Spelling             [ Vocabulary ]   |   [ Vocabulary Instruction and Reading Comprehension ]

ERIC Identifier: ED250695
Publication Date: 1984-00-00
Author: Hodges, Richard E.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills Urbana IL.

Spelling instruction in American schools has traditionally proceeded on the basis that memorization of needed words is the most productive route to spelling ability. Indeed, spelling as a school subject has long been regarded by society as a subject whose mastery symbolizes the values that diligence and hard work play in achievement. This view of spelling reinforces the belief that memorization is not only a necessary but an appropriate means of acquiring spelling skills.

However, recent findings of researchers who have studied how children learn to spell and new views on the nature of the English writing system suggest additional ways to teach spelling.


Spelling is the process of converting oral language to visual form by placing graphic symbols on some writing surface. Because writing systems, or orthographies, are inventions, they can and do vary with respect to how a particular language is graphically represented. The Chinese language, for example, uses a system of graphic characters that represent complete words or ideas.)

The writing system used in the majority of the world's langages, however, is alphabetic in structure; that is, the graphemes, or graphic (visual) characters, represent speech sounds, ideally with a unique grapheme for each speech sound. English orthography is based on this principle. But, on the surface at least, our written code appears to be erratic, even untrustworthy, in its relationship to the spoken language. As a result, mastering English spelling has been regarded as an unnecessarily time-consuming and arduous task.

In the past several years, linguists and others interested in English orthography have helped to clarify the actual relationship between our writing system and the spoken language. Their studies have revealed that English orthography, while appearing quite irregular on the surface, is considerably more logical than it appears when examined at deeper, more complex levels of language.

Their work reveals that such factors as the relationships among letters within words, the ways prefixes and suffixes are appended to roots, and the ways words related in meaning remain related in spelling despite sound changes (for example, derive-derivative-derivation) are fundamental properties of the orthography.


In addition to significant gains in our knowledge of English orthography, we now better understand the nature of spelling ability from studies of how young children learn to spell.

One of the first major studies to examine how children learn to spell was conducted by Charles Read, a linguist now at the University of Wisconsin (Read 1971, 1975a, 1975b). Read looked at the way in which children four to eight years old used their knowledge of English phonology (the sounds in spoken English) to spell words. Among his subjects were approximately twenty preschoolers who were able to identify and name the letters of the alphabet and to relate the letter names to the sounds of words. These children then "invented" spellings for words that they wrote or constructed by arranging movable letters.

Read found that even at an early age children are able to detect the phonetic characteristics of words that English spelling represents. More interesting, although these young children misspelled most of the words they attempted, with minor variation they misspelled the words in the same ways. For example, children typically spelled the sounds of words with the alphabet letters whose names were like those sounds: bot for boat, fas for face, lade for lady.

Read's seminal work disclosed that children, even very young children, try to make sense of the world around them by using the information that is available to them; in this instance, they applied their intuitive knowledge of the sound structure of English to spelling. Moreover, Read demonstrated that the judgments of children about relationships between speech and writing are qualitatively different from those made by adults. In short, learning to write, like learning to speak, is a developmental process.

But what about the spelling strategies of older students? One examination of spelling development among youngsters in later school years was undertaken by Templeton (1979). To determine the extent to which knowledge of graphic structure contributes to spelling ability, he studied the abilities of sixth-, eighth-, and tenth-graders to construct and spell derived forms of real and nonsense words. Templeton found considerable evidence that spelling ability does not rely solely on skills for relating sound and spelling, nor upon rote memory. Rather, both phonological knowlege and visual knowlege about words are brought into play when older students spell, the visual knowlege having been acquired, of course, only from extensive prior experiences with reading and writing.

These observations do not refute the fact that word memory plays an important role in spelling ability. But, just as we now know more about the complex structure of our written code, we also now know that spelling ability involves more than memorizing the spelling of individual words. Researchers' observations reveal that spelling ability is a developmental achievement gained through interaction over time with the orthography in both writing and reading. With experience, children learn much about the general structural properties of English words--about their sounds, graphemes, roots, affixes, and so on. Learning to spell, in short, involves learning about words over a long duration and in a variety of contexts.


Among the several important insights that have been gained about the nature of spelling ability, perhaps the most important is the realization that this ability involves more than word memory skills. Learning to spell involves learning about written language in everyday use and about the interrelationships of components of words as reflected in the orthography.

We need to be aware that students contribute actively to their own learning. Accordingly, we need to provide them with numerous and frequent opportunities to explore English spelling in the context of daily writing and reading activities. Although formal spelling study has a legitimate place in the school curriculum, every interaction with written language both in and out of spelling class provides students with opportunities to gain new information about the structure and uses of the written code. The foundation of spelling instruction is the study of written language itself.

This Digest was prepared for the ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills, 1984 and with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under OERI contract. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or the Department of Education. ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.


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