Should We Teach Spelling? Part II

  • 07 May, 2015

            My last blog entry was written in response to a fifth-grade teacher who wanted to know about spelling instruction. Although teachers at her school thought that formal spelling instruction, like working with word lists, was a bad idea, it turns out that such teaching is beneficial to kids. The same can be said for studying word structure and its implications for spelling, pronunciation, and meaning.

            The best reviews of this research have consistently found that spelling instruction leads to spelling improvement, but it also leads to improvements in reading and writing, so it can be quite important.
            A part of the original letter that I did not include in last week’s entry:
I agree my students have poor spelling abilities but I try and address this issue incidentally through my Writer's Workshop.  I would be one to argue the time issue as I would see a separate spelling program as one more thing I must fit into my short 75- minute block. What are your thoughts on Spelling instruction at a 5th grade level?
            In other words, she might be open to dealing with spelling more directly (and research finds that explicit systematic spelling instruction outperforms this more incidental Writer’s Workshop kind of approach), but she—like many teachers—is struggling with how to get it all in; a 75-minute English language arts period is pretty small.
            In fact, it is so small, that I’m unsure that I could get spelling shoehorned into the mix of responsibilities, standards, and requirements. I start from the premise that students, to reach the levels of literacy that we want for them, are going to have to have about 120 minutes per day of reading and writing work, not 75 or 90.  (In the primary grades, or with older students with seriously impaired reading, I’ll go as high as 180 minutes per day).
            That doesn’t mean that the ELA period has to be more than 75 minutes, but it sure means that some of the essential work kids need to do with (1) words, (2) fluency, (3) comprehension/ learning from text, and (4) writing are going to have to take place beyond the ELA classroom. The idea that the math, social studies, and science teachers aren’t going to have to address any of these issues is a pipe dream.
            I devote a quarter of the time to each of these critical areas of concern. That would mean 30 minutes in this case would be devoted to word knowledge (notice I didn’t say “word study”—that is an activity, not an outcome). I’m saying that I would spend approximately 30 minutes per day, or 2.5 hours per week, working on increasing students ability to read words (decoding), to understand word meanings (vocabulary), and to spelling (which relates both to decoding and vocabulary).
            To accomplish that, in this case, would require expanding these students opportunities to learn to read and write throughout the school day. This is best achieved by having the teachers who share the kids come to some agreements about who will do what. If we are going to spend 2.5 hours per week on student writing, how much of that will take place during the social studies class? If we are going to spend 2.5 hours per week analyzing words and learning vocabulary, how much of that will come in science? And so on. (Past experience tells me it is best to make these commitments by the week rather than the day).
            Once that is determined, then it becomes possible to see who needs to do what. Perhaps, students will study vocabulary formally in some other classes, freeing you up to focus on the spelling issues. 
            Additional instructional guidance: 
1.     Always link spelling with either phonics or vocabulary meaning rather than as a stand-alone concern. Thus, if you’re a primary grade teacher and you’re teaching phonics, then make spelling, and not just reading, a targeted outcome. Have kids trying to write words, not just reading them. And, if you are teaching older students who have largely mastered their decoding skills, then focus the spelling work on word interpretation (structural analysis, Greek and Latin roots, affixes, and the like), and  having them writing the words based on their knowledge of spelling and not just reading them, makes sense. 
2.     Never spend more than 15 minutes on spelling per day. 
3.     Formal spelling instruction does not have to take place everyday; 2-3 times per week is probably sufficient at Grade 5.
4.     Don’t hesitate to include spelling work as part of homework (spelling assignments can be easily constructed—more easily than can be done with more complex work, and parents can help with spelling, even when they can’t help with other work).
5.     Memorization is important in spelling, and drill-and-practice can play a small but valuable role. But do NOT have the students writing the spelling words 10 times each as practice. That doesn’t help with memorization (as I can copy something by rote without learning it), and it seems more like a punishment than an assignment aimed at learning. Do have students trying to write a word from memory (take a picture of the word with your eyes, and then with the word removed try to write it--practice until you can).

            I would strongly recommend the purchase of a book like Words their Way of The Spelling Connection to guide your instruction in this area. Lots of good advice and guidance there.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Mary Apr 06, 2017 09:03 PM

SRA's Spelling Mastery program which is unique because it is written by a linguist takes students through the progression of phonetic spelling, rule and pattern based spelling, and morphographic emphasis. Time after time I've seen students with learning disabilities in reading who had this program outspell their gen ed counterparts after two years. 15 minutes a day is enough, but it must be every day. It's been interesting to note, following the AIMSweb data that while reading skills don't deteriorate when a student leaves school for a more ineffective one (they come back at the same skill level), spelling skills rapidly deteriorate when instruction stops or is ineffective in another school. Spelling Mastery emphasizes oral spelling and writing and students are grouped by ability which usually but not always coincides with their reading level. The program assumes that teachers will teach rules to mastery (when you change y to i......or the floss rule) which students need to metacognitively know at a fluency level in order to apply them without pausing for thought and interrupting their writing discourse. Strong teachers do this, but weaker ones, just move through the curriculum. Currently I'm working in a special ed charter school where students have typically been kicked out of gen ed schools and lag far behind. In most classes using Spelling Mastery, the students' AIMSweb ROI (rate of improvement) indicates that they make 95% more improvement than their peers who started out the year where they did. And in comparison to before the program started you can read their writing!!


Lisa M. Sensale Yazdian Apr 06, 2017 09:04 PM

Kathy Ganske's Developmental Spelling Analysis is also a great tool.


Jean Sep 11, 2022 02:42 PM

There has been some pushback in our district with using Word Their Way. Staff claims that it’s not backed by science because it’s inquiry based and uses analytic rather than synthetic approaches. What are your thoughts?

Timothy Shanahan Sep 11, 2022 05:26 PM


Research has found no statistical difference from the results drawn from synthetic or analytic phonics programs. Look at the National Reading Panel Report on that. More recently there have been claims that synthetic was more effective than analytic with newer research, but those differences were confounded with the amount of instruction provided (in other words, they are finding that more synthetic is better than less analytic -- which is not convincing evidence). I'm a big fan of many of the elements in Words Their Way (though there are definitely circumstances when I prefer synthetic).


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Should We Teach Spelling? Part II


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