Spelling is one of the most important and most forgotten aspects of literacy development. In many classroom settings, it is looked at as an afterthought, and instruction is limited to rote spelling drills and memorization (Birsh, 2005).
What’s more concerning is that we do not know how many of our students are struggling with spelling, and to what standard, because state assessments rarely include a direct measure of spelling competence.
The truth is that learning to read, write, and spell all help reinforce each other. Moreover, learning to spell enhances reading, writing, and literacy skills for young children in elementary school.
By learning the rules of spelling, students are able to develop a deeper understanding of the English language. They’re able to develop skills such as:
- Phonics & Phonetics
- Orthography (conventional spelling rules, grammar, punctuation)
- Morphology (prefixes, suffixes, base word analysis)
While it can seem complex at times, the English spelling system is actually surprisingly logical and predictable. In fact, only about 4% of all English words are truly irregular. Half of all English words can be spelled just on the basis of letter-sound correspondence. Another 36 percent can be spelled accurately except for one speech sound. While 14 percent are spelled with two or more unexpected patterns, they can typically be explained by looking at the word’s morphology or etymology.
When all is said and done, approximately 87% of English words are reliable to read and spell if orthographic patterns have been mastered (Hanna et al., 1966).
However, that’s not to say students will develop important spelling skills as a product of learning to read and write. Research indicates that learning to spell is a more complicated process than learning to read. It requires direct, explicit instruction, just like reading.
Without that direct and explicit spelling instruction, many children will struggle to spell (and write) even if their reading is at or above grade level (Brady & Moats, 1997).
Spelling and Reading
Research has shown that “spelling and reading build and rely on the same mental representation of a word. Knowing the spelling of a word makes the representation of it sturdy and accessible for fluent reading.” (Snow et al., 2005).
While children can memorize how to spell a few dozen words, they will eventually begin to struggle if they do not understand the relationship between the sounds (phonemes) and letters (graphemes) in words.
Words are not visually distinctive (i.e. car, can, cane), so learning to spell requires direct, explicit instruction. The knowledge about symbols, speech sounds, and meaning actually supports the memory of whole words and helps with reading.
So, in addition to continuing to learn the rules of spelling and orthography, students begin to develop a deeper understanding of the English language. The instruction can include:
- Meanings of roots, prefixes, and suffixes
- Families of related words
- Historical development of the English language
- Language of origin
This sort of word study enhances vocabulary development and facilitates word recognition and reading comprehension. It enables students to look at any new word from the angles of sound, syntax, language of origin, and meaning.
Spelling and Writing
Just like reading, there is a strong relationship between spelling and writing, emphasizing the importance of spelling further. Specifically, poor spelling greatly affects a student’s ability to write efficiently and effectively.
If a child is spending too much time and valuable cognitive resources thinking about how to spell, they are taking away from higher-level aspects of composition and comprehension.
How to Teach Spelling
If you think about it, writing can be much more of a juggling act than reading. Students must use orthography, semantics, syntax, and discourse organization skills.
The goal is for students to be able to deploy those skills automatically. By achieving that, writers can keep track of the topic, organization, word choice, and audience needs.
When a writer who struggles with spelling is tackling an assignment, it’s not uncommon that they restrict their writing to words they can spell. That results in a loss of verbal power and the individual losing their train of thought attempting to spell words.
Spelling and writing are integral parts of literacy instruction and must be included systematically and explicitly in any literacy program. Explicit spelling and writing instruction is even more important for students with dyslexia or other reading difficulties.
And for those who argue that spell-check is any sort of alternative, it isn’t quite that simple. Students who really struggle with spelling do not always produce close enough approximations to the word for spell-check to come up with the correct suggestion. All-in-all, spell-check can’t replace the importance of spelling.
So, Why Is Spelling Important?
An important thing to remember when it comes to spelling instruction is that it’s not the age of the student, it is the stage of their development. Students should not be forced to memorize spelling patterns but should be taught in a systematic, sequential format.
Spelling assessments that focus on rote memorization and random words are not effective. Instead, spelling assessments should focus on concepts that were explicitly taught. They should only be spelling words that correlate with their skill level in phonics, phonological awareness, orthography, and morphology.
It’s also important that educators know when to correct spelling and when to allow for inventive spelling based on the student’s understanding of phonemes and graphemes.
Sign up for our LIVE virtual Orton-Gillingham training! We are now offering half-day, evening, and weekend options to best fit your schedule.
The IMSE approach allows teachers to incorporate the five components essential to an effective reading program into their daily lessons: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.
The approach is based on the Orton-Gillingham methodology and focuses on explicit, direct instruction that is sequential, structured, and multi-sensory.
It is IMSE’s mission that all children must have the ability to read to fully realize their potential. We are committed to providing teachers with the knowledge and tools to prepare future minds.