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What Research Says About How to Teach Spelling

Part I: The Basic Approaches

Accurate spelling is standard equipment for functioning in daily life. In order to communicate effectively, a person needs to develop the ability to spell quickly and accurately the words he uses in his everyday writing. Those who fail to develop spelling skills are often judged negatively by their peers, business associates, employers, and even themselves. While few cases are as degrading as that of the young woman whose boyfriend returned her love letter with her spelling errors marked with bright red ink, poor spellers frequently experience embarrassing situations. Fortunately, there is no reason your student needs to suffer this type of embarrassment. Only very rarely, because of a severe learning disability, will a student be unable to learn to spell. Rare, also is the true “natural speller” -- one who can see a word once and spell it correctly for the rest of his life. The majority of students, however, can be taught to spell well with the right resources and effective procedures.

What constitutes an effective approach to spelling instruction has been persistently debated since before the introduction of Webster’s “Blue-Backed Speller” (The American Spelling Book) in 1783. In fact, Hodges2, in his Short History of Spelling Reform in the United States, traces dissatisfaction with English spelling and spelling instruction back to at least 1300 A.D. This dissatisfaction has led to a proliferation of research designed to “settle the matter once and for all.” As a result spelling is one of the most heavily researched school subjects.

In more recent years, the focus has shifted from research on how best to teach spelling to how to apply the research-proven strategies to the curriculum. In 1982, Stetson, Taylor, and Boutin criticized major textbook publishers for failing to use teaching approaches and strategies that followed confirmed research. One explanation for this lack of application is that many of the research-proven techniques do not lend themselves well to whole-class instruction or fill-in-the-blanks workbooks.3 Ves Thomas also expressed concern regarding the lack of research-based spelling programs, but was equally concerned that classroom teachers had very little knowledge regarding how best to teach spelling using research-proven approaches and strategies.

In this article, research-proven approaches to effective spelling instruction and teaching strategies are outlined. When you finish this article you will be able to understand how each contributes to your child’s acquisition of spelling power.

Establishing a Spelling Curriculum Goals

Before we can have a fruitful discussion of “how to teach spelling,” we must agree on what we want to accomplish. What are the desired outcomes or learning objectives of the spelling program? Ernest Horn, one of the twentieth century’s most prominent educational researchers, put it quite simplistically when he said that “the most commonly accepted single objective for the teaching of spelling is to enable pupils to spell the words they need to write now and in the future.”5

I think you will agree with Horn’s very simple answer, but you probably need more information if you are to select the best spelling program for your family. You will no doubt ask, “What skills are necessary to assure my student reaches the goal?” and “Exactly what skills and habits must I provide to assure my student will reach this goal?” Below you will find a list of the seven main spelling objectives experts agree your student must master to be considered a proficient speller. These are also the goals which are used as the Learning Objectives for the Spelling Power curriculum.

Common Spelling Instructional Objectives

  • Your student will understand the importance of accurate spelling as an aid to his reader’s understanding what he has written. He will appreciate accurate spelling as a common courtesy to his reader.
  • Your student will be able to accurately spell the 5,000 most frequently used English words.
  • Your student will be able to accurately spell those additional words above the 5,000 most frequently-used-words he personally uses on a regular basis related to his region, hobbies, school work, and vocation.
  • Your student will learn the most effective way to study a word, so he can continue to build his spelling vocabulary throughout his lifetime.
  • Your student will understand and apply phonetic principles, spelling rules, and other linguistic principles when attempting to spell unfamiliar words.
  • Your student will establish the habit of effectively using spelling resources, such as dictionaries.
  • Your student will establish the habit of using effective proofreading skills on all writing he intends others to read.

Establishing Spelling Study Approaches

The method of accomplishing the above goals has become an emotional and divisive issue for home educators, just as it has for the broader American educational community. There are three basic approaches to teaching spelling with seemingly endless variations of each. Some believe if reading is taught by the “phonics method” there will be no need to teach spelling as a separate course. Others believe spelling should be taught formally through memorization of words presented through some sort of system of organized lists. Still others believe it is not necessary to teach spelling at all, but that your student should learn spelling through a purely “functional” or “experiential” method while he reads and writes.

The truth of the matter is that in spelling, as in other curriculum areas, using a single-approach will not offer a complete and well-rounded program. Instead, the answer lies in using a well-selected and blended combination of the three basic, research-proven approaches to spelling instruction. In the pages that follow I will describe in more detail these basic approaches. The strengths and weaknesses of each approach and how each contributes to a complete, well-rounded spelling curriculum will also be addressed.

