Ah, spelling. Has there ever been a subject quite like it that has the power to strike fear in the heart of even the most confident writer?
No less than the creator of Winnie the Pooh, English author A.A. Milne, lamented his spelling ability by saying, “My spelling is Wobbly. It’s good spelling but it Wobbles, and the letters get in the wrong places.” Likewise, venerable American author Mark Twain once observed, “I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.”
During Milne and Twain’s eras, the only way to assure the letters didn’t ‘get in the wrong places’ was to keep a dictionary close at hand and be ever at the ready to flip through hundreds of pages dotted with tiny text, printed on thin onionskin paper.
With the internet that process has become much faster, of course. Today, there’s Dictionary.com and Google. Miriam-Webster has been online since 1996. Even the legendary Oxford Encyclopedic Dictionary can be accessed for free through many public libraries.
And of course, technologies like spell check and predictive text can be essential assistive tools for children and adults struggling with dyslexia.
Even so, the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) recommends students wait to use spell check as an accommodation until they are able to spell on their own at a fifth grade level. And even then, IDA encourages adults to help children in using spell check to ensure that they are focused on using the correct word in context. Many spell checkers embedded into programs like Microsoft Word will offer a number of alternatives for a misspelled word, but that doesn’t mean the alternative words make sense for that particular sentence.
So, the question remains: does spelling still matter?
For many researchers, the answer is yes. And just like reading, spelling is a developmental process with its own benchmarks and stages.
For the Journal’s earlier piece on the Stages of Reading Development, check out: http://journal.orton-gillingham.com/stages-of-reading-development/
In the mid 1970s, University of Wisconsin linguist Charles Read began looking at the ways in which children first begin to spell. Using a group of twenty children ages 3-5, he found that they all employed what he termed, “inventive spelling.” Inventive spelling refers to a child using their best guess at the spelling of a word. These young spellers would often use a single letter to represent an entire word, such as ‘U’ for ‘you’ or leave out a letter, so ‘don’t’ would become ‘DOT.’
Even though inventive spelling isn’t exact spelling, Read observed that by using it, most children demonstrated that they were able to discern the phonetic features of words.
Read’s work was highly influential. Linguist Carol Chomsky—wife of noted linguist and social commentator Noam Chomsky—built upon his research and conducted her own observations of young children spelling. Researchers found that inventive spelling, in and of itself, was a normal part of the process on the road to becoming a fluent speller. But, Chomsky notes, a crucial additional piece was having an adult to help guide the child to correct spelling along the way.
Just as reading expert Jeanne Chall quantified several stages of reading development, by the early 1980s researchers had distilled and defined stages in spelling development.
In his 1982 article, “Developmental Spelling: Assessment,” Western Carolina University Professor J. Richard Gentry laid out five distinct stages for young spellers:
- Precommunicative stage—Children use letters from the alphabet but have little understanding of their correspondence to sounds.
- Semiphonetic stage—At this stage, children begin to have an awareness of letter-sound connections and may use one letter, for instance, ‘U’ to represent the word, ‘you.’
- Phonetic stage—Inventive spelling can occur at this stage as children begin to use letters to represent the sounds they hear. A word like ‘phone,’ may be represented by the phonetically-driven, yet simplified ‘FON.’
- Transitional stage—By this stage, spellers move on from just relying on the sound of words to having an awareness of how words look and are structured.
- Correct stage—In this final stage, a speller is able to work with and recognize prefixes and suffixes. They also have learned irregular spellings and usage exceptions.
When it comes to teaching spelling, many educators from the 19th century forward believed that the only way to teach spelling was by rote memorization—whole word instruction or as some would more derisively put it, ‘drill and kill.’ As instructional theories and methods have evolved, though, researchers have found that a variety of techniques can be effective for teaching spelling.
Here’s three of the major approaches:
Whole Word—This method does involve memorization, but refinements have been made by educators over the years in an effort to help make the connections between words more apparent to students. Among these: ‘Thematic lists’ tie words together by theme and students may find this additional context helpful. ‘Leveled lists’ offers lists based on the frequency with which students would encounter words in their reading. Initially, more common words are on the list, as young readers come across them. As they move up in difficulty, less-frequently found words are more common on the list, challenging students to build their skills.
Phonemic Spelling—Students use their phonemic awareness to both decode and then encode words. For instance, students will a good grasp of phonemes will be able to decode the word ‘cat’ and understand it is really three distinct sounds, /c/ /a/ and /t/. Phonemic spelling builds on these skills, so that students can then encode or string together distinct letter sounds to spell out words. Thus, reading ‘cat’ with phonemic awareness makes spelling related words like ‘mat,’ ‘sat,’ ‘bat,’ and ‘pat,’ more accessible.
Morphemic Spelling—Here, students employ prefixes, bases and suffixes to deconstruct and reconstruct how works are spelled. But certain rules have to be honored along the way. For instance, ‘begin,’ doubles the final /n/ when adding an -ing suffix to form ‘beginning.’ The same does not hold true, though, for a word like ‘starting,’ which simply adds the -ing to ‘start.’ This method can be helpful for ELL students whose native languages also make use of morphology.
For more on the power of introducing Latin and Greek bases into lessons for ELL and general ed students, check out the Journal’s piece with Dr. Timothy Rasinski of Kent State University:
Which technique is the most effective for spelling instruction? Researchers suggest a blend of all three approaches can be effective.
Perhaps more important than the technique used is that dedicated, systematic spelling instruction be employed as part of solid reading instruction. Researchers say the best spelling instruction is: explicit, has a careful selection of words and that lessons are repeated and cumulative.
Just as good reading comes through structured, explicit instruction in areas like phonemic awareness, good spelling comes in building on some of the very same educational tools.
To learn more about the research behind spelling instruction, head over to Reading Rockets: