StarSpell 3 Spelling Guide - Learners needing extra support

This Guide aims to demystify how spelling is learned. It shows smart ways to help learners, both using StarSpell and with activities away from the computer. All the practice in the Guide is based on actual classroom experience

Learners needing extra support

Extra support: who, what and why

This section is for those working with learners who need extra support.

Every single learner who falls into that category is an individual, with learning needs particular and personal. So a section like this can do no more than sketch typical profiles, and point to generalised solutions.

Reasons for spelling difficulties

Let's first run through the main reasons for spelling difficulties:

· The complexity of the English language

· Poor motivation

· Having missed out on some periods of tuition

· Limited spoken English

· Social and emotional difficulties

· Specific learning difficulties.

The first five topics are discussed, and there is a full section on Specific learning difficulties.

How StarSpell provides help for spelling difficulties

First, and importantly, StarSpell brings significant, built-in support for specific learning difficulties. So, in this section we explain how the whole experience of StarSpell addresses the needs of a learner with specific learning difficulties: Specific learning difficulties and StarSpell's structured, multi-sensory approach.

Two sections, the 11-Row Error Table and Interpreting Your Error Table, describe in practical terms how to explore a learner's spelling needs. These sections are followed by links to other sections for relevant explanations, and activities that are both StarSpell and away-from-StarSpell.

Some causes of difficulty in learning to spell

The complexity of our spelling system

It has to be said, English spelling is, in fact, quite complex. The number of ways in which the system makes life hard for spellers is described in "The Trouble with Spelling". So learner-spellers with whatever kind of problem can never benefit from the prop of some straightforward, super-simple system. It's worth telling that to any struggling speller: "It's hard for everybody!" That's a morale booster, and good morale works wonders for motivation; the lack of which is our next cause of difficulty in learning to spell.


The same principle: "I'll exert myself to learn these language skills because I want/need to be a language-user", applies to all types of language learning, so of course it applies to spelling. Staying with motivation before coming to more specific problems; it's important to link spelling-work to genuinely purposeful writing. Consider what impels infants to talk: the need for real communication. What oils the wheels of learning to read? It's the desire to get at interesting material.

Now, relate this principle to spelling. From the start, this Guide stresses the importance of real purposes for writing. See the beginnings of writing and why spelling matters. So start the ball rolling from the very beginning.

Make sure very young pupils have the wherewithal to freely draw and "write" as soon as any purposeful grasp of a pencil or crayon emerges; welcome their version of 'writing'. We should include very young pupils in day-to-day writing tasks such as making the shopping list and signing a birthday card; similar engagement must be found for older learners who are still finding it difficult to make a start on writing. And all the way along the spelling journey, real reasons for writing must be found, however imperfect the writer's proficiency.

Gaps in tuition

Another straightforward reason for falling behind in spelling can quite simply be that large chunks of tuition have been missed. It may be that the learner missed school for significant periods, or had to slot into a new curriculum on changing schools, or, for whatever reason, was subject to a curriculum with gaps in it. So before exploring actual learning difficulties, the possibility of missed schooling should be considered.

Of course, under this heading could be filed the gaps in tuition that some learners suffer through preventable hearing loss, for instance, "glue ear".

Limited spoken language

Spoken language comes before written language. A learner with limited vocabulary generally finds the demands of spelling to be something of a mystery. In this situation, overall language expansion is the priority, before spelling can be tackled.

Social or emotional difficulties

Learning in any subject can be affected by adverse social and/or emotional difficulties; learning to spell is no exception. In these situations, the social and emotional needs are the priorities. Your judgement will tell you when a learner is ready to welcome spelling as an area in which he or she can become engaged, make good progress, and gain in self-esteem.

Specific learning difficulties: background

You may wish to consider the background to the term "specific learning difficulties", before turning to the impact of specific learning difficulties on spelling. If not, continue straight to the next section.

Specific learning difficulties (SpLDs) is the term generally preferred in place of the blanket term "dyslexia". This acknowledges that so far we have no one, clear, definitive answer as to the actual nature of dyslexia. Most people working with dyslexic learners are continually surprised to discover new manifestations and behaviours.

The term "dyslexia" covers an amazing range of difficulties.

