Teaching Spelling in the Classroom  

January 06, 2014
Do we still need to teach spelling? There are those that contend spelling is not necessary due to technologies in place that correct our spelling for us. This is far from how it was in the mid-19th century, spelling was the means by which children were taught to read. In the 21st century, however, spelling became the abandoned stepchild in the family of language arts, overlooked by federal grants such as Reading First, federal and state assessment policies, state program-adoption guidelines, publishers of comprehensive instructional programs, and the educational research community. There are many reasons for this, including the dominance of the "writer's workshop” approach to written composition, in which spelling instruction is contextualized, non-systematic, and reactive (since it often just addresses students’ errors). In addition, many assumptions about the nature of spelling—including the widespread belief that spelling is a rote visual-memory skill—are misinformed. We used to make kids write and rewrite words so that they would memorize them. We didn’t know that spelling is closely related to reading, writing, and vocabulary development, as they all rely on the same underlying language abilities.

Most of the time spelling is connected to writing. The research tells us that poor spelling negatively affects composition and the transmission of ideas. It is actually a vicious cycle where students who spell poorly also write fewer words and compose work that is low in quality. Writers who spell poorly limit themselves to words that they can spell, which limits the expression of their ideas.

Although not as obvious, the development of spelling is also connected with the development of reading. Knowledge of speech sounds and their spellings, and fluent use of this knowledge, are necessary for both word reading and spelling. Young children become better readers and spellers when explicit instruction in speech sound awareness and sound-letter correspondence is emphasized in the kindergarten and first grade curriculum.

Spelling instruction richly supports vocabulary and language development. Good spellers not only have a good sense of the sounds in words, they also have a good sense of the meaningful parts of words (e.g., un-,desir[e], -able), the roles words play in sentences (e.g., packed is a past-tense verb, but pact is a noun), and the relationships among words’ meanings that exist
in spite of differences in their sounds (e.g., image and imagination). The spellers that win spelling bees have an exceptional knowledge of vocabulary, etymology (the history of words), and parts of speech. Spelling is not just a “simple” skill. We may not all win the National Spelling Bee, but we all can benefit from knowing how spelling reflects word origin, meaning, and pronunciation.

-by Susan Evans, Professional Development Coordinator