Spelling in the Elementary Classroom: What the Research Says
Spelling is an important part of the curriculum, particularly in the early grades when students are first learning to put together words. Generally students “practice” their spelling words for a week, copying their weekly spelling words over and over, perhaps in multicolored ink or in a pyramid shape, but copying nevertheless. Then students are given a Friday test where the words are read, they write the words on a line, exchange papers, and are given a red “X” if their spelling was incorrect in any way. Students then move on the next week to a new set of words, maybe retaining the previous week's words, maybe not. This age-old method is ineffective and frustrating to students.
We all know that simply copying information repeatedly does little to help in absorbing information. We don't have students copy the same math problem over and over in hopes they will learn to solve it. We don't have students draw the same image over and over to improve their art. We don't have students read the same book for days on end to teach them to read. So why do we do this with spelling? Students need to learn the skill of spelling, not just how to copy down spelling words.
What should we do instead then?
A Relational Approach
One way students can better learn to spell is to group words by their roots, helping connect vocabulary and spelling, and allowing students to see important relationships between words, their spellings, and their meanings. Instead of drilling students on memorized words, perhaps only connected by a rhyme or by their presence in the current text the class is focused on, it was found that grouping words by their morphemes (units of meaning), “for example, words like native, nature, natural, naturally, naturalistic, nation, all connected by the root morpheme nat- (root morpheme meaning source, birth, or tribe)” (Herrington & Macken-Horarik, 2015) was more effective. In this way, students learn the skills to spell and understand meaning in other words, not only their seemingly disconnected spelling words.
Just writing and rewriting words to learn to spell them is not enough. Students should be taught and utilize a variety of strategies to spell, including visualization. In much of the research on spelling, it was found that incorporating a variety of strategies into spelling teaching increases effectiveness and learning. In one study on English Language Learners, it was found that visualization strategies, in which students “link visual memory to spelling” (Nahari & Alfadda, 2016) help students to spell more easily. The same study cites Hunt 1963 (as cited in Davis, 2011) saying that “the ability to look at a word and produce it later [is] one of the four factors, besides general intelligence, that affect the ability to spell English words” (Nahari & Alfadda, 2016). Students must learn to see words in their minds, and only then can they spell the words on paper. Simply rewriting the words over and over can only prove effective to the extent that students are visualizing the words outside of their rewriting tasks.
Not only is it important to teach students how to spell, but to analyze the errors that students make in order to help improve their spelling. When teachers look at the way students are spelling things and compare patterns, it can help teachers work with students to improve their future spelling. One study reached the conclusion that “detailed error analysis, when done systematically and in a standardized fashion, yields much richer data than simply examining correct-incorrect responses” (Otaiba & Hosp, 2011). Instead of just marking students wrong when their words are spelled incorrectly, teachers should evaluate the errors made, looking for reasons and common thinking patterns in order to correct student understanding and thinking and to understand which mistakes are silly mistakes and which ones are errors teachers should be concerned about. A score alone does not tell a teacher much about a student’s spelling ability.
Want some ideas on making spelling practice more meaningful? Check out my blog post 30 Ideas for Word Work and Spelling Activities.
Adoniou, M. (2014). What Should Teachers Know about Spelling?. Literacy, 48(3), 144-154.
Al Otaiba, S., & Hosp, J. L. (2010). Spell It out: The Need for Detailed Spelling Assessment to Inform Instruction. Assessment For Effective Intervention, 36(1), 3-6.
Cook, J. (1999). Reading and Spelling Tests. Educational Psychology in Practice, 15(1), 9.
Craft, A.C. (1982). DO Spelling Tests Measure the Ability to Spell? Educational And Psychological Measurement, 42(3), 715-23.
Herrington, M. H., & Macken-Horarik, M. (2015). Linguistically informed teaching of spelling: Toward a relational approach. Australian Journal Of Language & Literacy, 38(2), 61-71.
Loeffler, K.A. (2005). No More Friday Spelling Tests?. Teaching Exceptional Children, 37(4), 24-27.
Nahari, A. A., & Alfadda, H. A. (2016). From Memorising to Visualising: The Effect of Using Visualisation Strategies to Improve Students' Spelling Skills. English Language Teaching, 9(6), 1-18.
Rowell, C.G. (1975). Don’t Throw Away Those Spelling Test Papers…Yet!. Elementary English