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
WHAT IS 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
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.
HOW IS SPELLING ABILITY DEVELOPED?
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
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
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.
IMPLICATIONS FOR INSTRUCTION
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
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.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bissex, Glenda L. GNYS AT WRK: A CHILD LEARNS TO READ AND WRITE. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Chomsky, Noam, and Morris Halle. THE SOUND PATTERN OF ENGLISH. New York: Harper and Row, 1968. ED 020 511.
Frith, Uta, editor. COGNITIVE PROCESSES IN SPELLING. London and New York: Academic Press, 1980.
Hanna, Paul R., Jean S. Hanna, Richard E. Hodges, and Erwin H. Rudorf.
PHONEME-GRAPHEME CORRESPONDENCES AS CUES TO SPELLING IMPROVEMENT. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, United States Office
of Education, 1966. ED 003 321.
Henderson, Edmund H. LEARNING TO READ AND SPELL: THE CHILD'S KNOWLEDGE OF WORDS. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1981.
Hodges, Richard E. LEARNING TO SPELL. THEORY AND RESEARCH INTO PRACTICE. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills and National Council of Teachers of English, 1981. ED 202 016.
Hodges, Richard E. IMPROVING SPELLING AND VOCABULARY IN THE SECONDARY SCHOOL. THEORY AND RESEARCH INTO PRACTICE. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills and National Council of
Teachers of English, 1982. ED 218 645.
Read, Charles. CHILDREN'S CATEGORIZATION OF SPEECH SOUNDS IN ENGLISH.
National Council of Teachers of English Research Report No. 17. Urbana, IL: ERIC
Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills and National Council of Teachers
of English, 1975. ED 112 426.
Read, Charles, and Richard E. Hodges. "Spelling." In Encyclopedia of Educational
Research, 5th ed., edited by Harold Mitzel. New York: Macmillan, 1983.
Templeton, Shane. "Spelling First, Sound Later: The Relationship between Orthography
and Higher Order Phonological Knowledge in Older Students." RESEARCH IN THE
TEACHING OF ENGLISH 13 (October 1979):255-264.
Venezky, Richard L. "English Orthography: Its Graphical Structure and Its Relation to
Sounds." READING RESEARCH QUARTERLY 2 (Spring 1967):75-102.
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