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Why Does My Child Spell a Word Right One Day and Wrong the Next?

By Elizabeth Harstad

Why is my child able to spell a word correctly on Monday but then she gets it wrong on Tuesday? Some days she even spells the same word differently within the same paragraph! What’s going on?

Elizabeth Harstad

Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician, Boston Children’s Hospital

These are great questions! It’s wonderful that you’re able to observe your child’s schoolwork so carefully. But it can be hard to know what to worry about and what’s normal. Remember that all children make mistakes as they’re learning.

Before jumping to conclusions that something is wrong, here are some things to consider:

  • Is your child just starting to learn how to write words? Or has she been writing words for years and still makes many mistakes?
  • How much of a problem is her spelling? Are most words spelled wrong or are most words spelled right?
  • What types of words does she have difficulty with? How does she do with words that are spelled the way they sound, such as winter or pinch? What about words that aren’t spelled the way they sound, such as eight or laugh? What about common sight words that appear often in kids’ books, such as was, and or the?
  • Is the teacher concerned about your child’s spelling?

The English language can be pretty tricky. There are many rules to follow, and there are many exceptions to every rule. So it can be hard for kids to get all the rules right!

When kids are first learning how to spell, they often use something called “invented spelling.” This means that they try to figure out all the sounds in the word and write down the letter that stands for each sound. This is also called “sounding out.”

When kids use this approach, they may not actually spell the word correctly. But if they write out most of the sounds in the word, then it’s OK that the word is spelled wrong. For example, a child who is trying to sound out flowers using invented spelling might write flawrs.

Sometimes kids using invented spelling may even spell the same word wrong in different ways. Invented spelling is usually not considered a problem, especially if a child is a relatively new speller and if it improves over time.

But if spelling mistakes continue, this could indicate a problem, such as a reading or attention issue:

  • Dyslexia can make it hard for kids to identify sounds in words as well as which letters represent which sounds. Kids who struggle with reading may also struggle with invented spelling.
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder can make it hard for kids to concentrate on what they’re writing or notice when they misspell common words. They may also have difficulty memorizing words for spelling tests.

As with any concerns about your child’s academic skills, it’s a good idea to talk to the teacher. It will be helpful to know if she sees what you’re seeing and if she shares your concerns. If it turns out that your child has learning or attention issues, there are many strategies that can help. That’s why it’s better to start talking with your child’s teacher now rather than waiting.

About the Author

Portrait of Elizabeth Harstad

Elizabeth Harstad

Elizabeth Harstad, M.D., M.P.H., is a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.

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