Spelling Dosen’t Matter?

It is very likely that spelling wars will continue as they have for decades. That spelling matters… is a matter of perspective (and isn’t spelling such a nice way to play with language?…). Some claim spelling has become irrelevant. I much doubt that given the proliferation of social media platforms where writing is the main way of communication, but who am I to say? I am just a teacher and I still like my students to spell well. For a myriad of reasons.

Several approaches to teaching spelling were taken and if you wonder which one you should use I hope you will read about them all and make up your own mind. For far too long teacher autonomy and expertise have been undermined, and selection of practices has become a persuasion tactic or, worse, a war over what is “best”.

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Spelling is NOT arbitrary.

If the spelling of English words was based on a random variation then we would depend on rote and visual memorization alone – which is obviously not the case. It would take us perhaps a lifetime to memorize thousands of words – the sheer number of words in English language is paralyzing for anyone even dreaming of memorizing it. Patterns and connections can be found within any language system no matter how arbitrary it might seem on the surface (those who studied Linguistics like I did might have a good memory of Chomsky’s generative grammar or Halle’s generative phonology and their complex deep structures).

Researchers have estimated that the spellings of nearly 50% of the English words are predictable based on sound-letter correspondences that can be taught, and another 34% are predictable except for one sound.

“If other information such as word origin and word meaning are considered, only 4 percent of English words are truly irregular.” (Paul R. Hanna, Jean S. Hanna, Richard E. Hodges, and Edwin H. Rudolf, Jr., Phoneme-Grapheme Correspondences as Cues to Spelling Improvement, 1966).

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Brief history of spelling instruction

19th c – Spelling texts (i.e. Webster’s “Blue-backed Speller”) were central to teaching. Long lists of words (as many as 50) were taught and students were required to learn them by means of rote memory tasks. Very little effort was made to adjust the difficulty to the developmental process children go through. (Hanna, Hodges, & Hanna, 1971)

Early 20th c – Spelling books continued to be used.  Word lists appeared with no particular orthographic principle guiding their selection and presentation (for instance, they were ordered alphabetically or by the number of syllables). However, research emerges and questions two dimensions:

–          Was it more beneficial to teach spelling words by the list or by a context method?

–          Should the weekly spelling routine change from study-test to pretest-study-test?

1930s  – Educators begin to organize spelling lists around most frequently used words in reading and writing. This allowed for a finer control of difficulty,  (Rinsland, 1945) and offered some guarantee that the words children learned to spell would be the ones they needed for their writing.

1930s-1940s – Research continued and new memory-based strategies evolved for dealing with word learning.

  • The study method was designed. Students would:

(1) look at a word,

(2) pronounce the word,

(3) close their eyes and visualize the word,

(4) open their eyes and write the word,

(5) check the spelling of the word, repeating all the steps, if necessary, until the word has been memorized.

“In fact, copying a word over correctly more than three times appears to be counterproductive, affecting the quality of attention and inducing students to apply desperate measures like writing all the first letters first, then all the second letters, and so on, destroying the kinesthetic image which is a legitimate part of word knowledge.” (Femald, 1943; Gillingham & Stillman, 1997; Hildreth, 1955).

  • Also, a pretest-study-test approach was more intensively used as it was shown to lead to greater spelling gains (Horn,’T.D., 1947; Reid, 1963)
  • Periodic review and distribution of study across the week were introduced in the instructional scheme. (T.D. Iom, 1969)

1950s – The criticism of basal spellers began to spread. Although these words were controlled for difficulty they were still not organized to allow for orthographic generalization (they did not illustrate spelling patterns that could be grasped and applied to other contexts). The first major computerized investigation into the phoneme-grapheme correspondences in English spelling was conducted (Han Hanna Hodges and Rudorf, 1966). This led to the conclusion that English spelling has a morphophonemic aspect (Venezky, 1967) – that there is a high degree of consistency in the language.

As a consequence of this research, basal spellers included word lists designed to illustrate the orderly functioning of the spelling system, although “these were not driven by a thorough knowledge of the English spelling principles” (Cummings, 1988).

1980s – Researchers are more interested in the actual process of learning orthography, and less in the words to be taught or the instructional methods to be used. (Nelson, 1989)

“As a result, they have documented and described the developmental nature of orthographic knowledge. (Henderson, 1990; Henderson &Beers, 1980; Read, 1975; Schlagal, 1982,1992; Templeton &Bear, 1992).”

This research has also led to the elaboration of individualized developmental plans for the systematic teaching of the orthography (Bear, Invemizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 1996; Bloodgood, 1991; Ganske, 2000; Henderson, 1981;Morris, 1999).

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Spelling instruction varies. Now what?

