I have a 7 year old boy who can't spell- urgint holp neeyded plez ;-)
January 6, 2014 4:24 AM   Subscribe

My son is an above average reader for his age but his spelling is atrocious. He has just finished Year 1 at school in Western Australia. I need help as he's getting upset about this and I'm getting stressed. I just don't know how to help him :-( There must be some good "spelling breakthrough" approaches out there...? More details inside. Any tips are really appreciated!

Nothing has been flagged up to us by the school about him having any serious issues eg dyslexia which might explain the spelling problems. We do think he has mild ADHD though and his handwriting is very messy compared to the majority of kids in his class.

The fact that he is a good reader is also very confusing to me as his sight word recognition is great but he then can't convert what he can easily read on a page to what he can write on a page.

I want to work on his spelling during this long summer holiday but I want to make it enjoyable for him (and me!). He is getting really stressed when we practice and keeps running off crying. Getting him to sit down in the first place is also a struggle.

We have tried look, cover, write exercises, pulling words cards out of a hat, spelling tests against the clock to make a fun game of it etc but its not working. He's not getting better and its making him sad. He is quite highly strung at the best of times and I'm at my wits end although I am keeping calm and upbeat when we are doing our homework and I'm giving him lots of praise.

He gets very upset generally if he can't do new things immediately. Teaching him to ride his bike was traumatic but now he's doing 30km rides and we use that example with him a lot to highlight how skills need to be practiced and perfected over time.

Are there some good spelling resources anyone can signpost me to, or suggest tips for how to keep him engaged? I would be particularly interested in anything that has specific application to a child with poor spelling but strong reading skills.

Thanks :-)
posted by blacksky to Education (47 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My son sounds a bit like yours. We play a lot of Scrabble -- not for points, and usually as a team. He will sometimes put down an incorrect tile and catch the mistake himself because the word doesn't look right to him (he is an advanced reader). I believe that at least for him, there's a link between a physical action and seeing the word in his head, and it has helped a lot with his spelling skills.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:34 AM on January 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I know your son is stressed but imho, spelling is stupid. Some people aren't that great at memorizing, and that's all spelling basically is. Very few real world jobs require you to memorize a bunch of random crap (Medical doctor may be one huge exception) and thinking is a way more valuable skill. As a kid, I was 2 grade levels ahead at his age and failing spelling. But it turns out, I did well in school (have advanced degree now) and have worked as a real grown up and been 100% fine because we have spell check - even in this comment box! Sometimes there's a thing you're not good at - and it's fine. Especially when it's stupid - like spelling. Maybe just help him except this short coming as normal to remove his stress?
posted by Kalmya at 4:52 AM on January 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

The fact that he is a good reader is also very confusing to me as his sight word recognition is great but he then can't convert what he can easily read on a page to what he can write on a page.

They're different skills.

At 7, he's not likely to benefit much from being forced into practising skills that are not fun, even if he does fully understand that this is the only way to get from where he is to where he wants to be. So games will absolutely be the key, and Scrabble is certainly a good one to start with.
posted by flabdablet at 4:58 AM on January 6, 2014

I hate to ask the obvious, but have you raised this issue with his class teacher? I would be really surprised if s/he can't suggest any resources.

As far as games go, I always found Boggle more fun than Scrabble when I was a kid.

By the way, I think you are right to be concerned, and strongly disagree with anyone who thinks spelling is stupid or unimportant. Like it or not, people will judge you if you can't spell. And spellcheck cannot always be relied on, because it doesn't pick up things like homonyms (like 'accept' and 'except').
posted by Salamander at 5:02 AM on January 6, 2014 [17 favorites]

It really helps, I believe, to deconstruct words and understand what type of word they are in grammatical context, if possible going back to the original Latin.

For example, lots of people struggle with spelling words like "definitely" and "separate" because they're trying to remember a sequence of 8, 9, 10 letters. That's a hell of a task with no system.

If you know that adverbial forms are never "ley" but typically "ly" that cures a common problem and stops people being confused when they're trying to write adverbs of words with all sorts of different stems.

If you understand that de-fine and de-finite and de-finitely and finite are all part of the same family and why they are part of the same family you are less likely to spell "definitely" as "definately" by relying on phonetics or (if you don't understand adverbial suffixes) "definatley."

An anecdote: years back I employed a highly qualified grad who had got a 1st class degree in English from a decent enough university. I didn't understand why she kept making obvious grammatical errors until she explained she had never been taught grammar properly.

