What's it called if you can read everything but you can't spell anything
November 6, 2015 10:30 AM   Subscribe

My 9 year old son is having a very hard time learning to spell. He's a voracious reader, and reads above grade level with good comprehension. In general he's plenty smart. But spelling even basic words is a struggle for him. It has gotten to the point where "just practice more and you'll catch on" doesn't seem like the right strategy. Is there a specific learning disability related to spelling?

To my untrained eye it looks like there's some sort of processing disorder at work. For example, he will often place vowels in the wrong position relative to consonants (e.g. "bluid" instead of "build") or leave vowels out altogether ("powr" instead of "power"). This isn't an effect of writing quickly. It happens when he is working slowly trying to sound out and spell a single word.

He can recognize correct spelling when he is reading. When he is practicing his spelling, he will write down a word and then read it to see if he got it right. If he didn't get it right he'll erase the word and start again, but at that point he often gets confused and starts making more mistakes, using the wrong vowels, mixing up consonants ("m" and "n" for example), and generally getting stressed out.

He is articulate when speaking, but his written expression lags far beyond. The spelling problems slow him down, they reduce his choice of words, and generally make writing a drag for him.

Does this condition have a name? Expressive dyslexia or something? We will be talking with his school about it, but I'd like to educate myself before hand so I can advocate most effectively.
posted by alms to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There is something called dysgraphia, but I'm not sure if it fits his situation. I thought I'd drop the link in here in case it happens to be helpful, but hopefully someone more knowledgeable will come along soon!
posted by cider at 10:57 AM on November 6, 2015

Best answer: Yes, dysgraphia. My eight year old son was just diagnosed and sounds exactly like your son. We had him tested this past summer by an educational psychologist and she made the diagnosis. The school can test him.... Sometimes you may have to push to make this happen, it depends on your district. Once we had the diagnosis, his teacher is making the accommodations he needs (extra time for writing, graph paper for math problems, bigger paper, not counting off for hand writing) and we have an Orton Gillingham tutor working with him twice a week. Dysgraphia is not "curable" but the child can learn work arounds and be fine with proactive parents and knowledgeable teachers. Good luck!!
posted by pearlybob at 11:07 AM on November 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

I see this fairly often in my students (7 or 8) who learned to read early. They never really internalized the phonics rules (which also apply to spelling) because they learned 'whole language', meaning they learned whole words at a time instead of sounding them out. Reversing letters and words is fairly common in kids a bit younger than 9, but by 9 we'd expect that to be pretty much gone.

Your best bet is to write down every symptom you've noticed and take them to your child's teacher. You can ask/force the school to call a meeting about it for sure... in my district it's called an SST. You can't necessarily force them to do the testing, but if there's a big discrepancy between the reading level and the spelling there's a good chance that they'll do it, again depending on your district. Even without a diagnosis you can talk to your child's teacher about the accommodations mentioned above.

I'd take in samples of his writing that show specific examples of what concerns you have. I wouldn't go in with the name of a particular disability unless you've had him diagnosed by a professional outside of the school. Parents coming in with the name of the disability they think their child suffers from is not in any way helpful.
posted by Huck500 at 11:22 AM on November 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

There's a low phoneme (sound)-grapheme (letter) correspondence in the English language (e.g. words don't always sound the way they look/are spelled. So if your son is trying to spell words based on "sounding them out" this won't work a good chunk of the time. He may have trouble "seeing" words even though he is a good reader. This article speaks to that a bit: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A27074-2005Feb15_4.html.

Alternatively he might be having trouble with the individual sounds that make up the words, this is called 'phonological' awareness.

A good teacher who works with reading disabilities should be able to figure out what's going on, it's not uncommon.
posted by lafemma at 11:27 AM on November 6, 2015

Can he produce the correct spelling when reciting out loud, spelling bee style?

I ask because this may be a "writing" thing more than a "spelling" thing. I routinely misspelled things when writing because I went too fast, in elementary school. It drove me nuts because I could immediately see the errors and it made me feel like crap to keep doing something I perceived as "stupid." Handwriting lessons helped more than anything else - it helped me get a little bit faster, and devoting some of my attention to the prettiness of the letters reduced my anxiety (which improved my spelling.)
posted by SMPA at 11:35 AM on November 6, 2015

Best answer: My kid has dysgraphia. He has trouble spelling because he can't keep all the sounds in his head for the time it takes him to write down the word. His spelling improved dramatically—dramatically — as soon as he started typing instead of trying to write by hand.

If it is dysgraphia, one of the challenges is that the solutions tend to be all about workarounds—typing or dictating instead of writing by hand, for instance. My kid still gets stressed and stumped in the kind of situations where someone casually hands him a piece of paper and tells him to write something down, and speaking up is hard for him when this happens. Otherwise, once we figured it out and stopped trying to turn him into a person who could fluently write by hand, life got pretty good.

A friend whose kid had this was given an AlphaSmart for note-taking and doing assignments in his elementary school classroom. The AlphaSmarts aren't made anymore but I'm sure there's some kind of similar/even better option these days.
posted by not that girl at 11:38 AM on November 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

I had trouble with my daughter and grand-daughter learning "writing to read" method in elementary school. It didn't matter how things were spelled, just get it into a story. It took both of them a while to connect their spelling words to the words they made up themselves for the writing to read projects. The old method of writing the spelling word a couple of times then using it in a sentence seemed to help the most.
posted by PJMoore at 11:42 AM on November 6, 2015

Best answer: This sounds exactly like me. I'm sure there are lots of resources out there, but the only thing that has really worked for me is to use a spell checker that underlines words. Then, I force myself to try and correct it. I had this suggested to me by a teacher in high school and never turned back. I should say that being asked to memorize words for a spelling test never ever worked, no matter how hard I tried.
posted by lab.beetle at 12:14 PM on November 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

I had these kinds of problems growing up. I'm still not very good at spelling, but I have gotten much better over the years.

