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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Should We Teach Spelling? Part 1

May 1, 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?

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 mis-corrects such words.

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 post. But until then, indeed, spelling instruction should have a place in your classroom.


I taught 3rd grade for 29 years. We had a variety of Spelling programs over that time period. Most programs connected weekly Spelling words to stories in Reading program, & a phonics "rule" . A few sight words were added to the list each week. My final evaluation is that some people are born with the ability to spell, & others are not. Perhaps the "teaching" of spelling helps some, but I didn't observe that. Of course, the exceptions were students whose parents were actively involved in the whole education process, & reviewed words, daily, with their children.

Yes, yes, yes. Please teach spelling, but if you choose to teach spelling, please do it with a correct understanding of how our orthography is actually structured.

I agree often my daughter's spelling list is a list of 10 unrelated words, which if only learnt for a test will be forgotten.
I have taught all grades ( in 5 different countries on three continents) and put together spelling lists for those grades too. In general my lists contain 15 words for the most able, 10 for the next group and 5 for those who struggle the most. The 15 words are broken down into 5 words that have been marked incorrect in their written assignments, so they are personal and meaningful for them, 5 from the phonic / prefix/ digraph / blend/ word work we have been looking at that week and 5 from the hfw ( high frequency/ tricky words list) this is scaled down for the next ability and then again for the least able.
When they enter the class in the morning they will work on their spellings, either by writing them in a sentence to show comprehension, exploding a sentence using them,finding them in a word search ( There is an ap that can put their words into word search), using them in a spelling ap, practising handwriting with them, air,sand,water writing them, hunting for them in books around the classroom or simply learning them by the look,cover,write ,check method ( age appropriate) meanwhile the teacher can deal with any parents or issues with the children before registration begins.
I made a spelling book with the taught phonics/ word work for the year on the cover and a list of hfw/ tricky or the most common misspelt words on the back cover. Inside were helpful hints to kids and parents on spelling strategies and an explanation of how their children's spelling list is broken down. Then the book has a page to write down a sentence containing the word and a page where they write out their spelling each day. They can include colours to underline the tricky bits, mnemonics, or draw a shape round the word ( basically any strategy that helps them hook it into their brain. They would test and mark each others, whilst I oversaw what was going on.
I also did a workshop for parents to explain it and how they can help at home.
I found this strategy was manageable, targeted students weak and strong areas, it could be done with some independence and it improved their spelling in their writing in general as they had some control and ownership and it was individual.
I'm sure everyone is doing something similar, but sometimes it's good to say it out loud as it helps me to understand what I'm doing and why.

Yes, I have the same concern as the aforementioned commenter. Too often I see unconnected words as their spelling words and a resistance on the part of the student to want to learn the words.

Too often the children I see at tutoring who bring their spelling word list have a list of ten random, unconnected words such as sight words as their spelling words, or their vocabulary words. It teaches kids nothing other than to fear their spelling tests.

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