Some teachers take the view that spelling is the least important aspect of literacy and therefore may not bother to assess it. However, many students with specific learning difficulty or dyslexia – especially if they have had a lot of support or special tuition during primary education – may have improved reading skills to the extent that a significant discrepancy between Reasoning and reading ability is no longer apparent. In most cases, however, spelling is much more difficult to remediate, and so it is important to assess this aspect of literacy because it can shed light on underlying problems that teachers might remain unaware of. Poor spelling (especially in students who are bright and have otherwise satisfactory reading skills) often signals deeper cognitive difficulties (e.g. in memory) that can create problems in many aspects of educational performance, ranging from modern languages to mathematics.

Students with spelling problems tend to experience difficulties with writing generally (Moseley, 1997). This is not only because they have anxieties about not being able to spell words, but also because they are so focused on the mechanics of the writing process (spelling, grammar, punctuation) that they have little cognitive capacity left over to monitor the meaning of the text they are producing. They easily lose track of what they want to say, miss words out and leave sentences incomplete. To resolve these difficulties, students may resort to a ‘dumbing down’ strategy: i.e. writing in a very immature fashion, using easy-to-spell words and simple sentence structures. The resultant written work may not actually contain very many errors but is far below the standard that the students should be capable of, given their levels of understanding. Ideally, spelling – like the other mechanical processes of writing – should be automatised, i.e. be so well practised that they operate largely at a subconscious level, which frees up conscious processes to concentrate on the meaning of what is being written.

It should be noted that poor spelling does not inevitably indicate dyslexia, in which one would normally expect to see evidence of cognitive difficulties (e.g. in memory or phonological skills) that are consistent with, and underpin the spelling problems. When students with poor spelling have no underlying cognitive difficulties that would be indicative of dyslexia, it is usually the case that they have never been taught to spell properly or have had insufficient practice in using their spelling skills so that these skills become automatised (see Section for teaching suggestions on this).