Experiential Programs Are Not Enough

Beginning in the early 1980s, enthusiasts for progressive methods of education proposed, “Why not teach spelling wholly in connection with curriculum units or actual writing assignments?” Some of these educators have even gone so far as to encourage made-up or “invented spellings.” These educators reason that ignoring spelling and other conventions encourages “spontaneity, content, and style.” They believe they are freeing the student to be creative. Unfortunately, one of the chief failings of this approach is that creativity actually suffers.

“Educationists noticed that many children misspelled words and realized that it would take a great deal of time, effort, and commitment to fix the problem. Instead, they discovered “invented spelling.” Children weren’t getting the words wrong, they were acting as “independent spellers,” and any attempt to correct them would not only stifle their freedom, but smother their tender young creativity aborning. Such ideas have been widely seized upon by educationists who see the natural, unconscious, and effortless approach to spelling not only as progressive and child-centered, but a lot less work as well.” [Charles J. Sykes, Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why America’s Children Feel Good About Themselves but Can’t Read, Write, or Add]

It is quite possible and even more desirable to achieve creativity through mastery of skills rather than by ignoring them. Your student wants to spell correctly. His flow of ideas is disturbed every time he comes to a word he cannot spell. He either has to choose a different word he can spell or ask for help. Research has repeatedly shown that a poor speller frequently chooses a different word or group of words which he knows how to spell over the more precise, descriptive, and/or effective word, which is part of his spoken vocabulary but which he does not know how to spell. When this happens it is not just his effective and creative use of words that suffer. His constant stopping and starting to think about his spelling also disrupts his flow of ideas and the entire organization of his composition suffers. When your student has at his command many high-frequency words he is truly free to concentrate on all of the creative aspects of his compositions.

Another reason the use of “invented spellings” is ineffective is a poor speller tends to be less motivated to write because writing for him is such a chore. It takes him longer to finish than his more adept spelling friends, thus frustrating him further. The less he writes, both in frequency and volume, the less confident in his writing ability he becomes. Confidence frees him to concentrate more fully on organizing his ideas, thus increasing his capacity for self-expression.

The following example illustrates well what can happen when creativity is valued over skill-acquisition. Too typical is the boy who hurls himself at the building of a birdhouse and gets disgusted when his poorly sawed boards don’t match and his nails split the wood. Creativity for him was a bust. Along with the general loss of self-confidence, his next act of creativity may have been pushed days, weeks, or months away, at least where hammers and saws are concerned. Here is where a little training in the skills of sawing and nailing might have saved the day and encouraged rather than discouraged further creative adventures.6

The fact that skills are best learned in a systematic way, however, does not negate the value of using spelling words in functional situations. It is well known, by both parents and professional educators, that transfer of spelling words into daily writing is not automatic. In fact, the chief complaint of the strictly “word list” programs is words are often misspelled in daily writing that were recently studied and spelled correctly during the weekly test. According to Vergason, your student needs to be helped to make this transfer.8 A common way to encourage this transfer is to use the study words in dictation sentences and paragraphs. Dictation exercises have proven to increase transfer to daily writing by 52%. Better still, is when your student composes his own sentences using his new study word. When this is done, as it is in the Spelling Power program, your student is 95% more likely to use the word correctly later in his written work for other school subjects or when writing for functional purposes.

Your student needs to be given opportunities to write and motivation to write. He must also be shown how spelling relates to the rest of his school work. The only way to help him do this is if spelling matters all day, every day, and in all areas of the curriculum. If you only mark misspelled words during the spelling test, then allow errors to go unchecked during the rest of the school day, you are sending a very powerful message to your student about the value you place on accurate spelling. At the same time, if your approach is to “grade” his papers by marking them in red (or purple or green) or pointing out every error it will be demotivating to your beginning writer. Therefore, it is imperative that he be taught a definite system of proofreading his compositions and helped to make its use habitual. The Spelling Power program includes an entire chapter on how to teach proofreading skills and how to use this system as part of your grading process. This chapter also provides you with suggests for helping the student with limited spelling ability to compose and record his sentences and provides numerous suggests for motivating your student who has lost interest in writing.

Phonics Instruction Is Not Enough

With the renewed emphasis on the teaching of intensive and/or analytical phonics in the primary grades has come the attitude that spelling, as a separate subject of the curriculum, need not be taught. A number of points should be considered in this regard.

