Teaching Spelling


It’s almost time to return to the classroom for the new calendar year — some of us are already back in school. That’s a great time for us all to think about what we’re doing in the classroom, and whether it might be time to make some changes. So here’s a question to think about:

Should you teach spelling?

Spelling is highly valued among learners and among the parents of our students. Poor spelling can have significant consequences for students far beyond the test; while there is no correlation between spelling and intelligence, most people think less of folks who spell badly. Spelling is also very easy to test: apart from simple mathematical calculations, there are few things that are as distinctly measurable as accurate spelling. These factors suggest that the teaching of spelling, since it is clearly popular, useful, and easy, should be a high priority item.

At the same time, there is little evidence that teaching spelling is effective. Some people are good spellers, and some are not. Traditional practice with spelling lists has little effect on this. Bad spellers can memorize the spelling of a word in order to pass the test, but they will usually spell it wrong the next time they use it in writing. And the next hundred times after that, too. Good spellers learn the word easily, and all further practice is a complete waste of their time. It follows that most of the time you spend teaching spelling will be wasted for most of your students: they either don’t need it, or won’t benefit from it.

The typical method of giving students a list of 10 words for the week and having them write those words ten times and use each one in a sentence should probably be removed from your planner. It is not thorough enough for the bad spelllers, and it has no benefits for the good spellers. Instead, if this is your favorite approach to spelling, begin with a pre-test. Read off the words for the week, and have students write them as they think they should be spelled. Swap papers and have students correct one another’s papers. Then have the students practice only with the words they missed. This is a more efficient way to use this method, and one that doesn’t penalize good spellers.

What about spelling rules? A 1969 SWRL study examined the 6,092 one- and two-syllable words which primary grade students are expected to read. 10% of those words were exceptions to all possible phonics rules. In order to be able to read and spell the remaining 5,043 words, students would have to memorize 166 rules. They would also have to learn which rule to apply when, a matter which has to do with the history of words.

That is, if you know that a particular word came to English from Old Norse, you can tell which of the many many spelling rules will be relevant to that word.

It is a safe assumption that the average nine year old fluent reader is not familiar with the 166 rules in question, and is also not that up on the histories of words. It is therefore very likely that teaching all those rules is not a practical approach to the teaching of spelling.

These truths about spelling explain why so many spelling programs and spelling lessons and spelling games and spelling techniques are floating around. Anything you do will work for the good spellers — including answering questions about how to spell things, but otherwise ignoring the subject completely. Since you will have some good spellers in the classroom, any method you use will show results. Since we rely on our own and other classroom teachers’ experience for most of our classroom decisions, the lack of solid research support for any spelling instruction technique has little effect on our choice of spelling instruction methods.

I’d be inclined to choose either the most enjoyable one, or the one that takes the least time.

As for the bad spellers in the group, they will probably benefit more from dictionary and proofreading skills than from spelling instruction per se. Having them keep a list of their own personal “spelling demons” and get into the habit of looking these words up whenever they turn in a paper containing them is a very practical approach. They may be able to get some of those words thoroughly learned and off the list. But they can also be just as successful in their real-world tasks by remembering that these are words they always need to check on.

This list should in particular include those words the student is inclined to misspell, and which will not be caught by spellcheckers. For example, the student who uses “loose” for “lose” or confuses “affect” and “effect” cannot rely on spellchecking programs to solve those problems.


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