Spelling can be challenging for students with learning differences. Reading and spelling are closely related processes and yet despite this connection, the process of spelling is much more difficult than reading. Spelling requires a child to produce a task, whereas reading requires a child to recognize a task. Recognizing is much easier on the brain than producing. Here are some ways that you can implement research-based spelling strategies for your students with learning differences.

How Do You Help Students with Learning Disabilities with Spelling?

Not every student in a classroom is going to be at the same spelling level. Research shows us that students with learning differences benefit from spelling instruction that is taught in a logical order that makes sense to the student. This means that teachers and reading specialists will need to form small, instructional groups based on levels in reading and spelling so that the targeted instruction can be taught during the day to students who have the same instructional levels and needs. Each group will learn and move forward together. 

When grouping students together by instructional level, consider the following points:

  • Think about the range of instructional levels in the classroom, and whether they share similar needs.
  • Factor in the daily schedule and the staff that is available to help provide instruction.
  • Consider the size and number of groups within the classroom. Students that have more intensive needs might need to be in a smaller group and get more one-on-one attention.
  • Use recent data to group students by instructional level.

1. Teach Spelling with Systematic Phonics


Students with learning differences benefit from systematic phonics starting from the beginning with the alphabetic principles in the initial stages of spelling development and advancing to more complex principles as they progress. Systematic phonics instruction is a method of teaching students how to connect the letters (graphemes) with the sounds (phonemes).  

Lessons are built on previously taught information, from simple working towards complex, with clear, concise student objectives that are driven by ongoing assessment. This spelling strategy helps the student learn the target instruction, practice the spelling concept a lot and then progress to the next rule while constantly reviewing already ‘learned’ spelling rules.

You can view a systematic spelling progression >HERE<

Systematic Phonics Instruction should include:

  • consonants and short vowel sounds
  • digraphs and blends
  • long vowels and other vowel patterns
  • syllable patterns
  • base words, roots, prefixes, and suffixes

2. Teach with a Structured Literacy Approach


Research from the International Dyslexia Association has shown that students with learning differences benefit from a structured literacy approach. Structured Literacy consists of structured, systematic, cumulative, and explicit teaching of all components of literacy including reading, writing, spelling, and comprehension.  Using a structured literacy approach will give students with learning differences every valuable spelling strategy necessary to become strong spellers and readers.

Here is an example of how a structured literacy lesson using the spelling rule ur as in the word surf would look like:

1.  Structured Spelling Lists

First, the current spelling list will include common ur words like surf, urchin, burlap, hurt, etc.

2.  Multisensory Instruction

Next, the students will practice the spelling rule using multisensory instruction with repetition and teacher-student interaction. Multisensory instruction is a way of teaching that engages more than one sense at a time. It uses all of the student’s senses using tactile, kinesthetic, sight, and hearing elements. (Multisensory activities are listed below.)

3.  Dictation

Then, the teacher will dictate words and sentences with the target spelling rule to make sure the students are applying the rule correctly. The words and sentences that the teacher dictates will also include all the previously learned spelling rules. 

4.  Practice and Repetition

Meanwhile, if the students have not mastered the spelling rule, the students will keep practicing through constant repetition until they have learned it. The goal in structured literacy is to get the spelling words to ‘stick’ in the student’s long term memory.

5.  Spelling and Reading are Taught Simultaneously

Thereafter, students will read sentences that contain the target spelling rule so that the students can recognize the spelling rule in text. Research has shown that because learning to spell and learning to read rely on much of the same underlying knowledge, spelling instruction should be taught simultaneously with reading instruction. 

6.  Ongoing Assessments

Subsequently, the teacher will monitor progress and will not teach a new spelling rule until the current spelling rule has been mastered.

7.  Decodable Text

Finally, the students will read a text or story with the spelling rule skill that they are learning is included. This will need to be a decodable text that includes not only the new skill but all the previously learned skills as well. Using decodable text will help students build fluency and confidence as they improve in their word level reading. Once a student has mastered the code, the student will no longer need to rely on decodable text and can read more authentic text.

If you would like to learn more about the Structured Literacy Approach please feel free to take our FREE Introduction Course:

3. Teach with Multisensory Spelling Strategies

Studies from the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development have shown that for children with difficulties learning to spell, a multisensory spelling strategy is the most effective way for these students to learn.  

Multisensory teaching means the teacher must tap into all learning modalities – see it (visual), feel it (tactile), hear and say it (auditory), and move with it (kinesthetic). Here are some multisensory spelling activities:

Letter Tiles

Have the letter tiles in alphabetical order on a desktop. Dictate a spelling word to your students. Have the students repeat the word and then bring down each letter in the word to build the word in front of them.

Trace Over Highlighter

Using a highlighter write spelling words on a piece of paper. Now let your students pick out their favorite color markers or pens and trace over the highlighted letters making sure that the color they use is darker than the highlighter.

Sky Writing

The students will stretch their writing arm out as far as it can go. The students then use their pointer and middle fingers to form the letters in the air at least two feet high. This whole body experience uses muscle memory to store the information into the brain which is used later on when spelling the words on paper.

Multisensory Spelling Activities in Action!

You can watch our favorite teacher Ms. Renee in this video give a demonstration on multisensory spelling activities:


Resources for Spelling Strategies in the Classroom

Thank you so much for reading my post today on spelling strategies for students with learning differences. You might also enjoy reading my previous posts:

My Favorite Sight Word Activities

Multisyllabic Words – How to Teach Them

Please don’t leave without checking out the PRIDE Reading Program. The PRIDE Reading Program is an Orton-Gillingham, Structured Literacy curriculum that is used by teachers, tutors, and homeschooling parents worldwide with great success.

The PRIDE Reading Program

PRIDE Reading Program products


Karina Richland, M.A., is the author of the PRIDE Reading Program, a multisensory Orton-Gillingham reading, writing, and comprehension curriculum that is available worldwide for parents, tutors, teachers, and homeschoolers of struggling readers. Karina has an extensive background in working with students of all ages and various learning modalities. She has spent many years researching learning differences and differentiated teaching practices. You can reach her by email at info@pridereadingprogram.com or visit the website at www.pridereadingprogram.com

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