First, the skills involved in using phonics to spell a word are very different from—and more complex than—those needed to read a word. In reading, the emphasis is upon letter-to-sound relationships. The student has the visual cue of the phonogram to help him decode the word. He is also may be aided by other factors, such as story or sentence context, pictures on the page, and the configuration of the word. Trying to encode or spell is the reverse process and is much more difficult. Often your student is faced with a choice between several reasonable alternative phonograms for writing the sound he hears. For example, the word since can be read in only one way, whereas the sound /sins/* could be spelled cince, sinse, cynce, synce, since, or sence. The correct, acceptable spelling must be committed to memory, after many repetitions, unless the student has an almost photographic visual recall.

Additionally, although linguists do not always agree on the exact number of variable sounds which exist for each letter, it is estimated that there are at least 250 spellings for the 44 basic English sounds. When phonics is taught from reading prospective it is usual to teach the 72 phonograms and the sounds associated with them. A phonogram is the letter or group of letters used to represent a sound. Some phonograms have multiple sounds.

Research done by Hanna, Hanna, and Hodges9 has proven that one or more such phonetic principles and spelling rules can be applied to the accented syllable of approximately 85 percent of those words used frequently by children and adults. This means as many as 15 percent of the words frequently used by children and adults do not fit any regular spelling patterns.

When you consider other factors of our language, you will see additional problems for your young speller. It is estimated that two-thirds of the words in an average dictionary contain silent letters. Consider all the silent letters in such words as could, light, tongue, foreign, through, night, trouble. Some of these silent letters were formerly pronounced and the words have retained the letter so that the root or etymology of the word is clear. The word debt is such a word. The b is silent in debt, but not debit. Inclusion of these letters, when spelling, must simply be memorized.

Homonyms can add to the trouble as well. Homonyms fall into two categories: homophones (words which sound the same but may be spelled differently) and homographs (words which are spelled the same but may be pronounced differently). The words in both categories usually have different meanings. Homophones generally cause the most difficulty in spelling; however, homographs must also be considered. The way a word is used in a sentence (syntax) is another source of confusion for spellers. For example, when faced with writing the sentence, “I read the book The Little House on the Prairie,” the student who has been taught by strictly phonetic methods will assume he should write, “I red the book The Little House on the Prairie.”

While Hanna’s research has proven that English is not as illogical as it once was considered to be, the complexities and the inconsistencies of the English language still contribute to the problem of learning to spell. Such inconsistencies show that basic phonics skills, while a necessity for your students, are only one of the elements that must be mastered to create proficient spellers. In addition to basic phonemics review and instruction, your spelling program also must provide essential instruction on how morphological (meaningful units), grammatical, syntactical, and etymological (word origins) affect the spelling of English words.

There also must be the opportunity to study words in isolation and through groups of words with the same linguistic characteristics (sound, suffix, and so on.). Opportunity for focused drill of those words your student needs to master is also essential. A program which includes all of these elements is generally referred to as a total “linguistic approach.” Spelling Power is just such a linguistic approach designed to be used after the student has learned to read through an intensive phonics program. It picks up where basic phonics leaves off by providing review of the vowel sounds and other difficult sounds.

The value of linguistics and/or phonics has been promoted successfully for many years, not only in spelling but in all areas of the language arts. The linguistic approach is readily integrated with functional spelling instruction, as well as systematic study of word lists when the words are grouped by phonetic principles, spelling rules, and other linguistic elements. Furthermore, as was stated earlier, spelling instruction should not only be integrated as a meaningful component of the language arts curriculum, but must be integrated with every phase of a student’s written work. The organized word list groups, skill-building activities and the proofreading resources included in your Spelling Power manual make this integration possible.

Memorizing Word Lists Is Not Enough

There is evidence that the high frequency vocabulary in the writing of children and adults is very similar. Over and above the security segment of the spelling curriculum, pupils should be encouraged to pursue their own writing needs and interests.10

Studies of the vocabulary of children and adults have determined that the average person uses a core vocabulary of about 10,000 words. From these words, researchers have determined with considerable accuracy what the most common 4,000 to 5,000 will be. These investigations have determined that a basic core of approximately 4,000 words account for about 98 percent of the spelling requirements for the average person.

The table on this page illustrates the frequency of word use by both children and adults including the percentage gains for each thousand words used. This table shows that if a student learns to spell only a limited number of words, he gains a larger percentage increase from learning the first thousand words than from learning any other thousand words. Such statistics indicate the value of frequency-based word lists over contrived grade level lists. By beginning with the most frequently used words and progressing to less frequently used words; dramatic results can be achieved quickly. This can be an important factor, especially in remedial situations.