I'm not an expert on how to apply this to a seven year old, but I do think that making spelling less mysterious is key - and applying a system as much as possible so that where words that are irregular need to be remembered there is some brain space to do it.
posted by MuffinMan at 5:02 AM on January 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

(flabdablet, is that the correct link?)
posted by Salamander at 5:11 AM on January 6, 2014

At seven, he may be spelling as the words sound. In school, the children are taught the alphabet not only to know the order, but the sound of each letter. The rules change when you couple some letters with other so it no longer makes sense. He may recognize the word in reading, but remembering how to spell it is difficult. Spelling is memory. Repetition is the way to make a young child remember how to spell. You can explain to him why some words are spelled a certain way and all of that "ph" is the sound of "f" so "phone" is not "fone" and "fish" is not "phish" (unless it's a band) but he really doesn't care and may not want to pay attention to all of that. He may want to just know how to spell something. So, just write words down that he has trouble with and have him write it until he remembers or use flash cards. He will learn everything else necessary to explain why things are spelled they way they are as he gets older.
posted by Yellow at 5:13 AM on January 6, 2014

Undetected left-hander, by any chance?
posted by Namlit at 5:19 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

My 7 yo has a similar temperament to yours. Have you played Scribblenauts? My two children love it, and spelling is essential to the game. We also recently got bananagrams. Scrabble Jr. is boring, don't bother with it.
posted by Cuke at 5:35 AM on January 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

This page talks about how good readers may find spelling hard at times, and this one has advice about teaching phonemic awareness.

I've found the phonemic approach useful in teaching my own son. This list of spelling rules was helpful, too. There's structure underneath all the apparent chaos of English spelling. If people think of learning spelling as acquiring a skill, rather than revealing an inherent connection to language, there's less sadness and shame in making mistakes. (Many very smart people don't spell well, just as many athletic people don't dance well.)

Learning and enjoying language through reading, though, is the best way to become a proficient communicator, I think. Your son is good at reading, and in reading lots will learn lots about language. Maybe he could set an ambitious goal for reading books he likes during the summer, with some focus on the spelling of a few key words for each book.
posted by Francolin at 5:35 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Keep him reading.

I am one of those people who never ever ever had to study for spelling tests (disgusting, I know) and I really believe one reason is I read my head off when I was young. And please remember he is only SEVEN. Give him a year or two and I bet it clicks. Do check with the school but if they aren't that concerned with it, I would relax a bit too.

Now on the other hand you say HE is concerned. Maybe ask him what he thinks would help?
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:44 AM on January 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

Seconding MuffinMan. I was a very good speller when I was a kid (if I do say so myself!), mostly because I had a decent grasp on Latin and Greek word roots. I got much of this from reading mythology for children and by asking my parents a lot of questions about why we say certain words today. While reading is a separate skill from spelling, having a large vocabulary will help him see patterns among words, which will help him understand why words are spelled the way they are...and reading is the best way to build a big vocabulary.

This site might give you some more ideas for introducing etymology to your child. Good luck!
posted by schroedingersgirl at 6:00 AM on January 6, 2014

He has the rest of his school years in which to memorize the appropriate spellings, and it sounds like memorization is overwhelming and stressful for him right now: it might be helpful to just encourage him to do more reading, which he is good at!, and more writing, without pushing him too hard have the spellings memorized.

If you can give him a way to correct his own spelling, whether by looking words up in a children's dictionary or a word list you make together (perhaps every time he asks you for a spelling he can write it down in a word list, and next time he needs to know he could look through the list himself) or to practice independently using an app, that might be helpful. For someone who's stressed about their spelling, being corrected by someone else can be hard!

Also, if there's any way that you can turn the tables by having him help a younger child, maybe a year or so younger, who's just beginning to learn to read and write, that could both be good for his confidence in his language abilities and help him absorb the words himself.

If he were older I would suggest that you give him a list of really hard-to-spell words and have him quiz you on them and try to stump you--it's especially empowering for a kid to realize grown-ups don't know how to spell everything either! I'm not sure how well this would work for a seven-year-old, though, although maybe you could have another adult or an older child help him with the pronunciations of the words, since reading a phonetic pronunciation key would be potentially confusing.
posted by beryllium at 6:05 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have him spell words with raw spaghetti sticks, breaking up the sticks to form the characters. Writing the word might not be enough for him to get it; physically building each word may etch it into his memory. Alternative is to draw it in sand at the beach or in the playground.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:05 AM on January 6, 2014

Two of the best physicians I know are atrocious spellers--one of them would send me emails saying "have a grate day" until very recently. It has not held them back professionally, although they make liberal use of spellcheck programs. Spelling and reading well are different, although I do think that reading a lot does help with the "does that look right?" aspect. If he's not doing well with pure memorization, try focusing on the various rules of spelling--maybe focus on one rule a day and do a bunch of words with a few exceptions?. If he's at all into history or other cultures, it might be fun to look into the etymology of words that are particularly hard or have nonstandard spelling.