Like lab.beetle says, spell-check helped me a lot.
posted by gregr at 12:24 PM on November 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Very common. This is one of the advantages of teaching phonics. It is only showing as a deficiency now only because he picked up the whole word learning faster than average. All kids are better at some parts of the subjects than others, so it doesn't necessarily mean a learning disability unless say, he would benefit from such a diagnosis as it would give him some extra help.

If your son studies word families (such as the family: atrocious, precocious, precious, serious etc. or the family: run, sun, fun, gun, spun etc, depending on his writing level) this will help him learn the various phonemes that are giving him trouble.

If you look at his writing you can probably figure out a few of the word families that he is having difficulty with but which he is expected to already know, and help him with exercises involving writing silly stories with the words to make the drill less boring.

For support figuring out and remembering the difference between Build versus Bluid, he could drill with black, blood, bleed, bleary, blotch, blank and hold, fold, cold, field, bold, held and mild, by writing a gory story about someone being mortally wounded and buried in the cold field. And when I say short, I mean three sentences, with just enough linking words to make sense, and as an amusing creative exercise.

Alternatively "Bloody, blistering blue blazes!" would be another possible writing exercise that he might enjoy.

Many kids find word families boring, rat, hat, mat, sat, bat *yawn!* so the schools often teach more interesting word lists that drill individual unrelated words rather than word families. Look for spelling word lists that are a grade or two less than his so that he gets confident and happy to spend five minutes on phonetic spelling drill writing scurrilous passages to giggle over.

Remember always start with work that is easy enough that your kid can do it without anxiety, but hard enough to make him feel successful when he has done it.
posted by Jane the Brown at 12:37 PM on November 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the responses. This is very helpful.

I don't think this is just a matter of needing to learn phonics. He's in fourth grade and has been doing phonics for years, or trying to. He seems to have a very hard time perceiving phonics, in a way that I have trouble relating to. For example, he often doesn't seem to perceive the vowel inside a word, and he often leaves out an "R" if it is part of a consonant blend. For example, he might spell "harder" "hadr" or "word" as "wod". At other times, as I described above, he puts a consonant on the wrong side of a vowel. This is when he is painstakingly trying to sound out and spell a word.

When he writes a word incorrectly he usually quickly sees that he didn't get it right but then doesn't seem able to correct his mistake. He just gets more confused and doesn't want to write anymore.

His current spelling homework consists of word families, and it reduces him to tears on a regular basis.
posted by alms at 1:22 PM on November 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

I realize I'm going off of three-decade-old remembered information, but I think my younger brother had a similar issue, and they diagnosed him with a form of dyslexia and explained that he read well because he easily recognized the shape of the whole word, without really being able to break it down into phonics. Like, a word existed as a graphic unit, not a phonic unit, in his mind. I share that not to diagnose anything, but just in case it helps you or someone else who knows more about the topic come up with other ideas.
posted by jaguar at 1:29 PM on November 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The traditional teaching methods also reduced me to tears. Asking me to remember a list of word families would never have worked. Perhaps can you just encourage him (and his teachers) to just let him write without worrying about the spelling. For some exercises, you can go back and underline all the misspelled words if you want to focus on spelling. For me, realizing that I could put together articulate thoughts without having to stop and spell each word correctly was really really important for developing as a writer. (And teachers who would stop me mid-thought to correct my spelling made this so much harder). In the age of spell check writing (non-spelling) skills are really more important.

(as an aside, you could try asking him what the names of the characters in his books are. I can read a whole novel without ever translating my mental picture of the word that is a character's name into something I could every say aloud).
posted by lab.beetle at 3:02 PM on November 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This sounds just like me. I was diagnosed with Dysgraphia in high school after a lot of problems with spelling and writing. Reading was never a problem, but spelling and handwriting were always a challenge. I could often tell that things were misspelled which made it worse. Spelling exercises never really helped and were just frustrating. Writing anything by hand was very difficult and slow. Typing made a big difference. It didn't fix everything, but it took a lot of the stress out of writing since handwriting wasn't an issue and spelling errors could be fixed quickly.

I found one of the big challenges was that Dysgraphia didn't fit the mold that schools expected from learning disabilities, so teachers didn't recognize it and it was hard to convince them that I could be a good student with a learning disability. Getting tested by the school or a learning specialist would be a very good idea so he can start getting assistance and support.

Good luck! Learning problems can be very frustrating, but do get easier as you learn to work with them.
posted by nalyd at 5:33 PM on November 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have no comment on what condition etc. could be causing your son's issue, but one thing I suggest to my ESL students with spelling difficulties is to do a lot of reading while listening to the text (books that come with CDs, apps that read stories aloud, being read aloud to while following the words with a finger, etc.). It helps with the problem alluded to above--the mismatch between sounds and spelling in English.
posted by wintersweet at 5:36 PM on November 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just want to underline that there are several forms of dyslexia/dysgraphia, and correspondingly different treatments that are most effective for each type. Your son will be served best form being assessed by someone knowledgeable about the finer points.
posted by dancing leaves at 6:27 AM on November 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all for these responses. It's especially great to hear from people who have experienced this themselves. It's very reassuring to know it's survivable (silly, I know, but true).

I'm marking this resolved, but if anyone has additional comments in the future that'd be great.
posted by alms at 11:48 AM on November 12, 2015

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