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What is specific spelling difficulty?

Specific spelling difficulty can be defined as an unexplained, significant spelling difficulty. A significant difficulty is usually defined as a spelling age more than two standard deviations below the mean for the child’s age (see Chapter 1, p. 5 for the explanation of this term).

Specific spelling difficulty (12-year-old boy)

Figure 6.1 Specific spelling difficulty (12-year-old boy).

Specific spelling difficulty is often associated with specific reading difficulty. In some children, specific spelling difficulty is an isolated problem. Although such children will have average reading ability, research studies suggest that subtle reading problems can be detected in such children on special testing.

How spelling is assessed

There are several standardized spelling tests in general use. These differ in the ways in which they test spelling. Some present the child with words that are part of his sight vocabulary, others present a wider range of words. Tests usually involve spelling from dictation. Some may also involve recognizing whether a printed word is correctly spelt or not.

The psychologist will choose the test, or tests, that will provide information about the child’s spelling level, as well as about the nature of his difficulties. For example, a test that shows that a child has difficulties with spelling from dictation, but not with identifying words that are incorrectly spelt, may demonstrate particular problems with word memory. The psychologist will also try to differentiate between the different kinds of spelling errors, such as phonetic, visual, and sequential errors, which are described later in this chapter.

The psychologist may also do other tests to establish the nature of the child’s spelling difficulties. For example, if the child’s spelling shows many phonetic errors, he or she might test the child’s auditory discrimination skills, to assess whether he is able to distinguish between the different sounds he hears.

All children with specific spelling difficulty should have their hearing tested, as some spelling difficulties may be related to hearing impairment.

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