Spelling: Connecting the Pieces

Ruth McQuirter Scott, Ed.D.

Spelling is one topic that never seems to leave the educational scene. Our attitudes toward the teaching of spelling shift back and forth depending on the prevailing educational philosophy of the day. As a result, there has been very little consistency in our instructional practices related to spelling.

The Ontario Curriculum in Language is not much help in this area. Teachers looking to the document for guidance in planning their classroom spelling programs are met with general statements such as "Spell a wide range of commonly used words correctly;" "Identify some generalizations about spelling and use them to spell difficult unfamiliar words;" and "Use a variety of resources to spell difficult unfamiliar words."

What is a teacher to do?

Fortunately, a respectable body of research exists to provide some solid guidelines about how children learn to spell and the instructional practices that best foster normal spelling development. Using these findings, teachers and schools can make more informed decisions about the teaching of spelling.

This article presents an overview of these research findings. In the next issue of Voice I will outline what these conclusions mean for creating a spelling program that will meet the needs of your students.

How Children Learn to Spell

Research since the 1980s (Henderson; Gentry; Templeton) has shown that most children learn to spell in predictable ways. These can be described in broad developmental stages. Children begin by learning about the sound features of language - the sounds in words, how they are sequenced, and the links between letters and the sounds they represent. They learn there are often several ways to spell a given sound and that words can be grouped into word families.

Children gradually move away from a mainly sound-based approach to spelling and begin to see patterns in written language that are deeper than sound. For example, a child in the late primary grades may spell the word jumped as jumpt because she or he is simply sounding the word out. As the child learns that -ed is a marker meaning the past tense, she or he will switch to spelling the word conventionally. The same shift occurs in spelling the word buses. When the child realizes that s or es added to the end of a word signals that the word is plural, she or he will no longer spell the word phonetically, as in busez. In both examples, a meaning cue takes precedence over sound.

As children move through the junior and intermediate divisions, their understanding of spelling concepts broadens to include other structural patterns such as possessives, contractions, and compound words. They learn to spell longer words through the combining of base words with prefixes and suffixes (multi- + culture + al).

Throughout the stages of spelling development children also learn to use a variety of strategies for spelling irregular words. There tends to be a developmental progression from sound strategies, such as sounding words out, to the use of analogies, or spelling new words on the basis of words they already know. For example, a student may be able to spell tight by relating it to fight.

Visual strategies, which involve creating a clear picture of the word in the brain, become particularly important for older students who face longer words that can't be sounded out. These strategies are also useful for words borrowed from other languages, such as cappuccino, since these words often reflect the spelling patterns of the language of origin, rather than English. Because of the complexity of the English spelling system it is no wonder that research shows students in the upper grades still need support in becoming mature spellers. Spelling development is a lifelong process that involves comprehending the English spelling system from the surface level of sound to the more abstract and complex patterns of structure and meaning.

Instruction or Osmosis?

If spelling development seems to follow predictable patterns, can we safely assume most children will learn to spell naturally through experiences of reading and writing? Absolutely not. Current research (Cramer; Fountas & Pinnell; Gentry) strongly suggests the need for planned, systematic instruction in spelling throughout the elementary grades.

A rich literacy environment in which children see words in print and experiment with words through writing is crucial, but it does not in itself guarantee the coverage of important spelling concepts. Students need plenty of scaffolding to move from one stage of spelling development to the next. More than anything, they need help in transferring this knowledge to everyday writing.

There is no common agreement on how the formal study of spelling should be conducted. Many schools commit to a published spelling program that gradually builds on concepts from grade to grade. If the program follows the developmental sequence of learning to spell, and its authors have a thorough grounding in linguistics, then the challenge of covering important spelling concepts is met. This approach also offers relative consistency from grade to grade within a school.

It is important to supplement the word lists in a published program with words from a variety of other sources, such as thematic lists, high frequency words, words selected from student writing or words displayed on Word Walls. Some teachers prefer to use these sources rather than a published text for their formal spelling instruction, and to devote a block of time each day for focused word study.

For teacher-directed word study to be effective, however, teachers must be knowledgeable about the English spelling system and the stages through which children pass in becoming mature spellers. They also need to use a range of instructional strategies that will allow children to examine words on the levels of sound, structure, and meaning. Simply having students memorize lists of current words will do little to promote lasting growth in spelling. Learning to spell the word centipede in a unit on insects may be useful at the time, but if this approach doesn't also include the systematic study of spelling principles and strategies, the pay-off will be minimal.

Teacher-designed approaches also require school-wide monitoring. This ensures appropriate spelling concepts are covered in each grade and there is a systematic building on strategies and concepts from one grade to another.

Does Spelling Stand Alone?

Although research stresses the importance of systematic study of spelling principles, this does not mean that spelling should remain separate from other areas of language. In fact, it is crucial that teachers help their students link spelling with reading, oral language and writing throughout the school day.

When teachers complain that students have difficulty transferring words and concepts learned during '"spelling time" to their writing, it is often because little attention has been paid to reinforcing what has been learned in everyday contexts. Most students need practice and reminders to apply new words, patterns and strategies in situations apart from formal spelling instruction.

Does Spelling Enhance Other Language Skills?

There is ample evidence that learning to spell has direct pay-offs in oral vocabulary, reading, and writing. Research with children in grade one who were encouraged to use invented spelling in their writing showed that these children were ahead in reading. The process of thinking about patterns in language for spelling helped the children to approach reading more systematically and to apply their knowledge of phonics to the decoding of unfamiliar words.

As older children learn how long words are often built from the combinations of base words, prefixes, and suffixes, they are better able to decode these words in their reading and understand them orally. This knowledge also leads to improvements in their writing, since they are not restricted to using simple one and twosyllable words to express themselves. In this sense, spelling is an integral part of word study and both reinforces, and is reinforced by, other language areas.

What Now?

The research findings highlighted in this article can form the basis of an effective school-wide approach to spelling. If you would like to pursue these findings in more detail, the references list key books and articles in the field of spelling. In the next issue of Voice, I will provide specific suggestions for putting these principles into practice.


Early Reading Strategy: The Report of the Expert Panel on Early Reading in Ontario. (2003). Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Education.

Bear, D., Invernizzi, M., Johnston, E, & Templeton, S. 2000. Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Cramer. 1998. The Spelling Connection: Integrating Reading, Writing, and Spelling Instruction . New York: The Guilford Press.

Cunningham, P., & Cunningham, J. 1992. Making Words: Enhancing the Invented Spelling-Decoding Connection . The Reading Teacher, 46(2), 106-115.

Gentry, R. 1993. Teaching kids to spell . Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Henderson, E. 1990. Teaching Spelling (2nd ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

McQuirter Scott, R., & Siamon, S. 2004. Spelling: Connecting the Pieces . Toronto: Gage Learning.

Pinnell, G., & Fountas, I. 1998. Word Matters: Teaching Phonics and Spelling in the Reading/Writing Classroom . Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Templeton, S., & Morris, D. 1999. Questions Teachers Ask About Spelling. Reading Research Quarterly , January/February/March, 102-112.

Ruth McQuirter Scott is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education, Brock University. She is co-author of Spelling: Connecting the Pieces (2004), Gage/Nelson.