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