I see on preview that others have suggested the same thing. I was inseparable from my copy of Edith Hamilton's Greek Mythology at age 8.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 6:09 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a fantastic reader a good writer and a gawdawful speller. I learned to read phonetically and while I'm a total word whiz, I never made the spelling breakthrough.

I made mediocre grades in undergraduate school and terrific grades in grad school. This perplexed my father who asked me, "So? What was the difference?" My answer, "Word Processing."

I rely upon spellcheck programs, and shrug my shoulders at the rest of it.

I don't know if more drilling would have helped, or more games, or what really.

At the end of the day, spelling isn't everything, in my world, it isn't anything. Teach him to type and to use the tools in a word processing program.

As for memorizing long lists of words for spelling tests. Total waste of my time.

My parents let me give up on it. "Hey, you can't be good at everything. You write really well and you're a good person."

“Anyone who can only think of one way to spell a word obviously lacks imagination.”
― Mark Twain
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:47 AM on January 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've always felt like the key to good spelling is spending time reading. As a kid I spent a lot of time with books, but also reading in fun forms like playing Scrabble, or watching Wheel of Fortune. In my classroom I tried to help students by using lots of games that were heavy on reading.

Give him time as he's 7, but it's wonderful that you are so attentive and caring about his progress! As a teacher I saw so many parents who would give me the "who cares about spelling" schpiel, so it's cool to see how much you care. But, I would say that if what you're doing now is stressing him out, then you really need to think "fun" lest he start equating homework with stress.

And spelling is very important, and I strongly disagree with people who are sharing anecdotes of X or Y person who is very successful but can't spell or write properly. Good for that person, but they are the exception to the rule- it's more likely that someone will miss out on promotions or miss out on jobs entirely if they can't handle basic spelling and grammar in written communication. I've seen it in my workplace time and time again.
posted by Old Man McKay at 6:50 AM on January 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was very similar to your kid, terrible speller but voracious reader. I never really did any special work on spelling but over time and exposure to language it got much better! It's still not my greatest strength but being slightly weak at spelling hasn't stopped me doing very well academically - so as others have said, I really wouldn't stress over it too much - a good vocabulary and grasp of grammar are far more key to being able to write well in the digital age - and encouraging an interest in etymology is definitely the best thing for enriching his understanding of how our strange language works!
posted by an opinicus at 6:50 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Scribblenauts is an excellent way to build a desire to spell correctly. You'll know you win when you hear "blacksky, how do you spell 'death ray'?" and your response is "How do I always have you start?" which in the case of my 6 year old is "start it out, try your best, then we'll fix."

With my 10 year old (who has severe cognitive delays), we have a regimen from school that includes the some of the following tasks for learning spelling words:
  1. Rote
  2. Fill-in-the-blank (leave 1 or more letters blank and have him fill in)
  3. Use the word in a sentence
  4. Pick the correctly spelled word from a set
  5. Word copy (3x per word)
and so on. Rote is the worst - highest stakes, lowest fun. Best to offer, say, three techniques and let him pick two.

Also, consider MadLibs, which is targeted right about his age. You can take turns scribing the words. Be prepared for him to quickly learn how to spell 'fart', 'poop', 'butt' and a slew of other bathroom words.
posted by plinth at 6:59 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

In addition to what others have said, there are some approaches that don't necessarily scale but that might help with words that he just absolutely can't get.

For example, in Roald Dahl's Matilda, the hero's teacher makes up an incredibly stupid song about the word "difficulty" that I nonetheless mostly remember to this day (it's something like "Mrs. D and Mrs. I, Mrs. F-F-I, Mrs. C and Mrs. U, Mrs. L-T-Y").

You can make up stories about why words are spelled the way they are: if the word is "great," for example, you can imagine a G and an R walking around being really hungry, growling to themselves, and then they see the EAT and decide to EAT it and everything is GREAT!

Another approach is to close your eyes and really visualize the letters one by one, if possible in some way that is related to the meaning of the word. For example, if the word is "heavy" then your son could close his eyes and you could very slowly talk about how the H is standing under a huge heavy load and is straining and straining, and its aitch-y legs are just about buckling, and then this E comes by, and your son is visualizing it, and it gets in next to the H, but it's still too much, and they're about to collapse, when suddenly an A comes by, all dancing on its legs, and it thinks it can help because it's a triangle and triangles can support a lot of weight, and actually the A is really helpful and its pointy head supports a lot, but it's still too heavy and they're almost collapsing, and the V comes by and says it might as well try since it's a triangle too, just an upside-down one, but of course it does no good, and then the Y comes along, and they say oh come on, a Y? Why not a steadier letter? But the Y says it likes to help out at the ends of words, and it's worth trYing, and all together they manage to carry the load, even though it's really, really heavy and exhausting.

