Overcoming Spelling Problems Of Adult Students

Many non-traditional, older students have definite spelling problems that cause them to fail English courses or receive very low grades on required papers. Here are some tips for tutors.

Spelling errors are often the most costly mistakes made on college English papers, but tutors may find themselves powerless to help students avoid them. Many assignments are written 'in class', which means that your student is left to his or her own defenses at a time when advice may be desperately needed. To compound the problem with tutoring spelling difficulties, instructors may place severe restrictions on the level of assistance a tutor may render. Tutors are cautioned against overcorrecting their student's work, in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Any mistakes, spelling or otherwise, that your student makes on a graded paper should honestly reflect his or her own level of ability, not the skills of a tutoring 'proofreader'.

So how should tutors approach the delicate subject of spelling errors with an older student in college? Very judiciously, to say the least. Adults may be extremely sensitive about their spelling or learning disabilities, so any correction should be handled with tact and diplomacy. Here are some tips for tutors who encounter serious spelling difficulties with an adult student.

1. Many spelling errors are caused by inattention, not disability. Evaluate your student's overall level of interest in the course itself. Do they look forward to getting the next assignment or reading the next story, or are they barely participating? Are papers being done at the last possible moment? An unmotivated student is more likely to commit unforced spelling errors in an effort to get out from under the assignment.

Most of the time, the misspelled words are those that are commonly misspelled- transposed "IE" combinations, words ending in -y, proper names. The rest of the paper may look fine grammatically.

If you have such a student who makes common spelling mistakes as a result of rushing the writing, then you need to have a talk with them about motivation, not necessarily spelling. Point out the misspelled words you find, but put them in perspective of hurrying through an assignment. These spelling mistakes should be reduced markedly if the student starts taking more time on the assignment. Chances are that they don't misspell as many words on an essay test question where time management is more critical.

2. Chronic misspellers need to relearn their spelling instincts. If you have an adult student who has been out of the educational system for a long time or is from an area where illiteracy is rampant, you're going to have to rekindle his or her own spelling instincts. Such students have developed chronic misspelling problems through lack of mental challenges in their daily lives. Spelling is simply not a high priority for their employment or economic situation, and it shows in every paper they write. For such students, flashcards should prove effective. They need to redevelop or enhance their natural ability to recognize misspellings. Place several misspelled words along with correctly spelled words on flashcards and ask your student to determine which is which. Increase the level of difficulty until you reach a reading level that should be a bit beyond their comprehension level. Tell them to use their instincts to determine whether or not an unfamiliar word is spelled correctly. This is the instinct they should have for their own writing efforts. If a word 'feels' wrong, they should take the time to examine it more closely. Oftentimes a student will know that several words COULD be misspelled, but he or she does not have the instinct needed to turn that hunch into a correction. Chronic misspellers who are not diagnosed with an actual learning disability are probably out of practice with writing in general. Running a few early papers through an approved spell-checking system should help your student develop more confidence in their own abilities.

3. Some misspellings are the result of actual learning disabilities, diagnosed or undiagnosed. A good tutor should be familiar with a student's educational background. If the student has been diagnosed with an actual learning disability or medical condition that makes spelling difficult, you need to learn how to approach that student's disability with sensitivity. Many dyslexics, for example, reverse letters as a matter of 'normal' spelling. It's not as if a dyslexic student sees the letters in the 'proper' order and deliberately reverses them. Some peer tutors who are unfamiliar with the mechanics of dyslexia may become frustrated with a student's perceived lack of progress. Other learning disabilities may leave a student unable to remember corrections for the long term, so each new writing assignment brings the same spelling challenges as the last one. In these cases, the student should have a counselor or therapist who is responsible for his or her long-term rehabilitation. Your job as a tutor is limited to the particulars of the specific English course. Make sure your student has been given all the accomodations that his or her condition requires- additional time on tests, spelling allowances, test proctors, note-takers, etc. Once those accommodations have been made, all you can do as a tutor is work on small victories. If your student correctly spells problematic words, praise him or her liberally. Build on that success weekly. Do not allow your student to slip back into old spelling patterns. Often students with diagnosed learning disabilities respond to positive reinforcement. Consider yourself to be more of a coach encouraging your player to do his best in the next game. Again, frequent spelling drills with flashcards can do wonders. Work with your student's counselor to develop useful exercises, or find some challenging spelling software for your student's computer.

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