Complexities within a word.

Using a complexity number to help select appropriate words for a spelling list.

For those of us who can read and enjoy doing so regularly, it is an easy task, and we are bewildered by the problems of those students that can't. Strangely, some of those that read well cannot spell.

The learning issues that surround reading and writing are very complex. They involve issues of memory, of seeing and vision, of hearing and with writing, the need for hand control.


One of the symptoms of a learning difficulty is a lack of neatness which may indicate that it is important to provide a student with support. If the child also reverses letters and numbers, learning support will be more important. It is easy for teachers to overlook these issues as part of the maturing process. I was involved with a student whose teacher told the parent that it was part of growing up, and several years down the track the then class teacher reported that the child was writing great stories, but the child had to read them to her as she did not understand what he was writing.  Those years went past without help.

It is better to act sooner than later.

Memory difficulties are apparent when a child cannot retain information over a reasonable period. A child with a difficulty in the memory area may do well in test after they have placed effort in learning for it, but several weeks later, they have forgotten what they have learnt.  Memory like any other skill improves with practice.

Hearing is important. A child needs to hear the sounds within words correctly.

We also talk in terms of auditory discrimination where a child will do well in a hearing test but finds the sounds, and sometimes instructions hard to integrate.  There are times when a teacher will come across a child that can read well but cannot spell and whose phonetic awareness is awry.  These students are likely to confuse the order of sounds or write the sound incorrectly. They will often not be able to respond to instructions and find concentration difficult.  This is not a matter of lack of hearing but what the brain does with what it hears.

Vision is also an issue, it is not always an issue of not being able to see, but how the brain deals with what it sees. One of the key point is that children with visual learning difficulties often wants to read from the wrong side of the page.  When this happens a word like ‘was’ becomes ‘saw’. Sometimes parts of words are reversed so ‘not’ becomes ‘on’ or the word ‘sit’ becomes ‘is’. A further issue comes when a student guesses on minimal information. Usually the child will guess using either the first or the last letter. A word like ‘roof’ becomes ‘for’ or ‘from’, ‘sit’ can become ‘sat’.

Given the difficulties introduced above it is worth looking at giving words a complexity rating. This helps to select words of similar nature and to reduce the number of teaching facts that are taught in any list.

I suggest that numbers on the left side of the decimal point be used for syllables so ‘set’ would be 1.0 and ‘gallop’ would be 2.0. The word complexity is seen in the numbers on the right. A word like ‘set’ would have one complexity, which would be the vowel sound. This assumes that the student can recognise the ‘s’ and the ‘t’. The complexity of set would be 1.1 unless the children in your care are in their first week of school where all letters would be a problem and make the word complexity 1.3.

The complexity number for the word ‘gallop’, as stated above is 2 because the word has two syllables. The issues that come with syllables include the role of the vowel sound or the cvc pattern which explains the double ‘ll’. A further difficulty for the word ‘gallop’ is the addition of suffixes. While this is easy for this word there are rules and patterns that are important to understand.  Its complexity number therefore would be 2.2.

If we look at the word ‘drab’ we see another form of complexity. The first difficulty is with the ‘d’ and the ‘b’ because of the issue of reversals. Secondly, we have the blend ‘dr’ where many children with difficulties would have trouble placing the ‘r’. ‘Drab’ is an adjective and is used to describe a noun and we need to consider the words that we would match it up with. Most of them would be very complex and this adds complexity to the word itself. This would slow down its use by students with learning difficulties. Its complexity would be 1.3 or 1.4. Having said that, it could be valuable in an unseen test to gain insight into what a child knows.

As a student progresses, we would see them able to handle words of greater complexity. This becomes a very concrete assessment of what the child is learning. You would also expect that the child’s reading speed would increase.

The advantage of complexity numbers, or looking at complexity which is especially important for children with learning difficulties, is that it enables a spelling list with minimal teaching points. Secondly, it helps in the sequencing of words, we need to teach words of low complexity first and then teach those within the second category next and so on. Therefore, within the first key middle sound we teach ‘a’ we would be looking for words with low complexity and at the same time making sure our list has as few teaching points as possible.