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Teaching of Spelling

The Nature of the Spelling System, A Brief History of Spelling Instruction in the United States

Spelling has traditionally been considered to be a component of the English/language arts curriculum. Among most educators and the public, spelling retains its traditional definition: "the knowledge and application of the conventional written representation of words in the process of writing, and the instruction necessary to develop this knowledge." During the last few years of the twentieth century, however, many psychologists and educators extended this definition to include spelling knowledge, meaning an understanding of how the written form of words corresponds to their spoken counterparts and underlies the ability to decode words during the process of reading and to encode words during the process of writing. Because of this insight into the role of spelling knowledge in reading as well as in writing, spelling research and instruction were generating considerable interest and focus in the field of literacy at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The Nature of the Spelling System

English spelling balances a demand to spell units of sounds consistently from word to word with a demand to spell units of meaning consistently from word to word. In a large proportion of the words encountered in print beginning in the intermediate school years, however, the balance tilts most often toward consistent representation of meaning–"visual identity of word parts takes precedence over letter-sound simplicity" (Venezky, p. 197). Spellings that appear to be anomalous at the level of spelling to-sound correspondences are usually logical when considered from the perspective of spelling-to-meaning correspondences in which the spelling visually retains the meaning relationships among words–crumb has a silent b to preserve its visualidentity with crumble, in which the b is pronounced; the second syllable in mental is spelled -al rather than -le,-el, or -ile in order to retain its identity with the related word mentality, in which the spelling of the second syllable is clear and unambiguous; and autumn is spelled with a final silent n to preserve its visual identity with autumnal, in which the n is pronounced. "Words that are related in meaning are often related in spelling as well, despite changes in sound" (Templeton, p. 194).

Though the visual preservation of meaning is the most striking feature of English spelling, the manner in which sound is represented is more logical than often assumed, particularly when the position of a sound within a syllable is considered. For example, the sound /ch/ is always spelled with the letters ch at the beginning of a word, never tch. At the end of words, on the other hand, both spellings occur–usually determined by the sound that they follow. After a long vowel sound, /ch/ is usually spelled ch (poach, bea); after a short vowel sound, /ch/ is usually spelled tch (match, pitch). In two-syllable words, this logic occurs between syllables as well: A short vowel sound followed by a single consonant requires the consonant to be doubled before another syllable beginning with a vowel (sitting, happy) while a long vowel sound followed by a single consonant does not require this doubling (siting, pilot). Exceptions do exist, of course (consider rich, much and habit, cabin) but these are few in relation to the consistency with which the patterns apply. As learners progress, they may learn that these exceptions become considerably fewer because they are explained in terms of the history of the word (the language from which it came), and by the tendency for visual preservation of meaning to override a consistent representation of sound.

A Brief History of Spelling Instruction in the United States

From colonial times in America and continuing well into the nineteenth century, the teaching of beginning reading and the teaching of spelling were unified. Spelling was in fact the way in which beginning reading was taught. Instruction began with students learning the order and names of the letters of the alphabet; then individual sounds were blended to form simple syllables of the consonant-vowel and vowel-consonant forms; and finally words for reading were learned by spelling each word orally and then pronouncing it. The spelling books of Noah Webster (1758–1843), though not the first to be published in the United States, were the first that emphasized American pronunciation and spelling (most of which was determined by Webster himself, who would also publish the first dictionary of American English). Part I of Webster's Grammatical Institute of the English Language (1783) addressed spelling (Parts II and III addressed grammar and reading, respectively); immortalized ever after as the "old blue-backed speller," it was reissued as The American Spelling Book (1788), revised (1803), and revised again and retitled The Elementary Spelling Book (1829). Webster's lasting influence was the presentation of words in lessons according to frequency of occurrence in spoken and written language, as well as by type of spelling pattern.

By the 1840s the role of spelling books narrowed from that of ushering children into reading to that of focusing only on spelling (orthography) and pronunciation (orthoepy). Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth, spelling retained a separate niche in the language arts curriculum, embodied in separate spelling textbooks, or basals. Although the manner in which spelling was taught was criticized over the years, and on occasion the very necessity of teaching spelling as a separate subject was questioned, most classroom teachers embraced the necessity of a formal emphasis on spelling.

Though spelling basals continued to be published throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, the move towards integrating the reading and language arts curriculum resulted in the inclusion of spelling as a component in reading basal programs. The amount of time and emphasis on spelling as a subject decreased. To the degree that spelling was directly addressed, spelling words were pulled from reading selections with little or no emphasis on common patterns; often, these words were also new vocabulary words as well. Within the context of a whole language philosophy, spelling was often addressed during writing instruction–at point of need, on an incidental basis. Though some educational publishers offered new spelling programs during the 1980s, these programs did not enjoy a wide popularity until the late 1990s. Most of these basal programs organized their content in a scope and sequence that followed a developmental sequence, while, in notable contrast with series in previous years, some added explicit treatment of the spelling/meaning connection. During the 1990s a considerable number of resource books intended for classroom teachers were published focusing on the teaching of spelling or word study (e.g. Bear et al. 1996; Pinnel and Fountas 1998).

