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Why Are Some Kids Great Readers But Bad Spellers?

Is your kid a good reader but bad speller? Learn how to improve kids' spelling skills with these spelling and phonics tips to become better spellers.
Why Are Some Kids Great Readers But Bad Spellers?
Updated: October 19, 2023
Fact checked by  Jessica Mangelson, Ph.D.
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Do you ever know the perfect word, but just can’t spell it? This problem is a common one for adults and kids.

One of our parent readers wrote to Family Education to ask why her high-achieving daughter was lacking in her spelling skills. Here’s her full letter:

“Dear Family Education Team,

My third-grade daughter scored well above average on 8 of her 9 Stanford scores, with 95 percent in Total Reading and 98 percent in Vocabulary. However, her spelling score was 57 percent and she spells practically every other word she writes incorrectly. 

Her teachers don't seem to have an answer. My daughter was also tested for the gifted program but didn't come close. Her score on the OSLAT was 111. When she's asked about her incorrectly spelled words, my daughter can tell you the correct spelling. 

Is she just lazy and careless?”


This parent and student aren’t alone. As children become more proficient readers and writers, and better understand rules associated with phonics and language, spelling typically improves. Unfortunately, for some children, the gap between reading skills and spelling skills widens, and good readers find themselves struggling with spelling. 

In these cases, it is not uncommon for parents to become concerned and seek ways to help their children become better spellers. If you’re concerned about the gap between your child’s reading and spelling skills, there are ways for you to help them become better spellers. 

Why Does Spelling Matter?

One of my students once pointed out that his spelling was so poor that the spellcheck couldn't suggest the right word in the list of possibilities. He was frustrated because he was unable to respell the word in a different way to help the checker find the correct spelling.

 Another student admitted to spending a significant amount of exam time searching for new words to replace the misspelled ones in her essay. This was because she didn't have access to a spell-checker. As a result, she had to spend valuable time finding new words that not only conveyed her ideas but that she could also spell correctly.

Spell check, auto-correct and other grammar programs can help us fix spelling mistakes. While these aids can help refine and correct grammar and spelling, understanding how to spell and the conventions connected to these skills is important. 

Literacy expert Louisa Moats suggests that poor spelling skills may cause the writer to restrict what they write to only the words they can spell, and with the inevitable loss of verbal power, they may lose track of their thoughts when they get stuck trying to spell a word.

Dr. Moats is not alone in her assessment of the importance of strong spelling skills. Language and literacy expert Catherine Snow summarized the importance of spelling for reading as follows: 

“Spelling and reading build and rely on the same mental representation of a word. Knowing the spelling of a word makes the representation of it sturdy and accessible for fluent reading.” 

Spelling skills can also influence how children and adults are judged in their academic and work lives. According to “The International Journal of Selection and Assessment,” “Spelling errors play a role in recruiters’ choice during the personnel selection process.” Students with strong spelling skills often retain a better understanding of word meanings long-term. 

Understanding Spelling Developmental Milestones 

Young book writes in school workbook; learning how to spell
Image source: iStock

Parents of early readers and writers often see the phonetic spelling of words in their children’s writing. For example, they might see their child write, /fel/ for /feel/ or /lik/ for /like/. 

These phonetic spelling errors signal that a child is beginning to understand writing and spelling conventions. This type of spelling is typical and developmentally appropriate for beginning spellers.

For example, It would be natural for a child in kindergarten or early first grade to write the word /phone/ as /fone/. 

As kids learn to read and write more words, they will be introduced to exceptions to spelling rules and new sounds. These rules will stick with them as they see them more and more over time, eventually becoming a natural part of their vocabularies. 

Why Are Some Kids Strong Readers But Poor Spellers?

One key difference between learning to read and learning to spell is the difference between long-term memorization and basic recall. Spelling involves producing a letter string from memory whereas reading involves deciphering print on the page.

 This leaves spellers with the task of not only producing a series of letters correctly but representing them accurately in writing. 

To put it simply, reading involves using our understanding of language to decode words. Spelling requires an added layer of encoding, which is the process of hearing a sound and being able to write a symbol to represent that sound. 

At early stages, encoding may not be an issue for students, but as the words students encounter get more complicated, the gap between reading and writing skills may widen for some students.

Consider the word mom. To read this word, children may memorize the letter shapes and overall shape of the word and assign it the correct sound. 

In spelling, the child must translate the word /mom/ into individual sounds, remember the symbol (letter) associated with each sound and produce these letters in the correct order. written symbol in the correct order. This gets even more difficult as kids are introduced to more difficult language rules and exceptions. 

What Causes Poor Spelling?

Below are some areas that come to mind when dealing with a significant gap between reading and spelling ability. It is not an exhaustive list and merely touches on common causes for spelling discrepancies and may give you a place to start if you have a child struggling with spelling.

Reading Disabilities 

A reading delay or learning disability like dyslexia can certainly play a role in your child’s struggles with spelling. If you are not seeing typical growth in reading, writing or spelling, you suspect learning difficulties or observe extreme frustration in your child’s learning, it is time to reach out to your school or pediatrician for further guidance. 

Dyslexia is defined as “a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. 

