how to help a child struggling with spelling

“I can’t do it!” cried my first grade daughter.

Her teacher assigned the class a paragraph prompt. They need to write a paragraph about pets.

My daughter couldn’t even spell the word “pet.” Towards the end of first grade.

When your child struggles with spelling, it can be so hard on them and you as a parent.

And that hard truth is most teachers didn’t learn how to teach spelling in their teacher preparation programs. I certainly didn’t.

Combined with terrible curriculum that have spelling lists with no coherent patterns – it’s no wonder children struggle with spelling.

The good news is it’s relatively straight-forward to help a child struggling with spelling. You just weren’t taught this way in school.

So read on to find out why some children struggle with spelling and four steps to help them.

why do some children struggle with spelling

I’m a mom to a struggling reader and speller, a reading intervention teacher, and an Orton-Gillingham trained tutor.

There are three main reasons I see children struggle with spelling:

  • dyslexia
  • ADHD
  • haven’t been taught


When my daugher struggled with spelling, I initially thought she had a writing learning disablity. It turns out that some kids struggle with reading and some struggle with spelling and it can still be dyslexia.

Dyslexia is language-based learning disablity that impacts the ability to understand sounds in language. This weakness in phonology – the awareness of sounds. Weak phonemic awareness skills can be seen in reading, spelling or both.


While ADHD co-occurs with dyslexia at a high rate, it also can impact spelling and reading without dyslexia. ADHD impacts a student’s ability to focus as most teachers and parents know.

But it also impacts a child’s working memory – or the ability to hold information in their head. It also impacts retrieval from memory.

So while an ADHD child might be able to break a word into its sounds, they might not be able to hold that in their memory long enough to match the letters to their sounds.

ADHD also impacts impulse-control. With my non-dyslexic child who has ADHD, I see errors in spelling due to rushing. As it is a challenge to regulate his speed, this child skips over writing sound-spellings when spelling words.

Haven’t been taught to spell in school

During the global pandemic, I heard my daughter’s special education teacher say “just guess and go” when my daughter was struggling to spell.

I never heard a single phonics or spelling lesson.

I wanted to tear my hair out. In part she was struggling to spell because no one was teaching her spelling.

Like I mentioned above, teachers don’t learn this in teacher prep. I happened to learn it because I had Orton-Gillingham training when I taught 2nd grade over 15 years ago.

Children cannot guess sound-spellings if they can’t segment a word – or break it apart into individual sounds.

If a child is capable of guessing sounds and going on, they won’t be a struggling speller. So if they can’t implement this “guess and go” strategy, they likely have lagging foundational skills.

Plus, you can’t learn to spell by guessing. A child needs to be explicitly taught how to spell and have a lot of guided opportunities with feedback to apply it.

Then they need to be systematic taught spelling patterns based on phonics. These skills need to be reviewed too.

So as a parent or a teacher, if you want a child to be able to make attempts while writing, you need to make sure they can first spell that word in isolation.

three reasons children struggle to spell are dyslexia, ADHD, and inadequate teaching written in white chalk on a black chalkboard

when kids can read but not spell

Like I mentioned above, when a child can read but not spell, it’s often a sign of dyslexia.

Most dyslexics will figure out reading at some point. Some will need a bunch of help, and some will eventually piece together enough reading skills to get by.

But spelling is a lot harder. There are 8 different ways to spell the long a sound like the a in cake:

  • baby
  • cake
  • play
  • maid
  • eight
  • beige
  • steak
  • they

A child needs to know a rule for when to use each spelling. Or for many words, there isn’t a rule.

Instead it comes from the words origin like French or Latin.

Bottom line: it’s hard to know which spelling to use.

Nonetheless, most typical children will be exposed to words enough where their brains will orthographically map common sound-spellings.

But for children who are good readers and really struggle with spelling, dyslexia and dysgraphia should be considered.

Regardless of why a child struggles to spell, there are four steps in how to child a learn to spell.


The good news is there are four simple steps to help a child learn to spell:

  • spell sounds
  • spell words
  • review learned spelling patterns
  • dictate sentences

STEP 1: help a child spell sounds

When I first learned this from Orton-Gililingham training, I was shocked to learn this:

Children need to practice spelling individual sounds before spelling words.

This improves reading, too. Spelling is encoding – connecting sounds to letters. While reading words is decoding – connecting letters to sounds. In the brain, these two skills are interconnected.

Spelling sounds is easier than you might think. You simply dictate a sound to your learner like /ē/ (long e sound like in be or eagle).

Then in a shallow tray of sand, on a piece of paper, or a whiteboard, your child writes all the ways they know to spell the long a sound. At first they might only write the letter e for the e sound in the words be and me.

But after you have taught them about Magic E Words, they will also write e-e for that spelling pattern. Once they have learned abotu the sounds of y, they will write “y” for words like bunny.

This procedure is called an Auditory Drill in Orton-Gillingham or UFLI materials. In short, your child uses their listening, or auditory skills, to produce the letter or letters that spell a sound.

