Because written English is complex, composed of different layers of words, learning to spell in English is also complex. Although some experts identify five stages of spelling development, for teaching purposes three will suffice: Spelling by Sound, Spelling by Pattern, and Spelling by Meaning.

Each stage presents different challenges for students with reading disabilities. However, the basic problem usually occurs in the Spelling by Sound Stage, and difficulties here complicate all further spelling development. Good spellers have a dual image in their brains of words that they know how to read and spell: the correct spelling of the word, and a phonetic rendition that “calls up” the pronunciation of the words. Most poor spellers did not master the phonemic skills in kindergarten or first grade that are needed to spell phonetically; because they can’t spell phonetically, spell checkers are not helpful to them.

Spelling by Sound

The Initial Teaching Alphabet (i.t.a.) can be used to develop phonological awareness in young children, as well as remediate phonological deficits in older students. Because English orthography does not facilitate one sound-one letter matches, the initial teaching alphabet is especially useful here. Each of the 44 SOUNDS of English has a matching i.t.a. symbol to facilitate mastery of the Spelling by Sound stage that is the foundation for further spelling advancement. For older students who did not master spelling by sound, a strategy called “Slash and Dash” takes them back to that stage, but with age-appropriate polysyllabic words.

Spelling by Pattern

The Spelling by Pattern Stage begins when students realize that the same sound can be made by different letters (for example, learning when to use “c” or “k” for /k/ sound at the beginning of words), and that the same letter can make different sounds. When students sort words and discover patterns, they learn powerful strategies for self-teaching; Spelling no longer seems like a guessing game, or something dependent on visual memory alone. Using the i.t.a. symbols to go from sound to pattern sets them on this journey of self-discovery.

Spelling by Meaning

When students realize that words have common roots despite different pronunciations, they enter the Spelling by Meaning Stage. While i.t.a. has been extraordinarily useful in helping them “crack the sound code” of English, at this level they realize that they cannot rely on sound alone, or knowledge of spelling patterns. They need to master Latin and Greek roots, prefixes, and suffixes to become expert spellers and readers. This shift can be exemplified by the words “sign, signal, ensign.” Although they are related by virtue of their common root, spelling them by sound in i.t.a. would obscure this meaning relationship.