And so on.

It's kind of corny and takes a lot of time per word, but it can help some things stick and might help him get into the habit of paying attention to words letter-by-letter. As someone said above, lots of people are really good at recognizing whole words without even noticing what letters are in them, which can cause a bunch of difficulties along the way.
posted by egg drop at 7:17 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had absolutely hideous spelling in 5th grade, like worst in the class. I went on to get a perfect score on the English portion of the American college entrance exam and am now a writer and editor.

To my mind, seven is really pretty young to be throwing around medical diagnoses for poor spelling. What worked for me was simply reading, reading, reading. Reading everything. Comic books and books way above my grade level and blogs and just whatever I could find, all the time. I don't remember getting better at spelling; it just happened, naturally, as I had more exposure to written language.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:18 AM on January 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

So, is his spelling much worse than other 7-year-olds (I'm not a primary school teacher - I have no idea how well 7-year-olds spell)? Or is it just not up to your/his standards? It kind of sounds like the perfectionism and the stress over not being able to do things well is more of a problem than the spelling itself. Maybe it would be a good idea to just have him practice being bad at things and being OK with that.

And I kind of agree with those who say that spelling isn't that important. I know a lot of successful, intelligent adults who are execrable spellers, and it hasn't stopped them from finding work and love and all that good stuff. But on the other hand, spelling does matter to me (and I just looked up "execrable" to make sure I spelled it right). It's a good skill to have, but is it really worth crying and running away over at 7 years old?
posted by mskyle at 7:36 AM on January 6, 2014

So, phonics is developmental. If you look at how children at different developmental stages would represent the word "throat," it could look like:

d (emergent speller - approximation of first sound)
tht (child can identify beginning and final sound)
thot (child is beginning to identify medial sounds but does not yet represent long vowels)
throt or throat

Each of these versions represents progress and can be acceptable depending on the child's level of development. I would say, if your child's teacher doesn't have a problem with your child's spelling then it's probably not a problem. I am a first grade teacher and in the writer's workshop model (which is widespread) you accept developmentally appropriate approximations as long as children are using the phonetic skills being taught.

A big part of phonics instruction is diagnosing where a speller is on the developmental continuum and figuring out how to take them to the next stage. For example, with an emergent speller you are reinforcing letter/sound correspondences and teaching children to listen for and write the first and last sound. Typically it's most efficient to work with kids at the stage they are at. For example, if you're trying to teach inflectional endings to a child who is still learning the short vowel sounds you aren't getting much bang for your buck. If you're interested in getting into it more there's a good book called Words Their Way with a lot of activities. Or you could just hire a tutor.
posted by mermily at 7:43 AM on January 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Some teachers in the primary grades are more concerned with getting kids to write than in emphasizing correct spelling. My memory of studying this many years ago is rusty but I remember that it's considered just fine to let kids use invented spellings and that they will gradually learn to spell as they get older. An 8 yr old I know well attends a local school, she's often inventive with spelling, but I've noticed over the last three years that she increasingly tries to spell correctly.
posted by mareli at 7:49 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

People suggesting alternative methods of word creation are dead-on; try stuff like writing with shaving cream or spaghetti sticks or in sand. Anything with stuff like Scrabble tiles is also good.

Also, this may sound old-fashioned and silly but writing in cursive can actually help a lot because it means you focus on the shape of the whole word and not an individual letter. It also gives you a chance to see if writing the word feels wrong.

Beyond that, if you want to work with roots/phonemes that could help, as could having him spell words out loud to get the rhythm of them (I still spell "because" out loud in my head pretty much every time I write it).

In a more general way, it could help to figure out what kind of learner he is (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, experiential, whatever -- there are plenty of simple tests on-line to help with this). If he's very auditory and spelling is only done visually, find ways to express the patterns of words and letters out loud, even just making up songs or whatever. If he's kinesthetic, the stuff above with manipulatives will be especially helpful.

I'm a former elementary school teacher so I promise I'm not just making shit up.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:52 AM on January 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

People who say reading is the key are not wrong, but they're not right either--it really does seem like spelling and reading are not linked for some kids. My own son, who is now 12, comments himself that it doesn't make sense to him that he can read anything but struggles with spelling. Whereas my 9-year-old is one of those natural spellers who just picked it up.

