Spelling—What works? What doesn’t work?

Because no national student tests focus on spelling only, experts can’t say how widespread spelling problems are.  But ask any teacher, and she will tell you many, many children learn to spell with difficulty or depend on phonetic spellings.


If you are the parent or teacher of such a child, what do you do?

Here’s what doesn’t work.

  • Teaching spelling rules rarely works. When students see a worksheet or test on one aspect of spelling, they can do okay.  That’s because they are focusing on one rule of spelling.  But if you test on several rules, or wait a week to retest on one rule, a poor speller makes numerous mistakes.  And if you ask the child to write a few sentences with words which use some of these spelling rules, spelling errors abound.  It’s as if you never taught the rules.
  • Having the child memorize often used words can work if the word is simple. But not always.  Many children spell “went” as “whent,” or confuse “then” and “than,” or use “b” for “d,” or spell “was” as “saw.”  These children might have great visual memories for colors and landmarks, but not for spelling.  Experts think this is because the brain’s “wiring” for spelling is part of the language processing part of the brain.  Poor spelling is one sign of underlying language processing problems.
  • Teaching word parts—prefixes, suffixes and roots—can help a child guess at the meaning of words, but it doesn’t help much with spelling. The child will say the word in her mind and spell it the way it sounds to her.  “Useful” might come out “youzful.”

Here’s what does work.

  • Accommodations, especially allowing the child to use electronic writing equipment, reduce some but not all spelling errors. Spellcheck alerts the child that a word has been misspelled.  She can click on the misspelled word and the correct spelling appears.  She clicks on the correct spelling and eliminates the problem.  You might think:  but then she will never learn correct spelling.    But how about you?  When you make a spelling error on your computer or phone, don’t you click and replace?  So why shouldn’t a student?  Because of ubiquitous technology, the same rules which applied to us when we were students shouldn’t necessarily apply to students today.  The SAT allows calculators.  It didn’t when I took the test.
  • Teachers who limit the number of points off for spelling errors would lessen the stress on poor spellers. What if teachers would limit the percentage of a writing grade devoted to spelling to 5%, no matter how many words are misspelled?  Spelling is a way of delivering a message, the same as sentence structure and vocabulary and type faces.  If teachers would focus more on the content of writing, on its organization and message, and focus less on spelling and handwriting, poor spelling would be less of an issue.
  • If a child focuses on learning the spelling of the 100 or 200 most commonly used words in English, and ignores the rest, her spelling would improve. If those “most used” words were posted in the classroom as a universal word bank available to any child any time, spelling would improve.  Or those words could be offered to each child in a little booklet which the child could keep in her desk and refer to at any time. Why not?  Do you remember every one of your relative’s phone numbers anymore?  Or do you let your smart phone remember for you?  Is it “cheating” for you to press a name rather than to key in a  ten-digit phone number?  Then why can’t a child look up a spelling word?

English is a tough language to spell–maybe the toughest.  So many rules, so many exemptions.  Let’s take away some of the energy that goes into spelling correctly and put it into more important skills, like writing well.

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