  • Systematic teaching of spelling is needed. Developmental research was viewed by some educators as a green light to stop teaching spelling in a formal, systematic way, and they rely on what is called “incidental spelling” – that is, spelling taught just through reading and writing. Nothing farther from the truth. No cultural product comes naturally, and spelling is perhaps the least natural of all. Despite its deep coherent structure, language is still an intricate system that demands focus and practice in order to be mastered. This indirect approach was also the least effective in enabling students to gain understanding of orthographic principles and to apply spelling correctly (Fitzgerald, 1951; Horn, E., 1950; McKee, 1939; Wallin, 1911; Winch, 1916).
  • Practice is essential. No one denies the importance of reading or writing, but their effects on spelling are minimal. Think how many children are good readers but cannot spell properly. Reading and writing do not *cause* good spelling, they only enhance it. Such indirect (incidental) learning is only temporary; without explicit attention to and practice with these words the long-term retention is lost. (Henderseon, 1981; Horn T., 1969)
  • Spelling words in context helps very little. Well-intended educators who want to teach in a more “authentic” way use a context (a paragraph or a text) to teach target words because the words are not presented in isolation. However, this approach does not yield the expected outcomes and research spanning over decades proved that (Hawley & Gallup, 1922; McKee, 1924; Horn, T. D. & Otto, 1954; Horn, E., 1967).

“The use of lists (as opposed to contexts) serves to highlight the spellings of words apart from the distractions and complexities of meaning, syntax, punctuation, and handwriting (Fitzgerald, 1951). In. fact, the use of context appears to be advantageous only when the meaning of words is in question, as when homonyms are being taught (Graham, 1983).”

  • Proofreading is good but not an ideal method of teaching spelling. Why? Because students are not typically very good at proofreading (Horn, 1969). They are also less capable of identifying errors in their own compositions than in others’.
  • Curriculum-based content vocabulary words are to be taught for comprehension, but they do not help with the spelling process. Because they advance ideas and are not to teach orthography per se, these words need to be memorized (in sciences or other subjects).

 These words are:

– thematically organized (not based on orthographic principles)

– low-frequency words (encountered mostly within the respective disciplines)

– challenging (many are derived from Greek or Latin, e.g. “concatenation”)

“Familiarity with spelling words being taught is essential to helping students master the linguistic principles of English spelling that underlie the orthographic structure of individual words (Henderson,1990; Schlagal, 1992; Templeton, 1991).”

  • Teaching spelling as a visual task has limitations. Whole-word memorization (e.g. using flashcards and having students to write words 5 times) can be traced back to 1926 when research on deaf children’s spelling proved to be close to the spelling of the rest. Thus, the conclusion was that the visual memory had to be used in spelling (Leonard S. Cahen et al., “Spelling Difficulty: A Survey of the Research,” 1971)

However, later studies do not support this theory. Visual memory for letter strings is limited to 2-3 letters in a word. If children relied on it, then they would have similar errors for regular as well as irregular words of the same length – which is not the case. They misspell irregular words more frequently (strike vs. enough) so there is more than simple visual memory that enables good spelling. (Rebecca Treiman and Derrick C. Bourassa, “The Development of Spelling Skill, 2000)

Groups who received language-based instruction outperformed those who were taught through the visual method . As such, the kids who are encouraged to *think* about language spell better than those who just memorize the words.(Virginia W. Berninger et al., “Language-Based Spelling Instruction: Teaching Children to Make Multiple Connections between Spoken and Written Words,”  2000)

  • Language-based instruction is more effective than other spelling methods.

What does “language-based instruction” mean? It means that three levels of language need to be addressed through instruction:

–          Sound-letter relationships

–          Morphology

–          Word origins and history

“This knowledge supports a specialized memory system – orthographic memory; it is developed with awareness of the word’s internal structure (its sounds, syllables, meaningful parts etc.). Therefore, explicit instruction is essential.”

*Side note: I also notice an improvement in student spelling as I address morphology. The kids begin to make increasingly complex connections between these various layers of language (sounds, morphology, and semantics).  Think of the “long vs. short vowel rule” and the writing of the past tense (hop – hopped vs. hope –hoped) which also relates to meaning (“The bunny hopped across the field.” vs. “I hoped you would call me”).

*Side note 2: Language-based instruction does not exclude inquiry into language. As a matter of fact, that is how we start many of our explorations. There are two examples from my class below.

Notice – Categorize – Wonder

Students notice spelling patterns, categorize words, find the “rule” and then we continue to inquire through the lens of IB PYP concepts:

FORM – What is it like?

FUNCTION – How does it work?

CONNECTION – How is it connected to other things?

CHANGE – How does it change?

PicMonkey Collage

Provocations (see sample text for introducing homophones)

 Homophones

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Conclusion:

While many approaches to spelling can be taken, some are more effective than others. Try to read more about the theory behind each, the research that supports them and of, course, reflect on your practices. A lot depends on the student developmental age, the context (i.e. teaching speakers of English vs. second-language learners), the curriculum you follow in your school and so on – too many variables to decide for a “best” practice.

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5 Comments to “Spelling Dosen’t Matter?”

  1. Excellent post. Also connects to how we TEST for spelling . Can a word be just a little wrong and more right than wrong? Some assessments are not useful for teaching. What do they know and understand what patterns do they apply and go from there. Currently trying to get rid of testing that doesn’t help with teaching and understanding at my school .

  2. Now let’s address how it matters to a dyslexic. The odds that a dyslexic, like my son, will Ever spell by any other means than memorization are slim at best. Thank goodness for them, technology exist. Spelling is a nightmare for some.

  3. Excellent post. I will be referring back to it. But… you spelled ‘doesn’t wrong in your title.

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