Teachers frequently express concerns that their students’ spelling is poor or that their students learn the spelling words for the week and then do not spell them correctly in their writing. Maybe you are one of those teachers too, who are continually questioning why we teach spelling, how we should teach spelling, and if there is a better way.
I just read an article, one of many studies, that shows a direct relationship between teachers’ linguistic knowledge and their students’ gains in spelling (Puliatte, & Ehri, L., 2017). This study provides some interesting findings for us to ponder.
First of all, yes, spelling is important. Teaching spelling is important. We have a lot of evidence that spelling is related to word reading ability, writing ability, and even reading comprehension! When students know the spelling of a word, they access it and its meaning more quickly when they read (Foorman & Petscher, 2010; Katzir, et al., 2006). When students know how to spell words, their writing becomes more fluid and their ideas more easily recorded. It just makes sense.
So, in our persistent quest of striving to apply best teaching practice, let’s look more closely at how this recent connection of teachers’ linguistic knowledge, can come to play in our spelling instruction to help more kids learn to spell better – and read and write more effectively too!
Stronger Linguistic Knowledge Improves Our Spelling Instruction
Being able to spell words has its basis in understanding words at a metalinguistic level, that words are composed of isolated phonemes and that each phoneme (isolated speech sound) is linked to a grapheme (the letter or letters used to spell that phoneme). For example, the word eight has two phonemes /ae/ and /t/. It also has two graphemes, eigh and t.
Masterson and Apel (2010) point out that teachers’ linguistic knowledge, in addition to the phoneme grapheme connection, needs to include and apply other layers of language such as morphemes, and semantics:
The knowledge of morphemes also contributes to the encoding of words and gives teachers lots of information to help them explain the spellings of words. The meaningful unit in words, the root, retains its spelling when other word forms are created. For example the /s/ in medicine is spelled with a C because this word contains the root medic.
Morphology contributes to perceiving word families through analysis of prefixes, suffixes, roots, and understanding comparatives, plurals, and verb tense forms.
Syllable patterns help us explain the vowel sounds and spellings in words. Knowing the six syllable types can help us explain the spellings of words and take the mystery out of why many words are spelled the way they are.
Teachers, evaluate your knowledge: How well is your phoneme awareness developed? Can you easily segment and isolate the phonemes in words? Do you articulate the phonemes correctly? Do you have a strong knowledge of the graphemes that map onto the phonemes in words?
Do you understand how morphemes inform spelling? Do you know where to access information to help you use morphology and etymology to explain the spellings of words?
Do you know the six syllable types and examples of words that fit into the syllable types?
If you are not sure about your linguistic knowledge, you might be interested in a subscription to The Reading Teacher’s Top Ten Tools. This online course will deepen your understanding of phonemes, graphemes, morphology, and syllables. There are ten easy to access units, packed with knowledge and teaching ideas, that you can explore on your own time and use to improve your spelling instruction.
Twelve Spelling Instruction Practices
Once you build your linguistic knowledge, you are set to apply these twelve research-based instructional practices that have proven to have positive impacts on students’ spelling skills:
- Provide direct instruction – requires linguistic knowledge. Explicitly teach sound-spelling patterns.
- Teach orthographic patterns – requires knowledge of how graphemes map onto phonemes.
- Organize lists by linguistic principles – sound and spelling patterns, morphemes and meaning.
- Use common useful words that can be generalized – words that students can relate to and use in oral discourse and writing.
- Apply 60-75 minutes of spelling instruction per week, distributed in brief periods over the week
- Build in periodic review of words and spelling patterns – building in review is just good teaching in any subject!
- Pretest students and help students correct their own errors.
- Teach students a study process for practicing their words. One such process might be: Read the word, think about its meaning, say the word aloud and use it in a sentence aloud. Write the word, write a sentence using the word.
- Provide many writing opportunities in which students can practice writing their spelling skills.
- Ensure students can read the words they are being asked to spell. This is SO important!
- Analyze spoken and written patterns in words. Compare and contrast how words sound and how the sounds are spelled.
- When at all possible, provide immediate error correction with explanation and modeling.
The Reading Teacher’s Top Ten Tools gives you access to over 100 videos that will build your knowledge and demonstrate effective reading, spelling, and writing instruction. Watch this instructional video from the course. Almost all of the twelve research-based spelling instructional practices are modeled in this lesson. Can you identify the practices?
You are bound to increase your linguistic knowledge through The Reading Teacher’s Top Ten Tools. With knowledgeable teachers can come stronger more effective spelling instruction and student abilities.
Good luck with your spelling instruction! Work with your colleagues to deepen your linguistic knowledge. Keep in touch with me as your efforts reveal questions about spelling – together we can deepen our knowledge.
If you are interested in reading more about the spelling reading connection and how to teach spelling effectively, here is an article for you – Why Spelling is Important and How to Teach it.
Foorman, B. R., & Petscher, Y. (2010). Development of spelling and differential relations to text reading
in grades 3-12. Assessment for Effective Intervention, 36(7), 7–20.
Katzir, T., Kennedy, B., Kim, Y., Lovett, M., Morris, R., & Wolf, M. (2006). The relationship of spelling recognition, RAN, and phonological awareness to reading skills in older poor readers and younger reading-matched controls. Reading and Writing, 19, 845-872.
Masterson, J. J., & Apel, K. (2010). Linking characteristics discovered in spelling assessment to intervention goals and methods. Learning Disability Quarterly, 33(3), 185–198.
Puliatte, A., & Ehri, L.C. (2017). Do 2nd and 3rd grade teachers’ linguistic knowledge and instructional practices predict spelling gains in weaker spellers? Reading and Writing, DOI 10.1007/s11145-017-9783-8.