My oldest benefited from a homeschool spelling curriculum called All About Spelling. I checked, and it is available in Australia. Even though he was older than your son when we started it, we began with the very first level. My son had not found it easy or intuitive to "segment" words into their sounds--when we first started, he couldn't hear that there were, for instance, three sounds in "cat." The approach the program took, beginning with training this kind of awareness, was a real breakthrough for him.

Lessons don't take long, and my son was encouraged by the progress he made right away.
posted by not that girl at 7:59 AM on January 6, 2014

I'm not sure how much help this is to a seven year old, but I finally learned how to spell correctly when I started typing things on the computer. When spell check flagged something as misspelled I would instantly see it and be able to fix it. I'd usually just back up and fix it rather than clicking on it with my mouse which got me in the habit of making the world the correct way. When I'm writing witha a pen I have to think about some words still but in general I have very few spelling errors now vexcept when typing on my phone...)
I was also a huge reader! I had a student teacher really get on to me when I was seven or eight because I couldn't spell. "you read all the time missriss! You should know how to spell these words!"
posted by missriss89 at 8:01 AM on January 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

missriss89 reminds me, too, that typing on the computer has helped my son a lot. Not so much because of spell check in his case, but because he struggles with handwriting and couldn't keep the whole word in his head for as long as it took him to write it by hand. He types much faster than he writes by hand and that is a piece of what's made his spelling more fluent.
posted by not that girl at 8:08 AM on January 6, 2014

These's a lot of good advice above but I would also say that it is worth looking into testing for dyslexia as I am dyslexic and your child at 7 sounds very much like myself at that age - reading was fine and I was way above my reading age but spelling, handwriting and frustration around spelling was very strong.

I don't remember very clearly what my occupational therapy included (I can ask my parents) but a good twenty something years later while my spelling is extremely improved (typing really helped...), I still go back to the mnemonics they came up for a couple words occasionally and they helped a lot when I was younger.
posted by halcyonday at 8:18 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Took a while but I found it "Why Stevie Can't Spell" is an article I can across a while back which made me feel a whole lot better. In some people there appears to be a connection with bad spelling and how their brain is wired. It can be a type of learning disability related to dyslexia.

In school from an early age I was way ahead in reading and comprehension and had a huge vocabulary. My problem was and is spelling. Though not as bad as the person in the article I still to this day have issues with spelling. Doesn't matter what I have done. I've tried a whole lot of things and certain words just don't stick. Sometimes I get them right and sometimes I get them wrong.

With the advent of computers I was in heaven as spell check became my best friend. It was a problem in University on some exams where spelling counted. Essay exams were at times a nightmare and I found myself not using words that I wanted because I couldn't spell them. I ended up seeing getting some help from a professor who was aware of the problem and it's brain connection and got special exemption on exams for spelling.

By all means try the suggestions given already. It could be due to any number of reasons given. From someone who has struggled with spelling and at many times felt stupid and frustrated about spelling, it's good to be aware that it may just be due to brain wiring and has nothing to do with intelligence or your sons ability in other areas like reading, writing and comprehension. It's just wiring and something you learn to live with and work around.
posted by Jalliah at 8:18 AM on January 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Please have your son screened for learning disabilities. I have dyscalculia, which is related to but different from dyslexia. At your son's age I read at secondary school level but could not spell (or do math beyond addition/ or read a clock) for shit. Early screening and intervention makes all the difference.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:22 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't have much expertise in this area, but you mentioned that you're doing spelling tests against the clock to make it "fun," and that part doesn't sound fun at all. I was never great at "mental math" and in fifth grade we had to do timed arithmetic tests, and they gave me horrible anxiety. I probably would have been fine if they weren't timed. Please don't add time pressure to your son's learning unless he explicitly wants to.
posted by radioamy at 8:26 AM on January 6, 2014

Another person in the "read like crazy but cannot spell at all camp." This really hasn't held me back a lot (especially due to the majority of my writing now being on a computer), and I do agree that spell check has made me a better speller because I can see the immediate correction- I remember being frustrated as hell as a kid at having to look up every other word in the dictionary as a way to "learn." I also agree to try not to make this a huge thing, because it really made me feel awful as a kid when people would point it out all the time (thanks grandma).

