The Case for Teaching Spelling
By Dr. Margie Gillis
Four-year-old Anna writes a letter to Santa telling him she would like a bicycle and CDs: I yd lk a bckl nd cdz. Her invented spelling is at once creative and indicative of what she knows about sounds and how they’re spelled. Anna knows the names of all the letters and has figured out the sounds of many as well.
If Anna isn’t taught how to spell, she may avoid writing altogether because spelling is so hard. On the other hand, if Anna learns the various vowel patterns and how to spell them, that knowledge will free her to develop her ideas in an organized way.
English, like most languages, is rule-governed. In fact, an estimated 85% of our words are considered regular. Years ago children were required to memorize the rules and as a result, spelling–along with phonics–was dubbed “drill and kill.” This led to its being eliminated from many schools’ language arts curricula.
A Better Way
Today, however, we know how to teach spelling using engaging methods that avoid rote memorization. A skilled and knowledgeable teacher will structure lessons so that students look for common spelling patterns. In this way, they use deductive reasoning to discover the spelling rule. Since spelling and reading are reciprocal skills, students engage in word study by reading and spelling the patterns in the same lesson. The patterns are taught systematically and to mastery.
Spelling is in fact more difficult than reading because there are multiple ways to spell sounds, particularly vowels. Since there are more irregular spelling patterns than reading patterns, students benefit from structured word-study lessons that include dictation.
With the advent of technology and word processing, poor spellers have learned to rely on spell check to correct their errors. The trouble is that those errors may not be detected.
The following sentence passed spell check: ‘There team wanted to meat for diner but they’re was know moor room at the in.’ When I conduct professional development seminars, I share a poem that further illustrates this point:Eye halve a spelling chequer. It came with my pea sea. It plainly marques four my revue miss steaks eye kin knot sea.
Since English has a spelling system that is both sound- and meaning-based, older students continue to benefit from word study. For example, the word health has the root heal; the word president has the root preside. Pointing out these meaningful word parts to students not only helps them remember how to spell the word, it also improves vocabulary. Many content-area words in science and social studies are derived from Greek and Latin, so students continue to benefit from analyzing words into meaningful units. This advanced word study improves spelling accuracy and builds vocabulary knowledge.
The power of explicit spelling instruction offers students much more than the ability to put letters in the correct order. It supports reading development, empowers written expression at all ages, and boosts vocabulary building. No wonder it has reemerged with such a prominent role in comprehensive literacy instruction!