Most people have a “reading age” and “spelling age” that is related roughly to their chronological age and their intelligence level.
It is important to understand the notion of a “reading and spelling age”, because getting this definition clear is central to understanding why dyslexic people need to be taught spelling (and often other educational matters as well) in a different way from the majority.
A person’s spelling age tells us roughly how that person’s spelling ability compares to the spelling ability of others of the same age.
Since we know how well the average 10 year old in the country can spell, just as we know this for six year olds, seven year olds, eight year olds and so on, we can then immediately see if a child has a spelling age that is unusual for the child’s age.
To give an example, we might have a spelling test that has been given to many 10 year olds in England. Now the results of this test might show that 68% of ten year olds who have been brought up speaking English and attending an English school get between 38 and 45 spellings out of 50 correct on this test.
We might also have a similar test for nine year olds, 11 year olds and so on, and we will know what sort of results we get across the country.
So if we have a ten year old taking the test who gets all the spelling questions right we might be able to say (for example) that this child has the spelling ability of the average 13 year old. If the child gets 20 spellings right, that child might be said to have the spelling ability of a seven year old.
This sort of variation in the ability to spell is normal – but most of the time it is related to age and intelligence. Up to a certain level, the older the child, and the more intelligent the child, the better the spelling.
But sometimes we do get very strange results. For example what would we make of an 11 year old child who on other tests might be getting results that we would expect from the average 14 year old, and yet who in the spelling test gets the sort of score we might associate with an average eight year old.
In such a case the is not just an issue of being poor at spelling, this is something stranger than that, and this is where we might start to suspect that there is something in the child’s brain that is causing particular difficulty learning to spell. It is quite often what is known as dyslexia.
Now clearly the child in the example above is quite bright, but has very poor spelling, and is also almost certainly going to have very poor reading skills.
We see this effect in about 4% of the population – and these are the people generally known as “dyslexic”.
Such people can be taught to spell, at least up to the level of the average person for that age group, but the teaching has to be conducted in a very different way from the norm. Indeed the fact that dyslexic people do struggle with their spellings when educated in the standard way does show that a different approach is needed.
Certainly for myself, all the evidence I have seen shows me that teaching such a child in the standard way, but more slowly (an approach that some people advocate) does not work, and indeed can cause considerable distress to the child – especially the very bright child.
There are of course alternative approaches that can be tried, but I think it is fair to say that most children who appear to be dyslexic respond best of all to a multi-sensory approach.