But....here is the only place it has really hurt me, and might be a good reason in the future to see if its a learning disability that their might be interventions for- trying to learn another language. From what I remember my elementary school made me do an extra year of english instead of adding in a foreign language (which, was awful for me, because it was for all the kids having trouble reading and I just sat there bored and confused on why I was stuck there). But, I switched schools at Grade 7, and threw myself into french class....and I sucked. I had no problem reading it, but writing was awful awful awful. I didn't make the connection in high school that this might be "a thing involving the fact I can't spell" and just thought i didn't try hard enough. Until I decided to take Russian in college did I put this alllllll together and realize that this spelling thing wasn't just me being lazy and that it was really something that is for some reason very hard for me. I never bothered getting an evaluation and probably should have, but otherwise this has really been the one way this has held me back.
posted by zara at 8:33 AM on January 6, 2014

Hi, elementary teacher here. You might also try word inventories if your son likes to read. You pick a book for him, even one he has read before, and you have him find all the words that (because he is a strong reader he already knows) make a long e sound-- for instance, eat, leave, tree, freedom, we. You could also start more simply and have him find all the words that are spelled with patterns of letters, for instance, CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant; cat, dog, sit), or CVCV (consonant vowel consonant vowel; were, gate). He writes the words on cards and then separates them into piles based on similarities.

This activity can help kids move beyond spelling things phonetically and into transitional then conventional spelling, where spelling "generalizations" for spelling different sounds (used to be called rules) come into play. Just make sure you pre-screen the book so you know he'll find a lot of words with the target sound or pattern to work with.

Again though, since he's only 7 I think his spelling is pretty developmentally appropriate. Many children don't begin to spell conventionally until they reach middle school, so don't worry too much. Repeating the above advice to consult the child's teacher too.
posted by Temeraria at 9:01 AM on January 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Jumping in one more time- I just had a holy shit moment about my life. The article found by Jalliah is a must read, and all the way on the last page just described all my struggles (and maybe your son's too)

"I have some of the symptoms of dyslexia: horrible spelling, serious difficulty remembering names and numbers, a failure to learn the rudiments of a foreign language in spite of two years of college French and a summer in Normandy. But I'm missing the big one -- profound reading trouble. "

(Thanks Jalliah- I feel much better now knowing all those things are probably just one weird way my brain works)
posted by zara at 9:20 AM on January 6, 2014

Super Solvers: Spellbound! if he likes video games. I didn't have any spelling problems, though.
posted by flimflam at 9:37 AM on January 6, 2014

He is seven. I agree with Temeraria - the spelling seems developmentally appropriate (especially for a young seven - you don't mention precise age but a year is forever in child development). You do not need to drill on spelling during holidays at age 7. Just keep reading.

I will add that if your child is getting frustrated with spelling exercises, the exercises are too hard. Go down a grade level until you find exercises that your child can master consistently and cheerfully, then go up from there.
posted by crazycanuck at 10:08 AM on January 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

I remember doing consonant cluster practice when I was in first grade here in the U.S.—I remember because I apparently repeatedly told my parents I had no homework and didn't practice my consonant clusters! But practicing those pieces of language can be quite useful, if his school isn't already doing that.
posted by limeonaire at 10:15 AM on January 6, 2014

> This page talks about how good readers may find spelling hard at times, and this one has advice about teaching phonemic awareness. I've found the phonemic approach useful in teaching my own son. This list of spelling rules was helpful, too. There's structure underneath all the apparent chaos of English spelling. If people think of learning spelling as acquiring a skill,

Seconded. There is a lot more going on when learning how to spell than just memorization. I'm a good speller. Spelling has sort of a fluency of its own, and some people are better at picking it up than others. I can consistently chose the correct spelling even for words that are totally unfamiliar to me. I'm using "fluency" as a simile, I am NOT suggesting that people who aren't great at spelling aren't fluent in their language.

However, I have a truly terrible sequence memory and likely some mild dyscalculia (which is not something that they tested for back when I was a kid.) I feel the frustration of not-great spellers when I think about math. I have a hard time with even pretty simple arithmetic, and didn't have much luck memorizing my times tables either -- so, neither acquiring the underlying skill nor rote memorization worked for me to acquire arithmetic skills. As an adult I rely on calculators and counting to muddle through.
posted by desuetude at 10:15 AM on January 6, 2014

"spelling tests against the clock to make a fun game of it etc but its not working"

I... I'm sorry, but is that actually FUN for some people? There are actually people on the planet that find the anxiety of a timed spelling test enjoyable?? This is blowing my mind.

I had a college reading level in grade six and the spelling of someone smashing my head against the keyboard. I also really need to tell you that timed spelling tests just gave me horrible anxiety and never remotely helped, nor were they fun. Those classroom spelling bees where when you spelled a word wrong you had to sit down? That was "Let's all point out Dynex can't spell at all and then she gets to sit there and stare at her desk in shame for 20 minutes while all the other kids finish".

