Many nine to twelve-year-olds have significant difficulties with both reading and spelling. Others have “good enough” reading but get stuck on long words, and struggle with spelling.
Poor readers and spellers
If your child can’t read or spell pretty well by age nine, it is definitely time to seek professional help. Statistically, children who can’t read by age nine are unlikely to catch up with their peers. Spelling is not likely to improve a lot more without well-targeted intervention.
If you think your child might also have some difficulty with listening and/or speaking, get your child’s language skills, as well as their literacy skills, comprehensively assessed.
Literacy assessment should include phonemic awareness and word and pseudoword reading (click here to read a blog post about why pseudowords are useful), spelling, working memory and rapid automatised naming skills. Specialist speech pathologists, clinical psychologists, neuropsychologists, teachers and some other professionals can provide this assessment, and a clinical psychologist or neuropsychologist can also assess related skills like visual and spatial skills, memory and problem-solving.
Ask the student welfare/special needs coordinator at your child’s school if there is a visiting professional or professionals who can provide this assessment at no cost, before paying for it.
If the assessment can’t be done in any reasonable time frame at school, try your local SPELD, Learning Difficulties Australia, or go to your GP and ask for a Medicare referral to see a suitably qualified and experienced private Speech Pathologist or Psychologist.
You can find local private Speech Pathologists (including myself) via the Speech Pathology Australia website, and Psychologists via the Australian Psychological Society. Don’t let anyone put you on a waiting list without being clear how long you’ll have to wait. Ask what the assessment involves and what it will cost (including the report) before making an appointment.
Make sure that the report will include recommendations about how to address problems identified, and when you get it, if you don’t understand exactly what to do to follow the recommendations, just keep asking questions till you do know.
If the report says something like “your child needs an intensive literacy catch-up program” but isn’t specific about which one, ask for more detail about what type of program. There are many possible ways to provide this, click here for a list of some catch-up programs/resources.
While you’re waiting for your assessment, if you want to explore how well your child can listen to a word, break it up into sounds and meaningful parts and write their correct spellings, you can try out the free low-frequency spelling test on this website. Discuss with your child what their answers suggest they already know about spelling, and what they still seem to need to learn. Older kids can be quite insightful about their own knowledge, and keen to work out how to fill their knowledge gaps.
Many older children have “good enough” reading but poor spelling. When you scratch the surface, they’re often still using too many of their cognitive resources just getting the words off the page. This makes them disinclined to read for enjoyment, and attracted to fairly simple books, like comics/graphic novels and books without complex language/narratives. Often these are children who were slow to learn to read, and whose catch-up program was very focussed on reading, not spelling.
Reading is an easier skill than spelling, because when you’re reading you can rely to some extent on guesswork. However, when you spell, it’s very clear to everyone what you do and don’t know about word structure. If you want your child to be able to decode effortlessly and automatically, well-organised, sequential, cumulative work on spelling can really help.
Reading and spelling should be reversible processes, because the last step in spelling is checking what you’ve written, by reading it. So spelling is a double whammy in terms of practice, and makes the reversibility of our spelling code clear.
A good spelling program works through the spelling system from simple to complex in tiny fast steps. Teenagers who can read but not spell well usually don’t need to work on “the cat sat on the mat” type spellings (one letter equals one sound) though often their “short” vowel sounds are still pretty confused and need some work, particularly to differentiate “a” as in “cat” and “u” as in “cut”, and to differentiate “e” as in “wet” and “i” as in “wit”.
What needs more work is two, three and four-letter spellings, and particularly the spellings of vowels. I use my Workbooks 4 and 5 a lot for this, in combination with other synthetic phonics resources like the Alba, Totem, Talisman, Rescue and other Phonic Books resources, making sure that lots of session time is spent writing/spelling. We also often play Trugs Box 2 games and then practice spelling the words between rounds.