What Do We Really Know About Spelling?

Do you ever feel like your teacher prep program left you with some major gaps? Like, how the heck do you really teach spelling?

We’re probably all familiar with the technique of assigning lists and testing at the end of the week. We’ve probably also seen how those words are frequently forgotten the next week.

So what do we really know about the teaching and learning of spelling? I dug into some research and have the Reader’s Digest version for you here:

Spelling Is Not Just Visual

The visual component is just one of four types of knowledge that contribute to expert spelling.

components of expert spelling

Visual Knowledge – Visualizing words and knowing if a printed word “looks right” are big components of accurate spelling. As children are exposed to print, they internalize the “look” of more and more words over time. The more frequently a student is exposed to a word, the more likely they are to spell it correctly (Treiman, 1993).

What it means for teachers – Helping students visually store and retrieve words is an important part of teaching spelling.
*Strategies such as look, cover, copy, check help students store words visually.
*Practice with word shape boxes draws students’ attention to the visual characteristics of words.
*Many sight words are best learned using a visual approach because they do not follow the rules of phonics.
*Students may be more ready to work with spelling words from texts they are reading than randomly chosen words.

word shape boxes

Word shape boxes emphasize the visual features of words

Knowledge of Language Sounds (Phonetic Knowledge) – To become expert spellers, students have to learn that sounds in spoken words correlate with letters. Unfortunately, in English there is not a one-to-one correspondence between sounds a and letters. Many sounds can be represented with various letters or letter combinations.

What it means for teachers – When you are teaching phonics skills, you are not only strengthening students’ reading abilities, you are also building their spelling skills.
*Teaching and practicing word families is shown to lead to significant gains in spelling achievement (Bourassa and Treiman, 2001).
*Making words activities and word sorts help students internalize phonics patterns for reading and spelling (Boynton and Walker, 2004).

making words activity

Making words activities help student practice sound-letter relationships

word sort

Word sorts help students internalize phonics patterns for reading and spelling

Knowledge of Meaning Units – This is also called semantic knowledge. As children gain more skill with language they learn that there are semantic (or meaning) units that give clues to a word’s definition and must be spelled the same from word to word. (ex: sign, design, signal, designate)

What it means for teachers
*When you are teaching vocabulary, draw attention to the small units of meaning and have students practice generating other words with that unit of meaning.
*When you are teaching grammar skills, like how -ed indicates a past tense verb, you are also teaching meaning units (morphemes) for spelling.

Historical Knowledge – More advanced spellers will begin to learn that the spelling of a word can reflect its etymology (or origin). For example, they learn that no English words start with a doubled letter but the word “llama” does because it is a Spanish word that we also use in English.

Know Where Your Students Are As Spellers – 5 Stages

It’s helpful to know the stages of spelling that students progress through so that you can meet them where they’re at and help them move forward.

stages of spelling development

Precommunicative – In this stage children write strings of letters (with occasional mixed in numbers). Children have awareness of letters at this point but not the alphabetic principle, that letters represent sounds.

Semiphonetic – At this stage children are beginning to understand that letters represent sounds. In their writing they use letters to represent some, but not all, sounds in words.

Phonetic – Now students represent all surface sounds of a word with letters. Their letter choices are only made on the basis of sounds they hear in the word.

Transitional – Students at this stage begin to spell based on how words look, not just how they sound. They begin to use some conventional phonics patterns.

Conventional – It takes years of word study, reading, and writing to develop conventional spelling. Conventional spellers have a firm grasp of spelling rules, meaning units (semantics), they know when words don’t look right, and they have mastered etymological structures (words from other languages).

Are All Words Memorized?

In the past it was thought that children learned to spell by memorizing the letters in printed words. The prevailing theory held that they memorized one word at a time until they knew how to spell all the words they needed to know. We now have evidence that when children spell a word, they go about it in one of two ways:

methods of spelling words

Some words are memorized, especially words that do not follow the rules of phonics. If children don’t have a word memorized they will use a more creative process where they attempt to represent the sounds in words any way they know how.

What it means for teachers – 
*Students should be allowed to work with invented spelling. When they do this they are building familiarity with letters, awareness of phonemes (the sounds in words), and knowledge of the alphabetic principle (that letters represent sounds)(Gentry and Gillet, 1993)
*Have students work with word families and word sorts so that they can more accurately use sounds and letters when spelling words that are not memorized.
*Use student spelling errors to find out about a child’s understanding of letters and sounds. If a child writes “kat” for the word cat, you can tell that the child is able to segment the word into all of its sounds and assign letters to represent those sounds reasonably. Praise the student for that ability and let them know that in this case, the beginning sound is represented with a c. If a student writes “kt” for cat, they may be struggling to hear the middle sound of the word or they may need more familiarity with vowel sounds.

Why Is Spelling So Hard?

When students do not have a word memorized, this is the process they follow for spelling it:

the process of spelling words

I have noticed over the years that students with ADD have a lot of difficulty writing and I suspect it is because there are so many processes involved in the spelling and recording of words. Sustained attention is needed to make it through the processes.

When a student is struggling with spelling, they may be having a breakdown with one or more of these steps in the process.

Break Apart the Spoken Word – This is the heart of phonemic awareness. To build phonemic awareness, practice orally breaking apart words into sounds, identify beginning, middle, and ending sounds, or practice swapping sounds for other sounds in words (ex: start with mop, change the middle sound to a, what is the new word?)

Remembering Units in Order – Train students to repeat the sound sequence a few times so it stays in their memory. Students who struggle more than others to remember sound units in order may benefit from evaluation by a special education teacher.

Assign Letters to Each Unit – In English this is a skill that takes a lot of refining because the same sound can be represented by more than one letter combination. Direct instruction of phonics concepts helps refine this skill as well as plenty of exposure to print.

Pin this infographic to revisit these ideas later:

Spelling infographic

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References:

Adoniou, M. (2014) What should teachers know about spelling? Literacy, 48(3), 144-154.

Bourassa, D. C., & Treiman, R. (2001). Spelling development and disability: The important of linguistic factors. Language, Speech & Hearing Services in Schools, 32(3), 172-181.

Boynton-Hauerwas, L. & Walker, J. (2004). What can children’ s spelling of running and jumped tell us about their need for spelling instruction? The Reading Teacher, 58(2), 168–176.

Gentry, J.  R., & Gillet, J. W. (1993). Teaching kids to spell. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Treiman, R. (1993). Beginning to spell: A study of first-grade children. New York: Oxford University Press.


Hannah Braun
Hannah Braun
Hannah Braun is a former teacher with 8 years of experience in the classroom and a master's degree in early childhood education. She designs engaging, organized classroom resources for 1st-3rd grade teachers.

7 thoughts on “What Do We Really Know About Spelling?

  1. Diane Romo

    Wow Hannah, such an informative post! Thanks for all this great information! (And your blog is just darling!)
    Diane
    One Giggle At A Time

  2. Peggy

    Hannah, thank you for this well-researched post on spelling!!! It is so thorough and loaded with great ways to apply the research. This is a must-read post for all teachers! I am your newest avid blog reader!