For many years the professions have worked with a "definition by default". That is to say: if we rule out all other possible causes for literacy problems, dyslexia is what we are left with. So we have worked with this widely accepted rule of thumb:

The term "dyslexia" describes a failure to develop reading and writing skills to a level commensurate with the learner's general intelligence, when there are no other causative factors (e.g. there are no social, emotional, or physical problems, and there has been a continuous history of effective teaching).

As one definition from the British Dyslexia Association has it, dyslexia covers:

Difficulties which affect the learning process in one or more of reading, spelling and writing, with accompanying weaknesses, including short-term memory, spoken language, and motor skills. It is independent of social or economic factors or intelligence.

With regard to that last factor, intelligence, early definitions looked for at least average intelligence. It is now accepted that learners of below average intelligence may also be affected by dyslexic problems.

Furthermore, a range of research seems to be moving closer to the identification of physiological causes for dyslexia.

So when people working with dyslexic pupils struggle to accommodate the wide range of problems, and when they note the wide range of permutations of these problems even within one individual learner, they are in fact simply reflecting, at the working end of the situation, the great range of theories and findings at its theoretical end.

It is very important indeed to recognise that each dyslexic learner differs from other dyslexic learners. Each has his or her own specific pattern of difficulties. Hence, the preferred term: "specific learning difficulties".

Specific learning difficulties and spelling

Beyond those generalised problems described in Some causes of difficulty in learning to spell, there are other, specific, learning difficulties, falling into five clusters:

· Discrimination: visual and auditory

· Organisation

· Memory

· Movement

· Sequencing: visual and auditory.

The following sections describe the typical ways in which these difficulties present.

Discrimination difficulties

Visual discrimination

Learners have difficulty in making sense of the letters they see on the page; that is, when they read they have problems in discerning the fine differences between letters, and when they write they have problems in correctly reproducing letter-shapes. This includes problems with orientation (for instance, the classic b/d/p problem).

Auditory discrimination

Learners find it difficult to distinguish the separate sounds of words. They may also have problems distinguishing between similar-sounding letters: e.g. d and t, b and p, s and z.

Organisation difficulties

Learners might struggle with organisation in many ways:

· Organising their time

· Organising their ideas

· Understanding left-right organisation of print

· Understanding the left-right organisation of letters within words.

Memory difficulties

Often there is no problem with long term memory, but learners certainly experience problems with other memory skills:

Poor memory for the abstract

This makes difficult the learning of letter-sound matches; also causes difficulties with the learning of spelling rules etc.

Poor visual short term memory

For instance, problems in copying from a board; what has been seen on the board can be forgotten by the time pen reaches paper.

Poor auditory short term memory; poor retention over short time spans

This causes difficulties in retaining the sounds of a heard word long enough to spell it and causes problems in following instructions.

Poor rote learning abilities

This has great impact on the learning of letter-sound matches.

Motor difficulties

Learners might experience problems with the control of movement:

· Gross motor skills; this shows up as frequent clumsiness

· Fine motor skills; causing important difficulties for handwriting and keyboard skills

Sequencing difficulties

Problems of sequencing have a lot in common with organisation and memory problems:

· Problems in sequencing days, months, etc.

· Problems in sequencing sounds and letters in words

· Problems in maths processing.

The impact on motivation

All these difficulties, of course, translate into poor motivation.

And motivation, undoubtedly, is the place where any remediation must begin.

There's more on motivation above, in Some causes of difficulty in learning to spelland StarSpell's contribution is outlined in the next section, Finally, motivation.

In addition, there is useful advice in Spelling support for older learners.

How StarSpell helps learners with specific learning difficulties

A structured, multi-sensory approach

All research points to a structured, multi-sensory approach as the key to helping learners with specific learning difficulties:

· Structure: these learners need structure in their learning, provided by carefully planned, logical, small steps, and lots of opportunities for reinforcement and consolidation.

· Multi-sensory activities: they need multi-sensory activities combining visual, auditory, tactile and motor experience. Such activities allow learners to use their sensory strengths while at the same time enjoying opportunities to improve on their sensory weaknesses. That is: strengths are utilised, weaknesses are addressed.

StarSpell offers just such a double package of support:

· It is highly structured: it's organised around carefully graded frameworks of word lists.

· It is multi-sensory: its activities involve visual, auditory, tactile and motor skills.

