Should We Teach Spelling?

  • 30 April, 2015

Blast from the Past: This entry was first published on April 30, 2015, and was reissued on January 17, 2018. This issue arises again and again, but the answer doesn't seem to change. If you like this, there was a part II in the first week in May 2015. 

I often hear concerns about our students' poor spelling abilities and have been thinking about practical ways to address this issue.  Although we want to continue to steer away from memorized lists that are often not retained, I want to get your feedback about incorporating more word study in your ELA block.  I know what you are thinking~ there is no time!  I first want to hear your concerns about spelling, so we can determine a manageable way to address them. 

My word study involves challenging vocabulary from my student's self-selected books and Greek and Latin word study.  I agree my students have poor spelling abilities but I try and address this issue incidentally through my Writer's Workshop. What are your thoughts on Spelling instruction at a 5th-grade level?
Shanahan response:
            This letter raises an interesting issue, and one I don’t hear much about anymore. At one time, spelling was a big focus in the English Language Arts, and reviews of the research on spelling go back to 1919 (Ernest Horn’s classic, that sketched out a vision of the study results that would be fresh even today). 
            This letter does a good job of laying out the current beliefs of many (that formal spelling instruction doesn’t work), the concern (that students don’t spell well), a barrier to action (the amount of time available for instruction), and a stab at a solution (editing student writing during Writer’s Workshop). 
            Last year, Steve Graham and Tanya Santangelo published an excellent meta-analysis of 53 studies conducted with more than 6000 kids, grades K-12. They found, much as Horn did 96 years ago, that explicit instruction improves spelling. Teachers have long had concerns about the impact of teaching kids words and spelling patterns and the like, but the research has been consistent and clear: such teaching helps students to read and write better, and the gains that they make in spelling from such instruction is maintained over time.
            The premise that this letter is written on—the idea that memorizing words is bad and that such spelling improvement is not maintained—is simply not true, at any grade. Although young children appear to be able to make some gains in spelling without formal instruction, this is not true with older students; they only tend to improve much as a result of teaching and formal study. 
            Spelling instruction improves spelling, but it also improves reading ability (and my research from the early 1980s found a clear connection between spelling and word reading and writing for fifth-graders). The impact of instruction on spelling is moderate-to-large, and students who receive explicit spelling instruction not only out-spell those kids who don’t get such teaching, but they do better than those who deal with spelling incidentally through their writing activity in their classrooms. 
            I would argue for the study of the spelling of words, including those not selected by the kids, but selected because of the challenge or the principles of spelling that they represent. So, spelling lists can have a place in your classroom. I would also argue for the kinds of word study activities and sorting procedures promoted by Don Bear and his colleagues.  We want kids to learn to spell particular words and we want them to understand how spelling works.
            Spelling is important for a lot of reasons:
  1.  It is included in your educational standards: your community wants kids to spell well.
  2. Spelling is related to reading. If your students can spell well, they will read better. Spelling involves both an understanding of how letters and sounds relate, but it also entails an understanding of the meaningful parts of words (think of the differences in pronunciation of the spelling of words like democracy and Democrat; declaration and declare; or cats and dogs; our spelling system preserves the meaning, not the sound-symbol relationship).
  3. Spelling is related to writing. Students, when they can spell well, are more willing to use a wide vocabulary (they aren’t constrained by fear of misspelling) and they can devote their cognitive resources to formulating and communicating their ideas, rather than worrying about how to construct words.
  4. Spelling problems may draw negative social judgments. Think of Dan Quayle and what people decided about him when he couldn’t spell potato. We also know that writing quality is more likely to be judged negatively by teachers and evaluators when the writing contains misspellings.
  5. Although spell check helps to even the playing field, it won’t solve the problem entirely. If your spelling skills aren’t advanced enough the computer won’t be able to figure out what it is that you are trying to write, and many times a computer corrects such words incorrectly.
            Yes, I would teach spelling and I would invest in professional development and instructional materials that would support my teachers teaching spelling.

            How do you make spelling fit the schedule? That’s a bit more complicated and I’ll deal with that in my next blog. But until then, indeed, spelling instruction should have a place in your classroom.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Melony Dunlop Apr 06, 2017 09:00 PM

My district is currently requiring DSA and also Word Study. I like giving a simple assessment as a pretest to get a starting point for my students. But, my district requires teachers to do a VERY time consuming analysis where they give several assessments and find out exactly which spelling pattern each student knows, document it, complete a chart for each student, and then give individualized spelling lists for each student. While this sounds great in theory, the time required for implementation does not seem to be a good return for time invested in filling out all that paperwork and trying to keep it all straight. It seems to me that it is taking a good idea and making it overly complicated. I want the word study list each week to be connected to the phonics instruction that the entire class is doing. I like students having different words that are determined by their current progress but limited to two or three lists at the most that are related to the phonics skill. I like word sorts and studying the patterns.... but the paperwork and over differentiating is ridiculous in my opinion. I am willing to do time consuming and difficult if there is a great learning pay off, but I get very frustrated when required to do time consuming and overly complicated that does not have significant research proving it is a good way for me to spend my limited time. So, what does research say? Does spelling need to be that differentiated to be effective and do I need to document everything?


Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 09:02 PM

There definitely are some studies supporting the idea of differentiated spelling instruction, but such instruction should be much more efficient than what you are suggesting. I would turn to Words Their Way for some advice on that subject.


Terry van de Beek Jul 07, 2021 09:40 PM

In the Netherlands spelling is taught in different ways. To support weak spellingresults it is often suggested to practice spelling every day by dictation of words. Often called the 5 word dictation, or the daily dictation. Ofcourse it is not only writing the words, but also talk about the spellingrules that are required to write the words flawless.
However, I can't find the research to back this up. So, what is the effect of this exercise and how should you do it to get the most effect. I hope you can help me.
Thank you, Terry

James Kalb Mar 24, 2021 11:35 AM

What are your thoughts on Gentry’s “Spelling Connections?”

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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Should We Teach Spelling?


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