The Importance of Spelling Instruction
In 2015 a nonscientific survey of 2,052 English-speaking adults found that four out of five people claimed that they were good spellers of English. In contrast, a 2009 study completed by the Spelling Society suggested that only about one-third of Americans actually could spell well. Compared to Americans, the British respondents scored better, but not much.
Not many would argue that spelling isn’t important. People often judge a person’s writing competency by the way he or she spells. However, across the country, elementary classrooms still aren’t consistently scheduling time to provide spelling instruction. There is robust evidence to support the benefits of explicit spelling instruction (Graham and Santangelo 2014; Moats 2005; Joshi 2008) and how to best teach it (Simonsen and Gunter 2001; Treiman 2018).
Evidence to support the benefits of explicit spelling instruction
Graham and Santangelo (2014) conducted a meta-analysis of spelling instruction. Of the 1,113 experimental and quasi-experimental studies reviewed, only 53 met their stringent criteria for inclusion. One of the major findings was that formal spelling instruction produced a gain of .44 standard deviations on all reading measures (including word reading and reading comprehension). This .44 standard deviation gain moves a child from the 50th percentile to the 67th percentile (Graham and Santangelo 2014). Furthermore, the average weighted effect size for improved phonemic awareness was .51 and the average weighted effect size for improved reading comprehension was .66. Both of these effect sizes are meaningful in light of John Hattie’s assertion that effect sizes over .40 are a strong indicator that a practice (in this case, spelling instruction) is effective (Hattie 2009) and should be incorporated into children’s schooling. Thus, Graham and Santangelo’s meta-analysis replicates and confirms previous evidence that spelling instruction improves reading ability.
Many argue that English is too irregular to explicitly teach spelling and suggest that taking a visual memory approach to instruction is more effective (e.g., using flash cards or writing the words five times each). The International Dyslexia Association, however, points out that “spelling reversals of easily confused letters such as b and d, or sequences of letters, such as wnet for went are manifestations of underlying language learning weaknesses rather than of a visually based problem” (Moats, 2020). The argument that English is too irregular simply hasn’t borne out in fact. Hanna et al. (1966) found that there is more consistency to English spelling than we think. Fifty percent of English words can be spelled correctly based on sound-symbol correspondences alone (e.g., cat, took, and smack) and another 34 percent are predictable except for one sound (e.g., knit, two, boat). Thus, the spellings of 84 percent of English words are mostly predictable. Hanna and her colleagues estimated that only about four percent of English words are truly irregular. According to Moats (2005), any English word can be spelled by taking the following five principles into account:
- Words’ language of origin and history of use can explain their spelling.
- Words’ meaning and parts of speech can determine their spelling.
- Speech sounds are spelled with single letters and/or combinations of up to four letters.
- The spelling of a given sound can vary according to its position within a word.
- The spellings of some sounds are governed by established conventions of letter sequences and patterns.
These five principles form the backbone of high-quality spelling instruction. For more detail about them, see Moats’s 2005 article, “How Spelling Supports Reading.”
Another argument against explicit teaching of spelling, a remnant of whole language philosophy, is that if children just read enough, they will learn how to spell. There are three arguments against this philosophy: (1) when people read, they typically attend to the meaning of the words rather than the spelling of the words, (2) when reading, people can sometimes identify the words without fully processing them, and (3) the way sounds are linked to spelling is more variable and complex than how spellings are linked to sound, thus making spelling inherently more difficult than reading (Treiman 2018). For example, the word sheer is harder to spell than to read because of the multiple ways to write the /-eer/ pattern. Possible choices are /-ere/ (as in here); /-ear/ (as in fear); /-ier/ (as in pier); /-eir/ (as in weird); or /-eer/ (as in sheer) (Reed 2012). This idea that spelling is more difficult than reading is amplified in dyslexic students who can learn to read accurately when provided with high-quality instruction; however, they still have challenges with spelling that rarely are fully resolved (IDA 2020).
What should spelling instruction look like?
Simonsen and Gunter (2001) reviewed the spelling instruction literature and found strong support for three approaches to spelling instruction—phonemic, whole word, and morphemic. The phonemic approach addresses words that are high frequency, regularly spelled words like hat, stop, black, and complex that can easily be spelled using sound-spelling correspondences. This approach can and should be incorporated into any good explicit phonics lesson sequence and can be a focus during late kindergarten, first grade, and into second grade. See an example of a spelling dictation or guided spelling instructional routine that uses this phonemic approach here.