StarSpell supports each specific difficulty

Five clusters of specific learning difficulties are described above in Specific learning difficulties and spelling, along with their impact on motivation, and here's how StarSpell provides support for each one:

Discrimination difficulties
Visual discrimination

StarSpell's graphics are simple and unfussy, and support the learner's focus on the task. Fonts, letter-colours and background colours are all customisable.

In the Spelling mode, highlighting the spelling pattern helps focus attention.

The animation time can be controlled, so the slow binning of any wrong letters, the slow swapping of reversed letters and the slow bringing-in of new letters, all serve to provide the learner with ample observation time to process the necessary learning. Look & Learn shows the effects of changing preferences.

Auditory discrimination

All words have been very carefully recorded to be distinct, and are in a natural human voice.

These naturally-spoken words are available for as many times as learners need (by clicking the Ear), providing significant support for the discrimination of the sounds in the words.

And then, the Phonics mode, the only mode which deals with actual phonemes, incorporates the pronunciation of each phoneme of the word whenever its grapheme moves or is moved. Again, these are carefully and distinctly spoken in a natural voice.

Organisation difficulties

First, the organisation of the word lists offers a huge resource in itself, giving a structure to your learning programme.

Further, the whole design of the Spelling mode provides solid learning support, in its visual impact and (controllable) pace. But its chief help in this area is in slowing down and organising the Look-Cover-Write-Check routine.

Memory difficulties

Here again, the organisation of StarSpell's word lists provides a very secure framework for the long-term work of learning letter-sound matches.

Combine this structure with StarSpell activities, and you have a resource with immense impact to counter difficulties in this area of poor memory.

Motor difficulties

StarSpell offers support in two ways:

· First, it makes no handwriting demands.

· It does, however, give keyboard practice which helps the learner to acquire tactile spelling patterns.

Sequencing difficulties

The value of the Spelling mode has already been noted for visual discrimination difficulties. That same help also applies to sequencing difficulties.

But furthermore, the Phonics mode is a markedly strong sequencing mode, providing significant experience. And then StarPick and StarGuess, the two games in the StarSpell Lists and Yr2 to KS3 Support sections, operate in similar fashion.

Between them, the four options offer extremely useful support to learners with sequencing problems.

Finally, motivation

All these difficulties translate into poor motivation and low self-esteem. But StarSpell works positively in the learner's favour:

· The impersonality of StarSpell makes it kind and patient; it never gets cross; it allows learners to go at their own pace; there's the option to let it give steady, positive praise.

· And it's simple-to-use, so there are no distractions caused by having to master the program itself before one can get on with mastering spelling.

· The activities are motivating in themselves.

· There's an option to build in targets, for self-competition only.

· But also, importantly, StarSpell offers the huge advantage of being easily customised, through a wide range of permutations, to individual needs, making StarSpell par excellence a friend of specific learning difficulties. Modify StarSpell to meet learning needs details the wealth of ways in which StarSpell can be modified to meet the specific needs of specific learners.

Identifying a learner's spelling needs

The previous sections have listed problems some learners may face, and no doubt there are things there that will seem appropriate to your situation. So next, we look at two ways and means of exploring what kinds of difficulty an individual learner may be experiencing.

StarSpell contains a useful facility in its Pupil Records to look in detail at a learner's spelling behaviour. (Select Management: Pupil Records.)

StarSpell's Pupil Records

StarSpell keeps a record of all the speller's misspellings for every list, and it is much more than a simple record of "wrong". Misspellings, like miscues in reading, provide a window into the learner's thinking, explored in detail in the next section.

Such information supports planning for the next steps, and helps you decide how to customise StarSpell's activities to benefit individual learning.

Moreover, the 11-Row Error Table (described next) makes an invaluable tool for analysis of the Pupil Records.

The 11-Row Error Table

The 11-Row Error Table offers a further tool to assess the kind of help a learner may need. Whereas a StarSpell Pupil Record indicates performance on a prescribed list, a learner's piece of free writing presents us with a different kind of window onto the extent of spelling attainment. So, the idea is to use a framework to scrutinise a typical piece of writing from a learner, to gain a closer idea of what s/he knows about spelling.

