Welcome to Learning About Spelling, which is also a site for learning about reading. I’m Sue Scibetta Hegland, the author of this site.
Developing a website like this has been a personal goal for more than a decade, since I first began to understand that so many bright, talented, curious children struggle to develop literacy and that there are so many parents and teachers who desperately want to help them.
In 2004 our son was identified as dyslexic. He was in the fifth grade and was a “good reader” on the surface but a terrible speller. We started homeschooling because there were no resources in schools to help older children who were technically “at grade level” in reading but were unable to express complex thoughts (and sometimes even the simplest ideas) in writing. Homeschooling was a three-year experience that I am so grateful we were able to have as a family. But that’s not a realistic option for many families.
We taught our son about reading and spelling using the Orton-Gillingham (OG) approach. I was not trained in OG at the time so we used an Orton-Gillingham based program and made sure we implemented it with fidelity. That program, combined with lots of other resources, did make a difference in our son’s spelling and writing. But his spelling ability was still nowhere near his reading ability.
I joined the International Dyslexia Association, attended national and Upper Midwest Branch conferences, read every book I could get my hands on, and talked to anyone who could help me learn.
Once our kids were back in public school, I attended a week long graduate level course on Diagnosing Dyslexia and received certification. My goal in attending that course was not to do diagnostic work but to learn as much as possible about dyslexia and scripted programs designed to teach students with dyslexia.
I hosted speakers and events on dyslexia locally, was elected to the Board of Education for the Brandon Valley School District, and became the first person from South Dakota to serve as a board member for the Upper Midwest Branch of the International Dyslexia Association (which serves South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota).
But the more I learned, the more I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to talk about effective reading instruction with any credibility when I’d never actually taught students with dyslexia in schools. I had worked with my own son to improve his spelling and writing but that was one-to-one and I could ground him if his work didn’t get done. I knew teachers in schools had a much tougher job.
So I began volunteering as a reading tutor in a local middle school using an Orton-Gillingham based program. I tutored small groups of 4-5 students and they improved, but there were times that I wasn’t sure how to help them when they got stuck, particularly with spelling. I decided that I needed to become trained in the Orton-Gillingham approach myself so I would be able to customize the lessons and deal with these situations.
Along the way, I heard Pete Bowers speak at a national IDA conference. He had been invited by Louisa Moats to present on morphology during an all-day symposium titled “Reconciling the Common Core Standards with Reading Research.” His talk was called “Structured Word Inquiry: Integrating Morphology and Inquiry as Guiding Principles for Reading, Vocabulary and Spelling Instruction.” Other presenters during the symposium included Marilyn Adams and Susan Brady, both luminaries in the field of reading research.
All of the talks that day were fascinating but Pete’s in particular stayed with me. I remember thinking that the lexical matrix and all of the concepts he presented made so much sense but I didn’t really see how to integrate it with the OG approach. I went home and modified the presentation materials I used when I talked about dyslexia and effective reading instruction by adding a matrix for <struct> along with dozens of words built on that base. And I kept learning about OG.
I became trained in Orton-Gillingham, receiving 50 hours of training through an IMSLEC-accredited OG program followed by another 45 hour, year-long course taught by a trainer with 15 years of experience teaching OG and supervising tutors through an IMSLEC-accredited program. Both training experiences involved practicum and many hours of supervised teaching using the Orton-Gillingham approach.
Despite all that training, early in my practicum work I ran into a troubling situation. I taught a student the Vowel-Consonant-e (VCe) pattern with lots of multisensory practice and repetition until he could consistently read and spell words like <stake, made, poke>. A lesson or two later, I introduced a consonant grapheme (<ck>) and a phoneme it represents (the /k/ at the end of <duck>). We continued lots of multisensory practice until my student was very secure isolating phonemes and spelling them using the VCe pattern and all previously taught phoneme-grapheme relationships. Only then did I introduce the grapheme <oa> and he learned to read and spell words like <goat, cloak, roam> the same way. That became secure.
The next time we met, I dictated a sentence that included the word <home> and watched my student write <hoam>. I had no idea what to do next. Both spellings were valid if all that mattered was phoneme-grapheme relationships or “sound to symbol” understanding.
I asked experienced OG tutors what I should do in situations like that and they all told me the same thing: I just needed to tell him that we were working on the Vowel-Consonant-E pattern so he would know to write <home> not <hoam>. It struck me that when students know all of the possible phoneme-grapheme relationships (the meaningful speech segments in our language and the letters and letter combinations that represent them) but have learned them in isolation, they know more potential misspellings of every word they write! So I realized that my work would need to include helping students memorize, by rote, at least some letters in the spelling of word after word after word. I was using multisensory methods to help them do that rote memorization, but it was still memorization without any understanding of why we use this particular grapheme for this particular phoneme in this particular word.
Then in 2014, I was looking back at Pete Bowers’ presentation from the symposium and decided to purchase the Real Spelling Toolkit. That experience launched me into studying orthographic linguistics and the actual structure of our writing system.
Today I tutor students using a more accurate understanding of the writing system, but there are far too many students who need help to even make a dent. My colleagues are in the same situation. I constantly turn away requests to tutor students and it is painful every time I do it because I know that understanding how English spelling actually works is transformative and I want every student, parent, teacher and tutor to have a chance to learn about it.
My goal is for this site to be a place where anyone can begin learning about how our spelling system actually works and can see what is different about teaching an accurate understanding of the writing system rather than an invented model. Imagine teaching phoneme-grapheme relationships within a framework that allows them to make sense in every word.
You don’t actually have to imagine it — you can read about it here and study it in many different ways. On the Resources page you’ll find lots of places to go to learn more after you’ve read what’s here.
One of the reasons that I call this site Learning About Spelling is because that’s what I’m doing as I write this. Every single day I learn something new about our writing system and replace pieces of my old thinking with new. This is my current understanding and I welcome questions and responses. I’ll edit this as my understanding grows and changes.
Please contact me with your questions, comments, and reactions. I want to hear from you.