Not all words in English can be spelled correctly by simply using letter-sound or sound-spelling correspondences (i.e., the phonemic approach). Words like yacht, would, and friendare considered to be irregularly spelled words, and a whole word approach is one way to learn to spell these types of words. The whole word approach relies mostly on memorization techniques such as study, copy, cover, and compare or writing the word multiple times. A variation of the whole word approach doesn’t rely solely on memorization of the word. It teaches students to use their sound-spelling knowledge of the parts of the word that are regular such as the w and the d in would and then memorize the part of the word that is irregular, in this case, oul.
The morphemic approach capitalizes on the fact that English spelling is a morphophonemic system. In other words, the spelling of many English words relies not only on sound-spelling correspondences but also on morphemes (the smallest units of meaning). Examples of morphemes are prefixes, suffixes, and Greek and Latin roots. Teaching students to spell morphemes and teaching the rules for combining morphemes will help students learn to spell a far larger set of words accurately than can teaching individual words through rote memorization of weekly spelling lists (Simonsen and Gunter 2001). This morphemic approach aligns with Moats’s principle two (listed above): meaning and parts of speech can determine spelling.
There are some advantages to helping students use knowledge of morphology to spell words. First, morphemes are usually spelled the same across words. For example, the morpheme –ject, which means “throw,” is spelled consistently in words like eject, injection, inject, and objected. Second, if the morpheme’s spelling changes, it does so in predictable ways. For example, the morpheme make is spelled differently in the word making by following the rule of dropping the final e when adding a morpheme that begins with a vowel. In summary, these three approaches (phonemic, whole word, and morphemic) provide a framework for how to teach spelling.
In her article on spelling, Moats describes a general scope and sequence for spelling in grades K–7. She recommends spelling instruction of approximately 15–20 minutes a day or 30 minutes three times a week that focuses on the following (Moats 2005, p. 22):
- Kindergarten: Phoneme awareness, letter names, and letter sounds
- Grade 1: Anglo-Saxon regular consonant and vowel phoneme-grapheme correspondences
- Grades 1–3: Irregular Anglo-Saxon words
- Grade 2: More complex Anglo-Saxon spelling (spelling according to the position of a sound in a word, letter patterns/conventions, and most common inflectional endings)
- Grade 3: Multisyllable words, including Anglo-Saxon syllabication, compounds, schwa, and most common prefixes and suffixes
- Grade 4: Latin-based prefixes, suffixes, and roots
- Grades 5–6: More complex Latin-based forms
- Grades 6–7: Greek combining forms
Spelling instruction is important and can improve reading ability by teaching children about how the English writing system works. As Moats (2005) explains in her article, “Learning to spell requires instruction and gradual integration of information about print, speech sounds, and meaning—these, in turn, support memory for whole words, which is used in both spelling and sight reading” (p. 12). When educators provide systematic, explicit spelling instruction we help our students to become better readers and writers.
Graham, S. & Santangelo, T. (2014). Does spelling instruction make students better spellers, readers, and writers? A meta-analytic review. Reading and Writing. 27(10).1007/s11145-014-9517-0.
Hanna, P. R., J. S. Hanna, R. E. Hodges, and H. Ruforf. 1966. Phoneme-grapheme correspondences as cues to spelling improvement. Washington, DC: U.S. Office of Education Cooperative Research.
Hattie, J. A. C. 2009. Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.
Joshi, R. M., and R. Treiman, S. Carreker, and L. Moats. 2008. How words cast their spell. American Educator (Winter), 6–43.
Moats, L. 2005. How spelling supports reading and why it is more regular and predictable than you may think. American Educator (Winter), 29.
Moats, L. 2020. Just the facts: Spelling. Baltimore: International Dyslexia Association. https://dyslexiaida.org/spelling-2/.
Reed, D. K. 2012. Why teach spelling? Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.
Simonsen, F., & Gunter, L. (2001). Best practices in spelling instruction: A research summary. Journal of Direct Instruction, 1, 97–105.
Treiman, R. 2018. Teaching and learning spelling. Child Development Perspectives 12(4). https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12292.