Why is it so hard for my child to read and spell?

Why is it so hard for my child to read and spell?
Peggy Hendrix, Director of Admissions

Of course reading and spelling are always difficult for dyslexics. But what makes English particularly hard to read and spell?

According to the Oxford Royale Academy, English is one of the hardest languages to learn for a variety of reasons. Many of our words come from Greek and Latin roots, just like other European languages. But we have more trouble. Why?

English does have a lot of rules to help us, such as “i before e except after c.”  We all learned that, right? If you are a natural reader and speller, this rule really helped you. However, if you are dyslexic, the exceptions to the rules really muddy the waters. In fact, here at my school for dyslexic children we don’t even refer to them as "rules" . . . they are only “generalizations.” Do you realize how many exceptions there are to the “i before e” rule? The rest of it goes, “i before e, except after c when spelling long e.” But what about “seize” or “either” or “weird” or “neither?” And did you ever think about the fact that you also use “e” before “i” when spelling long /a/ . . . as in “neighbor” or “weigh.” 

Consider also the difficulties with pronunciation. Imagine the confusion dyslexics have with “through,” “rough,” and “bough.” Accenting adds a whole new layer, such as the complexity of the word “desert.” “ `De sert ” means an arid plain, while “de `sert” means to leave without permission. Homophones such as “wound,” pronounced "wowned," versus “wound,” pronounced “wooned.” “There," "their," and "they’re” are really confusing. English also contains words of French, German, and Italian derivation, such as “antique,” “sausage,” and “al dente.”  

There is a wonderful poem that is illustrative of these English pitfalls in an article on TheConversation.com entitled “The Absurdity of English Spelling and Why We’re Stuck With It:”

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough
Others may stumble, but not you
On hiccough, thorough, slough and through.

According to Cigdem Kneble’s article “Why is English So Hard to Read,” published in Child’s World News, our alphabet contains 26 letters, but they are used to create 44 sounds. There are 1,120 ways to create those 44 sounds. For example, here at our school we teach the eight ways to spell long /a/ and the six ways to spell the /k/ sound. Kneble also observed that there are often several ways to pronounce letters, such as "a" in apple, car, ball, or the "c” in cat and city. In English, one sound can be represented by up to four letters together:

    “a” in “apple” (one letter)
    “ph” in “phone” (two letters)
    “eau” in “plateau” (three letters)
    “eigh” in “eight” (four letters)

So how do we help our dyslexic children navigate the rough waters of the English language?  Dyslexics need to be directly taught to read and spell, using sequential, systematic, multisensory, research-based language instruction, such as the Orton-Gillingham method. Dyslexic children will have a much more difficult time learning to read using traditional methods such as “whole language,” which assumes that children will learn to read words based upon the context in which the words are encountered. It is essential that dyslexic children learn how to break words down into meaningful units of sound, and then blend them together to read words.  Most dyslexics have poor visual memories for words, and they struggle with the sound/symbol relationship. Thus, they will not see a word in context and remember it when it appears again. I often have parents tell me about their frustration when they work with their child on a word such as “the” only to have they child act as though they’ve never seen the word before when they next encounter it in the text.

Help your dyslexic children by getting them the remediation they need. Dyslexic children can learn to read and spell by being directly taught. Don’t leave them to the vagaries of the complicated language that is English!


  • dyslexia
  • English language