While the most dramatic improvement in spelling ability is seen when your student masters the first one thousand frequently used words, he will gain more in terms of communication by learning the next two to four thousand words. This phenomenon is because the first one thousand words consist primarily of prepositions, articles, pronouns, and conjunctions that while integral to the English language provide little true communication. While the percentage of usage of the second thousand, third thousand, etc., words appear to be small, these words include the many nouns, verbs, and modifiers that carry the “meaning” and ideas your student’s wishes to convey. Thus, learning the correct spelling of at least the first 5,000 most frequently used word, rather than only the 1,200 most frequently used words included in most spelling programs is vitally important to your student’s writing ease.

Beyond the basic core list of the 5,000 most frequency used words taught through the Spelling Power program, your student’s spelling study should be supplemented according to your local needs. Such supplementation ideally includes words of local and regional interest, e.g., your last name, the name of your county, city, street and so forth. As your student matures, his spelling needs will expand and become further individualized with words he personally uses frequently related to his hobbies, interests, and vocational choices. In addition to the above, accommodation to his personal spelling needs, still other words can be added from the errors found in his own writing. Such inclusion necessitates providing the student an effective and efficient method of proofreading his own writing.

There are approximately 600,000 words in the English language. That means, if the average person uses 10,000 words on a regular basis, there are about 590,000 words which he uses less frequently. Even though these words are used less frequently, they still need to be spelled accurately when used. Therefore, in addition to mastery of the core vocabulary common to all students, your student needs to be given a specific method to help him discover the words he does not know how to spell (proofreading) and a definite and efficient method for discovering the correct spelling of them when he needs them (use of the dictionary.) Knowing how and when to use a dictionary is not automatic; it is a learned skill and should be included in a well-planned spelling curriculum. The teaching of dictionary skills is too often taught as a two-week unit in the fourth or fifth grade and never discussed again. The goal of the instructional materials for teaching dictionary skills in Spelling Power is that they become efficient and habitual. The program gives you the materials to teach dictionary skills including l knowledge of alphabetical sequence from A-Z as well as from every vowel, a solid habit of using the guide words, morphographic and structural units and etymological information to name a few.

Spelling Power uses a particular model for teaching proofreading skills that also serves as a means of integrating Spelling with the rest of your home school curriculum. Only one part of the proofreading procedures taught in Spelling Power is concerned with spelling, it teaches proofreading for all areas of written language including: content, structure and style, mechanics of capitalization and punctuation, accurate spelling and formatting (handwriting, footnoting, and so on). This approach to proofreading is another way Spelling Power’s stream-lined strategies build excellent spelling, writing, and study skills.

An Integrated Approach is Needed

The evidence quoted in Part 1 of this eReport makes it clear that establishing an effective spelling curriculum requires an integration of the three basic approaches to spelling instruction: Phonetics instruction, memorization of high frequency word lists, and using functional writing to master spelling words and skills. It is not simply a matter of combining one or two of these approaches, it requires a balanced integration of all three approaches. Each approach has a valuable role to play in the overall acquisition and application of spelling skills.

The Spelling Power program helps students reach the spelling learning objectives listed at the beginning of this article by providing a systematic method of spelling study based on word usage and research proven teaching strategies; continual review of key phonetic principles and consistently applicable spelling rules, an individualized, functional method of spelling study incorporating those words your student frequently uses and those he has misspelled in his writing and use of research-proven, time-tested teaching strategies and techniques. Spelling Power is a complete linguistics approach.

The Spelling Power program constitutes a complete spelling curriculum, for ages 8 through college level. Using this program, any student, no matter what type of learner he is (gifted or dyslexic), may start at his ability and achievement level and move ahead as fast and as far as his learning rate and capacity will let him.

All the skills, techniques, and principles which research has overwhelmingly and consistently shown to help students to become efficient spellers are contained in Spelling Power. Finally, elements of student motivation were considered throughout creation of the program.

In Part II of this article (Establishing Teaching Strategies), you will find more detailed information on what specific skills need to be taught and the best techniques and strategies you should use to assure efficient mastery of spelling words and skills.

In Part II of this article (Establishing Teaching Strategies), you will find more detailed information on what specific skills need to be taught and the best techniques and strategies you should use to assure efficient mastery of spelling words and skills.

 

Selected references for this article

 

Copyright 2006-2019 by Beverly L. Adams-Gordon
Additional copies are available at www.spellingpower.com.
 
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