One of my parents put a ton of pressure on me to learn to spell, and signed me up for tutors, and it did help, with a side of growing mental inadequacy. The other parent is a successful person who can't spell squat. (There's a reason this mug exists.)

Honestly, what helped me was chat rooms and internet messaging. I learned how to type quickly, and had incentive to learn how to spell that wasn't shame based. Ease off on the pressure, if this is developmental then all he needs is a bit more time.
posted by Dynex at 10:22 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nthing get his screened. Your description of him is a good description of me at that age - and I'm dyslexic. However my dyslexia wasn't picked up until I was in my 20s. He might not be, but you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by getting it done.
posted by I_read_somewhere_that_. . . at 12:36 PM on January 6, 2014

Have your son screened for learning disabilities or developmental issues.

I'm not an expert on this by any means, but my brother had atrocious handwriting and an extremely difficult time learning to ride a bike and tie his shoes as well as other things. It turned out he had a developmental delay when it came to fine motor skills, as well as type of dyslexia. He liked reading, but studying spelling was like the culmination of everything that was difficult and frustrating for him.

One little thing that helped my brother out was pencils that were larger than standard size and triangle shaped, like these.
posted by inertia at 12:47 PM on January 6, 2014

Firstly, big props to you for the effort that you've been putting in with teaching your son stuff. Ours is 6 1/2 and currently halfway through 1st grade here in the US. He's WAY above average in reading, and was able to write his name, read and count to 100 before he even started kindergarten. His spelling is also bad. Just planely fonetik - he's spelled "karate" as "krode", for example. He knows the sounds for every letter of the alphabet and in addition to his mighty range of recognized sight words he's also able to guess pretty accurately at the pronunciation of words he's never seen before. But his spelling skills are definitely Homer Simpson-esque. He has a strongly autodidactic nature and of his own accord will go onto websites with educational games like Starfall and Coolmath. He grasped the basics of riding a bike without too many problems. He loves Lego and Minecraft, and we love it as well as it helps him learn about concepts like mining, agriculture, teamwork, animal husbandry, wood and metalwork, cooking, the food chain and plenty more. He's okay at drawing, but what he really doesn't like is sitting down and writing things. It's not just his spelling, it's just the fact that the writing process is long and drawn out and boring and full of arcane rules and unrewarding. We've been working on it with him for a while and if he knows there's a reward, he'll just try his best to knuckle down and finish off that aspect of his weekly homework, but spelling is probably his worst trait.

I'm checking in to let you know that you shouldn't let him get frustrated, nor get frustrated yourself at the fact that this appears to be one hurdle that is a challenge for him. He sounds perfect in plenty of other ways. We have friends where all the kids want to do is draw and paint and color in. Or play with a doll. And they'll only eat hotdogs or pasta. I just tell my kid that there are plenty of rules in the English language and it takes a lifetime to master. I give him snippets of other languages and have fun explaining a few of the rules of those languages and how they work different to English - masculine and feminine forms in French, for example. I'm supremely confident that my kid will get astronomically better at spelling in the next couple of years, just subconsciously. It's been that way with him for everything else. I suspect the same will be true for yours as well, as they appear to be quite similar. Great word recognition. A bit highly strung and prone to extreme emotion at times. I'm guessing yours will often "hyperfocus" on things too? Pokemon, or Beyblades, or even his bike - completely ignoring everything else until his spinning top of a brain has come to rest?

I recommend if you have the time and $ you get your son run through some neuropsychological testing. Intelligence, distractability, social skills, ADHD etc testing, I mean. We tested ours last year and discovered he has an FSIQ of 150 on WISC-IV. Proper testing of your son's talents will give you a greater understanding of how his brain ticks. I can't tell you how much of a relief it was to have a respected pediatric neuropsych doc confirm for us the reasons that our son is the way he is and how we can best move forward with his continuing education (which now has to be special needs on the gifted scale). We're not at all concerned about his speed of learning when it comes to spelling, it'll come eventually and is absolutely nothing to be stressed about, especially since he's only just moved to 2nd grade! And I don't think you should be, either.

I would recommend just keeping his mind engaged on stuff but don't hit the accelerator on anything. Our doc told us that for gifted children, there is a quote: "something worth doing is worth doing to excess." And, something worth feeling is worth overfeeling. Kindle a delight in something VERY gently, like spelling. The blazing fire will come later. From experience, if we pushed even just a bit too hard and made the mistake of saying things like "Come on, this is easy!" our kid would burst into tears due to frustration at not instantly being able to "get it". You don't want that.