Print out a copy of the table (from the Management menuin StarSpell). Now ask your learner for a piece of freely-written, unsupported writing; if possible, at least a hundred words. From this sample you will be able to note the writer's spelling errors, and enter each in the appropriate row. Once you've classified all the errors in this way, you end up with a (rough) representation of the learner's strengths and weaknesses. Listen & Build problems appear towards the top of your table; Look & Learn problems are towards the bottom. Often you can see a pattern, with particular rows carrying far more entries than others.

The 11-Row Error Table[††]:

Type of Error



1. Word has initial sound only

w for was

2. Word has initial sound and final/other sound

dk for duck; c-p-d for catapulted

3. A reasonable phonic attempt

flowa for flower; cwite for quite

4. Good phonics but faulty articulation

frew for threw; quincedence for coincidence

5. Syllable/s omitted

organation for organisation

6. Visual recall with substitutions

lijht for light

7. Visual recall with mis-sequencing

paly for play; gril for girl

8. Visual recall with letters added or missing

ligt for light

9. Letter reversals

bish for dish; np for up

10. Copied incorrectly

Unable to hold in mind between viewing and writing

11. Errors in High Frequency words

w for was as in 1 above

Note: Sometimes you meet errors that seem completely random, so you might decide you need a 12th row: "unclassifiable". But be patient; any such errors repay discussion with the speller. One such error was jukabukloo, initially mystifying, but confirmed by the writer as Duke of Buccleuch. It was quite a reasonable phonic attempt, in fact, albeit with a tinge of faulty articulation! Oh! and there's faulty comprehension, too, which can be another factor in poor spelling. ("Any one for Grey Day eggs?" [Grade A eggs]; "Sitting Gills exams?" [City and Guilds].)

The 11-Row Error Table is just one possible framework for analysing a speller's errors. You may prefer to think through a table of your own, because if you've made it you can be sure you'll understand it. The important thing is to explore just where your learner is on his or her journey to being a speller. So base your error chart on the broad but vital elements of that journey, which are: phonic readiness, phonic facts (i.e. letter-sound matches), phonic skills (i.e. building and blending, and syllabification) and visual memorisation.

Interpreting your Error Table

Analysing a piece of writing using an Error Table yields an at-a-glance guide as to where the preponderance of errors lies; that is, weaknesses and strengths are suggested by the way your entries cluster across the chart.

Of course, this is no more than a rough guide; further professional help may well be needed.

But it gives you a starting point. It suggests possible problems, pointing to the kind of work that will help.

There follows a guide as to what these suggestions might be. You'll see that it makes links to The Spelling Route. This comes with a note of caution, very relevant in this section on learners needing extra support: the Route assigns no typical ages to the six stages; it recognises that people develop variably. Some learners need to spend longer than others to develop the skills and understandings that comprise any one stage. So StarSpell has been designed as a "Stage not Age" resource, to provide learners with learning experiences relevant to their existing stage of proficiency, regardless of age. With this in mind, care has been taken to design StarSpell sentences and pictures so as not to be too age-specific.

Learning needs suggested by errors on the Error Table

Row 1 Word has initial sound only; Row 2 Word has initial and final/other sound only

Errors in these rows indicate the need for further work to develop phonic readiness, and early Listen & Build skills. These errors suggest a learner in the first two stages of the Spelling Route, or perhaps making steps into the third stage, Early Phonics.

Row 3 Reasonable phonic attempts; Row 4 Good phonics but faulty articulation

Errors in these rows indicate a need to extend knowledge of letter-sound matches, perhaps with extra support to distinguish phonemes. These errors take you to the Spelling Route stage Early Phonics, or to Further Phonics, according to the type of letter-sound matches miss-spelled. In addition, faulty articulation suggests a need for specialised targeted activities.

Row 5 Syllable/s omitted

Errors here show the need to work on syllabification skills, which are typically developed in the fourth stage of the Spelling Route: Further Phonics.

Row 6 Substitutions; Row 7 Mis-sequencing; Row 8 Letters added or missing; Row 9­Letter reversals;

Errors in each of these rows point to the need to work on the skills of visual memorisation. These skills are needed at every stage of spelling development, and call for a suitably targeted Look & Learn approach.

