Hero online.
- The home resources from Get Reading Right.
- Sound Check (book 1) breaks down the task of writing little words well.
- A whiteboard or magnadoodle board can be a fun way for children to experiment with writing little words. The app Oz Phonics 3 has Spelling Pen and Paper tasks which turn this into a quiz/self-test which children often enjoy. Start with the CVC words, and don’t move to the CVCC or CCVC words till your child is getting the CVC ones 90% right.
Children with speech or language delays
Children who are struggling with reading and spelling also often have difficulties with listening and/or speaking, so if you’re worried about these skills, it’s important to seek a language assessment by a Speech Pathologist without delay. Many schools have a Speech Pathologist who can provide this free, as well as providing some therapy at school, and suggestions/activities for you and your child’s teacher.
If your school doesn’t have a Speech Pathologist, you can find private Speech Pathologists in your area using the search function on the Speech Pathology Australia website. If you’re outside Australia, try this site. If you’re in Australia, you might like to ask your GP for a Medicare EPC/CDM referral, so that Medicare can help cover the cost of the first five sessions. Private health funds also provide some rebates for private Speech Pathology services.