These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction” (IDA, 2002). If you suspect your child may have dyslexia, early intervention is important.

Poor Instruction or Lack of Language Arts Support 

Sadly, not all children receive quality early instruction in reading and writing. If your child does not receive phonics instruction and quality reading support, they may not have the necessary skills to be a successful reader and speller. 

Some children take to reading quite naturally but do not understand the building blocks of letters and language. If you feel this is the case for your child, focusing on reviewing the basics may be helpful as you bridge the gap between reading and spelling skills.

Dysgraphia and Dyspraxia

Conditions such as dysgraphia and dyspraxia impact writing and spelling skills. In these cases, fine motor skills and printing can be difficult. In an article by, (2023), researchers note that “children with dysgraphia can also experience difficulties with spelling and organizing thoughts when writing or typing.” 

These conditions can play a role in writing and spelling activities and lead to frustration and even exhaustion for the learner.

Difficulty Processing Auditory or Visual Information

Ensuring your child can see and hear the information presented is important. If your child is struggling in these areas, accommodations or possible modifications need to be put it not place so they have access to the information and materials needed to find success with developing literacy skills.

English as a Non-Native Language 

For students who are learning English as a second language, spelling may be difficult. Many languages (such as Spanish and German) have a 1:1 correspondence of sounds and symbols, but this is not the case with English. 

For ESL students, having tutors or teachers who are familiar with teaching non-native English speakers is hugely important. English language learners need to be given proper time and instruction to learn the alphabetic system and orthography associated with the English language to find success with spelling.

Tips for Kids to Become Better Readers and Spellers

Teacher teaches young students how to spell
Image source: iStock

Effective spelling support and instruction should not focus solely on rote memorization of words. Parents and teachers should find ways to link spelling instruction with reading and writing in authentic ways when possible. 

Good spelling instruction starts with a strong foundation in phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. Below are some tips and ideas for increasing orthographic knowledge and strengthening spelling skills:

  1. Word Sort Games  

One effective way to help your child with word study is by using word sorts. Sorting, exploring, and manipulating words in a word-sort setting can be a powerful way to connect meaning and understanding, as well as develop spelling skills. 

Word sorting activities require students to compare and contrast sets of words with similar features. For instance, a student can sort words with /a/ into three categories: long a, short a and exceptions. 

As students recognize connections and patterns, they can better explain and remember them when applying the information to spelling and writing. 

  1. Spelling Rules Lists 

Louisa Moats suggests that 84% of English spellings can be predicted using spelling rules and word meanings. If you feel your child is weak in these areas, it may be worthwhile to review some phonics skills and spelling rules with your child.

  1. Scheduled Reading Time 

Increasing the amount of time your child reads each day positively affects reading ability, fluency, vocabulary, writing and spelling skills. Work with your child to find a good book or book series that they find engaging and read regularly. 

Listen to the language in the text, point out interesting words, and write about what you read. 

  1. High-Frequency Word Lists 

Dedicating time to mastering the spelling of high-frequency words can be a powerful way to enhance your student's spelling ability. In 2015, Read Naturally created a spelling high-frequency printable list of words

This list of words is sorted by vowel sounds making it easy to organize and fold into your spelling instruction. 

Spelling Skills Take Practice 

Through study and practice, students can improve their spelling abilities. If you notice a significant gap in your child's reading and spelling ability, seek support from teachers and aids. 

While every child learns and develops literacy skills in their own unique way, it is essential to address spelling issues early to help prevent gaps or lags between reading and spelling.

Sources +

Abbott, R. D., Berninger, V. W., & Fayol, M. (2010). Longitudinal relationships of levels of language in writing and between writing and reading in grades 1 to 7. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(2), 281. doi:10.1037/a0019318

Bear, Donald & Templeton, Shane. (1998). Explorations in developmental spelling: Foundations for learning and teaching phonics, spelling, and vocabulary. Reading Teacher. 52. 222-242.

Definition of dyslexia. International Dyslexia Association. (2018, July 16).

Ganske, K. (2014). Word Journeys: Assessment-Guided Phonic, Spelling, and Vocabulary Instruction (2nd ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.

Invernizzi, M. A., Johnston, F., Templeton, S., & Bear, D. R. (2017). Words their way (3rd ed.). Pearson.

Martin-Lacroux, C. “ Without the spelling errors I would have shortlisted her…”: The impact of spelling errors on recruiters’ choice during the personnel selection process. Int J Select Assess. 2017; 25: 276–283.

Moats, Louisa C. (2005). How Spelling Supports Reading. American Educator, Winter 2005/06, 12-43.

Ricketts, Jessie. The relationship between word reading and word spelling in English. GL Education.

Savvas teaching edge.

Snow, C. E., Griffin, P., and Burns, M. S. (eds.) (2005). Knowledge to Support the Teaching of Reading: Preparing Teachers for a Changing World. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Spelling and reading: How are they connected? Hill Learning Center -. (2022, June 9).

Understood-Team. (2023, October 5). Learning and thinking differences that cause trouble with reading. Understood.

Jessica Mangelson, Ph.D.

About Jessica

Jessica received her Ph.D. in Teaching and Learning from The Ohio State University. She has… Read more

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