Choose Your Words (and Techniques) Carefully in Spelling Instruction

When spelling is taught in ways that emphasize the patterns of the English language, it can be a beneficial use of class time. Get tips on how to choose word lists that help students learn these patterns and their exceptions.

Spelling instruction has fallen in and out of favor over the years. This has often resulted from concerns about whether spelling lessons have any benefit for students.

When spelling is taught in ways that emphasize the patterns of the English language, it can be a beneficial use of class time.

Words matter: three approaches for spelling word lists

Word List A: Landforms

1. Basin
2. Canyon
3. Desert
4. Lagoon
5. Marsh
6. Peninsula
7. Prairie
8. Reef
9. Tundra
10. Volcano

Word List B: Grade 5

1. Astronaut
2. Automatic
3. Disaster
4. Judgment
5. Knowledge
6. Mechanic
7. Oxygen
8. Photogenic
9. Surgeon
10. Symphony

Word List C: /k/ Sound

1. Cast
2. Coin
3. Actor
4. Flaky
5. Pack
6. Sticky
7. Vacuum
8. Kin
9. Stake
10. Sketch

Learning spelling patterns amid exceptions

The most common approach to teaching spelling is to use thematic lists (such as List A) or leveled lists (such as List B). These might seem appealing because they can be connected to vocabulary lessons. However, they make spelling seem arbitrary and reinforce the erroneous notion that the only way to learn to spell is to memorize the words. In addition, students would be challenged to learn the meanings of the words at the same time they are learning how to spell them.

It is better for students to work on spelling words that are already in their oral vocabularies or that are about two grade levels below their current reading level. These words should be chosen to reinforce a pattern in order to emphasize the rule-based nature of the language.

The words in List C above demonstrate the patterns for forming the /k/ sound. There are specific letter sequences that dictate when the sound is spelled with a “c,” a “k,” or the digraph “ck.”

Rather than memorizing individual words that seem to represent the same sound unpredictably, students should learn the patterns for spelling the sounds in words. These patterns are largely consistent, but there are exceptions. For example, the /k/ sound is sometimes spelled with “ch” (monarch, school), “qu” (mosquito, unique), or with only a “c” or “k” in the final position (attic, trek).

Exceptions should be treated as opportunities to discuss the different influences on our language such as other languages and word origins. In some cases, the exceptions can be explained by the combination of prefixes, roots, and suffixes. But even if the exceptions have to be memorized by students, they are far fewer than the number of words that conform to the spelling rule.

The issue is not if spelling should be taught. The issue is whether or not spelling instruction is implemented effectively — by reinforcing the patterns in the language.

About the author

Deborah K. Reed, Ph.D., is the director of the Iowa Reading Research Center and on the faculty of the University of Iowa College of Education. She has published extensively and continues to research methods for improving reading instruction and assessment, particularly for vulnerable populations.

This article originally appeared on the Iowa Reading Research Center blog. The Iowa Reading Research Center (IRRC) applies current research for the development and dissemination of best practices in literacy.

Deborah K. Reed, Iowa Reading Research Center (2016)

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