I like to use Auditory Drill Worksheets I created as alternatives for sand or whiteboards.

auditory drill WORKSHEETS

Sometimes I use sand with my tutor clients or reading intervention students. But I found I needed a record of what students could spell.

Enter the Auditory Drill Worksheets. These worksheets are so beneficial for my students, my own children, and myself.

Two of the reasons I love Auditory Drill Templates are:

  • limited quantity of sounds
  • novelty builds motivation

limited quantity of sounds

With sand or a whiteboard, my student never knew how many sounds we’d practice. Even if I said, “we’ll do five sounds,” that was too abstract for some learners.

These auditory drill worksheets provide a concrete visual for the number of sounds we will spell.

This also helps you. It reduces your mental load on the number of sounds. You just do as many as fits into your worksheet.

novelty builds motivation

These worksheets are seasonally designed. They have a small picture for students to color at the end as a brain break (plus coloring in small spaces builds pencil grip!).

The human brain loves novelty. The ADHD brain needs it to focus and build movtivation.

By harnessing your child or your students’ interest in seasons or holidays, you also create a sense of newness within an established routine.

You can find the Auditory Drill Templates on Teachers Pay Teachers, too!

the letters d o g on three dashed lines on a whiteboard to spell the word dog to help struggling spellers

STEP 2: HELP A CHILD spell words

Once your child has mastered the basic alphabet phonics sounds, you can and should start them spelling three sound words.

These are the steps for teaching your child to spell CVC words:

  1. Say the word out loud “Your word is dog.”
  2. Use it in a sentence: “I can pet the dog.”
  3. Repeat the word: “dog.”
  4. Prompt your child to repeat it so they hear the word.
  5. Model segementing the sounds: /d/ /o/ /g/
  6. Prompt your child to segment the sounds.
  7. Your child writes the letter that spell those sounds.
  8. You write it on a whiteboard, too, and show it to your child.

You can do this on a piece of paper or whiteboard, but again, I found benefits to using a spelling dictation template with my students and children.

A set amount of words makes this task more manageable for reluctant and struggling spellers.

Using spelling Word templates

These spelling words templates are also called Dictation in the Orton-Gillingham Approach.

An Orton-Gillingham teacher or tutor dictates a word aloud for a student. Oftentimes they provide a worksheet that has the correct number of space for sounds in a word.

These spelling word templates accomplish the same goal. There are seasonal clip art spaces to write the letter or letters that spell each sound.

A child then writes the separate sounds as a whole word.

Instead of just writing a whole word on a whiteboard or a piece of paper, this method reinforces segmenting a word into its sounds.

You can also find these Spelling Dictation Worksheets on Teachers Pay Teachers.

spelling game for reviewing spelling for struggling spellers


After teaching a child how to spell an individual sound multiple ways, the most important strategy is reviewing spelling patterns.

Whether your child has spelling words sent home from school or whether you’re DIYing their spelling at home, you need to review.

Many struggling spellers will need to be exposed to a spelling pattern 40-100 times before they finally master it.

My absolute favorite way to review spelling words is with my Phonics Read and Spell Games. There are over 20 thematic board games and over 60 sets of word cards.

You can use the board games with any word list. Whether they are using the UFLI curriculum at school or you homeschool with All About Reading, these games will make spelling so fun.

When your child lands on a spot that says “Read,” just ask them to read a word from your curriculum word list. When they land on “Spell,” dictate a word from the list.

Spelling Review Activity

Another easy spelling review activity uses the Spelling Dictation Worksheets.

Keep a folder or binder for your child or your class with

  • completed spelling lists from school
  • all the word lists from the Phonics Read and Spell Games
  • any phonics lists you find on this website!
  • the Super Sounds List for 3, 4, and 5 word

Also place your Spelling Dictation Worksheets inside plastic sleeves or hole punched to use with pencil.

As your child has learned each skill, highlight it.

During review, go back and pull out 3-5 of those highlighted words to dictate. I do this both 1:1 and in my small groups at school and the progress is incredible.

This seems so simple you might question if it is worth it. I have two students who do this on a regular basis at home with their parents.

Once behind significantly, their reading and spelling has skyrocket.


The real purpose of spelling is to be able to write. After all, your child or students aren’t going to be professional spelling bee contestants.

They need to be automatic spellers in order to write and communicate their ideas.

But many students struggle with sentence writing and spelling. We help them with this by give them dicated sentencess.

You just look at the words you practiced spelling and use a few of those and high-frequency words to create a sentence.

Let’s say your child or student has learned these skills:

  • CVC words (cat, hen, dog)
  • Blends (slid, crab, snip, hand, belt)
  • Digraphs (chip, thin, shut, duck, wham)

Then make up sentences like this:

  • The crab can nip my hand.
  • A duck will quack in the shed.

At first it takes a little practice making up sentences, but with your word lists as a base it becomes easy!

And the pay off it worth it.

being a parent to a struggling speller

I know it is hard to watch your child struggle to spell. But it’s harder not knowing what to do.

Once I took my daughter’s spelling into my hands and implemented the routine above, we started seeing real progress.

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