Spelling Development: Learning and Instruction

Research investigating the development of spelling knowledge has shown that knowledge about the nature and function of spelling begins to develop with the learning of the alphabet and may continue into college, though spelling instruction seldom extends into the middle grades and beyond. Young children's explicit understanding of how the spelling system works is based on the expectation that letters represent sounds in a spatial/temporal left-to-right match-up. Later, knowledge of the interactive relationship between sound and position is acquired, and later still, knowledge of the role that meaning plays. Most English/language arts educators concur with research that supports the importance of engaging students in as much reading and writing as possible and in encouraging young children to apply their knowledge of the alphabet and of letter/sound relationships in their writing. There is lack of agreement, however, concerning the degree and the nature of attention allocated to spelling instruction apart from ongoing reading and writing activities. Traditionally, the two common perceptions regarding how students may learn to spell have been either (1) rote memorization through repetitive practice or (2) acquisition through more natural engagements with reading and writing. In this latter conception, the need for the skill should be apparent to learners, therefore they will be motivated to acquire knowledge of conventional spellings. Most studies that have addressed this issue, however, support the need for students to examine words apart from the more natural contexts of reading and writing. In contrast with repetitive, low-level activities, however, this examination should include reading and writing the words in contexts that involve students in comparing and contrasting words in an active search for patterns. Although both the act of reading and the act of proofreading one's own writing for spelling errors involve the learner in the application of spelling knowledge, neither act–individually or in concert–appears to engage the learner in the types of explicit attention and thinking necessary for the abstraction of the logical patterns in the spelling system. For most older students (as well as adults), the role of meaning in the spelling system does not become apparent simply through reading and writing.

Advances in the assessment of spelling knowledge allow teachers to determine more effectively and efficiently the range of spelling ability among the students in their classroom, and thus to plan instruction accordingly. Such assessment may include spelling inventories and analysis of students' writing. Selection and organization of words for examination should be based on the developmental appropriateness of the words, the type (s) of spelling pattern they represent, and their familiarity in reading. In the primary grades, exploration will be directed towards the discovery of commonalities at the alphabetic, within-syllable pattern, and later between-syllable patterns and morphological level (i.e., simple affixes and base words). For example, younger students who are moving from the beginning to the transitional phase of literacy development may compare and contrast words with a short vowel pattern, such as grin and trim, with words with a long vowel pattern, such as line and time. In the intermediate grades and beyond, exploration will be directed primarily towards extending between-syllable pattern knowledge, and then toward developing spelling knowledge in the context of more advanced morphological, or meaning, relationships. Older students may thus examine the spelling/meaning relationships in the known words muscle and muscular (thus remembering that muscle has a c in it because they hear the pronounced in the related word muscular) and apply this knowledge to the unfamiliar word muscularity (because of the similar spelling they realize it is related in meaning to muscle and muscular; it also provides a clue to the spelling of the /er/ sound in muscular).

In the first edition of the Encyclopedia of Education (1971) Ralph M. Williams discussed the logical nature of the role of English spelling, noting the role of pattern, morphology (meaning), and etymology (word history). He noted the value of encouraging an inductive approach to instruction. The field has seen Williams's conclusions supported in the subsequent three decades and has added these additional insights:

  1. Developmental research has provided a stronger foundation for crafting a scope and sequence for spelling instruction; there is a better understanding of when to teach which particular aspects of the spelling system.
  2. Spelling knowledge plays a larger role in literacy than previously thought; it is the foundation for decoding words in reading as well as for encoding words in writing.
  3. From an instructional standpoint, there is a clearer understanding of how the relationship between spelling and meaning at the intermediate grades and beyond can be developed and extended so that the areas of spelling and vocabulary–traditionally separate in the language arts curriculum–can be effectively blended.

These insights lead to the conclusion that spelling, as a topic, is no longer limited to being simply a skill in the writing process or an aspect of attention to the conventions of print. Rather, the range and focus of spelling instruction now impacts a broader terrain than it has in the past.

In order for students at all levels to arrive at the understanding of the role of pattern and meaning in the spelling system, their teachers must be knowledgeable about this system. In this regard, Hughes and Searle observed in 1997: "If we teachers do not believe that spelling has logical, negotiable patterns, how can we hope to help children develop that insight?" (p. 133). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, therefore, there is a renewed emphasis on developing teachers' knowledge base about the nature and structure of spoken and written language–and the relationships between the two. Such a foundation may help teachers in turn develop in their students a conscious attitude and habit of search that reflect the expectation that, most of the time, the nature and occurrence of sound and meaning patterns in spelling are logical and negotiable.


BEAR, DONALD R.; INVERNIZZI, MARCIA; and TEMPLETON, SHANE. 1996. Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

CUMMINGS, DONALD W. 1988. American English Spelling. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

HANNA, PAUL R.; HANNA, JEAN S.; HODGES, RICHARD E.; and RUDORF, HUGH. 1966. Phoneme-Grapheme Correspondences as Cues to Spelling Improvement. Washington, DC: U.S. Office of Education Cooperative Research.

HENDERSON, EDMUND H. 1990. Teaching Spelling, 2nd edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

HUGHES, MARGARET, and SEARLE, DENNIS. 1997. The Violent E and Other Tricky Sounds: Learning to Spell From Kindergarten Through Grade 6. York, ME: Stenhouse.

MATHEWS, MITFORD M. 1966. Teaching to Read, Historically Considered. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

MOATS, LOUISA. 2000. Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers. Baltimore: Brookes.

PINNELL, GAY S., and FOUNTAS, IRENE. 1998. Word Matters: Teaching Phonics and Spelling in the Reading Writing Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

TEMPLETON, SHANE. 1991. "Teaching and Learning the English Spelling System: Reconceptualizing Method and Purpose." Elementary School Journal 92:183–199.

TEMPLETON, SHANE, and MORRIS, DARRELL. 2000. "Spelling." In Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. 3, ed. Michael Kamil, Peter Mosenthal, P. David Pearson, and Rebecca Barr. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

VENEZKY, RICHARD L. 1999. The American Way of Spelling: The Structure and Origins of American English Orthography. New York: Guilford Press.


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