Bedtime storytime is awesome. We share the reading responsibility at bedtime - he reads one page, I read the other. Right now we're reading "The Land of Stories" by Chris Colfer and he's loving it. We just finished the entire Wishing Tree collection by Enid Blyton. Land of Stories is pitched at 8-12 year olds and some of it is a little advanced for him but he doesn't mind at all. Some nights he'll have me read the book to him and lie there staring at me and I know his head is churning with all the book's ideas while I read. Capitalize on your son's reading ability, nudge the book level one or two grades higher, and I suspect that the spelling skills will quickly develop once the reading side of things becomes a subconscious competence for him. Even for adults, a new language starts with the ability to read and decipher properly written and spoken verbage; actual from-scratch sentence construction and proper spelling is way further along the trail.

This book was co-written by the doc who did our son's testing. It may be worth buying and reading. There's a fine line between ADHD/developmentally challenged children and gifted ones, at least the book may offer up some clues as to how to proceed in the event that you can't afford actual testing.

Hope this helps. PM if if you have questions.
posted by tra at 2:09 PM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

In the spirit of answering the actual question - "Fun spelling activities for me and my son", not "Is it okay to be a shitty speller, tell me about your spelling history?" - I would Nth scribblenauts.

Additionally, using spelling games associated with books your are reading (if they are actually age-appropriate "readers" like in school, they may already have some word-lists etc in the back that you can use. I would also consider basic "find a words" - you can find books filled with them aimed at all ages all over the place, and often these books are mixed up with other activities that can make them fun, and things your kid might like, like Ben10 Find a Words etc.

I think the key is using things that your kid does like as a gateway for the thing he doesn't enjoy so much. Also I would consider informalising the learning as much as possible. The activities you describe sound predominantly like testing (albeit fun testing), and if he perceives that someone is monitoring his performance, it is obviously a source of stress for him. You sound like you're on top of it, but as always praising effort not outcome is critical. Divorcing spelling from an 'examination' type setting may be quite helpful.

Other things to consider: fridge magnets of letters, but also those packs you get with tonnes of words in them, so he can stuff around building sentences on the fridge whenever he feels like it. You can get theme packs like "wild animals" etc. National Geographic shops or Socrates if they still exist will likely have several, as will ebay; buying actual "Readers" like they use in school; word activity; getting some paints and making: signs, treasure maps with lots of places named like "Dead Man's Beach" (soak in tea and burn the edges, fuck I used to love doing these as a kid), names on bicycles and other loved objects; buy one of those crunchy plastic label/sticker makers from Brother at Officeworks etc and go around labelling stuff.

Note: I am not a teacher. My father was, and my step-mother is a PHD childhood literacy expert. I have studied sociology of education and worked as a childcarer in the past. Best of luck, you sound like you're a great, engaged parent.
posted by smoke at 2:12 PM on January 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

FWIW, my brother was an atrocious speller all through grade school and middle school. He would also abbreviate long, uncommon phrases into indecipherable acronyms to avoid writing them out. My family still talks about the summer (he was around age 7-9) where he claimed that he "forgot how to read" over summer break. Today he is a successful and happy high school English teacher. If you would have gone back in time and told that to my family 20 years ago, we would have laughed until we cried.

Not everything is an indicator of future ability or success. I'm not saying you shouldn't work on it, but I just wanted to give you some anecdotal evidence that it may not be as big of an issue as it feels like right now.
posted by halseyaa at 4:21 PM on January 6, 2014

My daughter is in a similar kind of place. Also 7 and just finished year 1. Our teacher told us that although she's an excellent reader and can read quite difficult books alone, that we absolutely must still read to her. To help her hear the sound of unfamiliar words and explain concepts and the roots of words....and to be close.

A dear friend of mines dad read to her and her sisters till she, the youngest, was 15. I intend to do the same to my kids. After that, I hope we'll just read the same book and have a little family book club. If she's still talking to me through the teen years.
posted by taff at 5:47 PM on January 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I also recommend testing for learning disabilities beyond dyslexia. I had all of the same problems throughout school, including the extreme frustration when trying to improve spelling. I was an excellent reader and did well in all of my classes, but spelling and handwriting just didn't work. Since I was good at everything else, it didn't seem like I could have a learning disability, but I was eventually tested and confirmed to have a learning disability, the primary component of which was Dysgraphia (http://www.ncld.org/types-learning-disabilities/dysgraphia/what-is-dysgraphia). School became a lot less stressful once I had the diagnosis and was able to make arrangements to work with teachers to find better solutions, such as typing and spell checking papers.
posted by nalyd at 6:47 PM on January 6, 2014

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