Row 10 Copied incorrectly

As with rows 6, 7, 8 and 9, errors in row 10 suggest a need to work on the skills of visual memorisation, in particular, here, the development of short-term visual memory. Again, a Look & Learn programme usually proves helpful.

Row 11 High Frequency Words, including words also entered in preceding rows

This row sweeps together a bunch of High Frequency Words that this learner will need for survival; it provides some immediate targets, alongside whatever other steady on-going work has been suggested by the other 10 rows. The learning of High Frequency Words begins around the second stage of the Spelling Route: Preparing for Phonics; it's at its most acquisitive in the third and fourth stages, Early and Further Phonics; and thereafter probably mostly adds significant curriculum terms and words of personal importance. A Look & Learn approach is usually the most effective, with Listen & Build and Work within Words kicking in wherever they shed useful light.

Activities to target types of error

1 Word has initial sound only, 2 Word has initial sound and final/other sound

· Useful StarSpell lists

· StarSpell list advice for Early Phonics

· Off-computer modes

· The five StarSpell modes

· Learning phonic skills and Learning phonic facts

· Sessions 1 to 5, followed by Sessions 6 to 12

3 Reasonable phonic attempts, 4 Good phonics but faulty articulation

· StarSpell list advice for Early Phonics

· StarSpell list advice for Further Phonics

· Off-computer activities

· The five StarSpell modes

· Advice on phonic readiness followed by Learning phonic skills and Learning phonic facts

· Select from Sessions 3 to 19, according to need

5 Syllable/s omitted

· Syllabification

· Off-computer 'syllabification' activities

· Relevant StarSpell activities; select in order of difficulty: Spelling, StarPick and StarGuess

· Syllabification lists in StarSpell Lists: Further explorations.> Syllables and spelling; Prefixes, suffixes, roots

· Sessions 20 and 21.

Visual recall with: 6 Substitutions 7 Mis-sequencing 8 Letters added or missing; 9­Letter reversals; 10 Copied incorrectly

· Visual memorisation

· Lengthy list of off-computer activities

· The Spelling mode, designed to support Look & Learn

· Sessions 18, 22, 23, and 24.

11 High Frequency Words, including words also entered in preceding rows

· Visual memorisation

· A basic sequence for learning High Frequency Words is particularly relevant.

· Sessions 18, 22, 23, and 24.

· Note also the lists dedicated to High Frequency Words: Phonics Lists: 100 high frequency words, StarSpell Lists: Important 'sight' words and Yr2 to KS3 Support: 100 and next 200 most common words

· Some learners may benefit by going beyond these two lists to StarSpell Lists: Curriculum subject lists; also your own custom lists

Adult learners

The earlier descriptions of underlying causes of spelling difficulty are completely relevant to adult learners.

Likewise, all that this section has to say about StarSpell's overall helpfulness is just as relevant because as mentioned above in Interpreting your Error Chart, StarSpell has been designed as a "Stage not Age" resource, to provide learning experiences relevant to an existing stage of proficiency, regardless of age. With this in mind, care has been taken to design StarSpell sentences and pictures so as not to be too age-specific.

Adult learners: finding your StarSpell starting point

The most straightforward way to find your starting point is to use the Find your level button, on the opening screen in StarSpell's StarSpell Lists section:

1. This opens to a display of boxes, each showing a cluster of words.

2. Look for the box which seems closest to the kinds of words you're currently able to spell.

3. A click takes you there and lets you to try out one or two of the lists in that section; you will establish whether you need more practice at that level, or whether you're ready to begin work at the next level up.

A second way is to use The Spelling Route.

The Route describes six stages on the "journey" towards being a competent speller. You'll find a description of the kind of written work and the kind of spelling that is typical in each stage. These descriptions are headed "What learners do when writing" and "What learners know". With them, you'll next find "What learners need, in order to move on".

In all likelihood you will recognise a description of your spelling under one of these stages, and will be able to plan your work according to its advice as to what you need in order to move on.

Then, you'll be further helped to plan your work by other parts of this Guide:

· Three mutually supportive approaches.

· Tip: don't overlook Preparing for Phonics. There may well be important foundation work there that you need.

· The different "Routes" in StarSpell.

A third way: you may find it useful to get an 11-Row Error Table completed. It could give you a very useful indication of the kind of StarSpell work that will prove most helpful.