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Spelling Research: Classroom Implications
Written by:
Ruth McQuirter Scott, Ph.D., Faculty of Education, Brock University
Published online:
2007-10-22 15:39:57 (Revised 2012-02-24 21:01:57)
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Becoming a skilled speller is a complex, life-long process. Spelling maturity requires the knowledge of increasingly sophisticated language patterns on the levels of phonology, orthography, and morphology. It also demands the use of a variety of spelling strategies to deal with irregular spelling features.

Key Research Questions

  1. How do children learn to spell?
  2. How can we design educational environments to support children’s spelling development?

Recent Research Results

Profile of a Good Speller
Hughes and Searle (1997) tracked the spelling development of students from kindergarten through sixth grade. They isolated nine characteristics of highly capable spellers:
1.They moved quickly through the early phases of literacy and were excellent, avid readers.
2.They used their knowledge of sound and visual features of words and increasingly added meaning to their spelling logic.
3.They approached spelling as a system they could control.
4.They recognized their correct and misspelled words. They could spontaneously generate viable alternatives for misspellings.
5.They treated editing as their personal responsibility and developed effective editing strategies.
6.The showed an interest in the meanings and the spellings of the words used in their environment.
7.They often collected words for use in their writing, and reading was a vital source of their curiosity and spelling of words.
8.They talked frequently about the relationships among reading, writing, and spelling. They saw writing as a crucial way of helping them grow as spellers.

Learning to Spell
The students described by Hughes and Searle developed their spelling knowledge over time, and still had much to learn about the spelling system at the end of grade six. Considerable research has been conducted over the past twenty-five years to track how children learn to spell.

Stage Theory
Developmental research has been quite influential throughout this period. Led by cognitive developmental theorists such as Henderson (1981), Read (1971), Gentry (1992), Templeton (1991), and Ehri (1992), this body of work emphasizes a stage approach to understanding spelling development.

Henderson proposed five stages of spelling development: Prephonetic, Phonetic, Patterns Within Words, Syllable Juncture, and Meaning-Derivation. In this framework, children progress from squiggles and marks on a page in their early years to the sophisticated use of spelling patterns and strategies that mark an accomplished speller. The Prephonetic stage occurs before children understand that letters are associated with sounds. This stage is characterized by squiggles, random marks, and letters  or words that children have copied. The Phonetic stage marks the true beginning of alphabetic writing and reflects some understanding of phoneme-grapheme correspondences. For the most part, however, a single letter is used to mark a specific sound, without regard for morphological constraints. The student may, for example, spell coat as cot or kot, not realizing that a silent e marker or vowel combination is needed to create the long o sound. The same child may spell invitation with the letters shun in the final syllable, unaware that the /shun/ morpheme is usually spelled tion or sion.

The Phonetic stage is followed by the Patterns Within Words stage, in which letter clusters are used to represent certain sounds (e.g. laugh; choke; boat). This spelling strategy suggests a deeper understanding of English orthography than a simple “one to one” correspondence between sounds and letters. The Syllable Juncture stage marks an even more abstract conceptualization of the spelling system. This phase focuses on the place within words where syllables meet, and an understanding of spelling changes when inflectional endings are added to root/base words (plurals, past tense marker, present progressive verb endings). Other spelling concepts that are grasped at this stage include possessive forms and contractions.

The Meaning-Derivation stage concentrates on the morphological connections in English orthography. Students learn that in written English, words that are related in meaning (sharing a common root) are usually spelled similarly, even if they are pronounced differently. For example, the silent c in muscle is sounded in the derived form muscular. By preserving the visual connection between the two related words, students can more easily predict the meaning of muscular if they encounter it in reading or oral language. The silent c in muscle is no longer a spelling challenge if the student learns to relate the various forms of the word. The same principle can be applied to many related words, such as sign/signal, column/columnist, and combine/combination. In the final example, the long I in the base form becomes a schwa vowel in combination. Schwa vowels, which are vowels in unstressed syllables, are often not articulated clearly in speech, and become sources of many spelling errors. When students realize that they can often determine the spelling of a schwa vowel in one form of the word (combination) by linking it to a related form in which it is clearly heard (combine), they can use this strategy in many situations (define/ definition; oppose/opposition).

Students in the Meaning-Derivation stage also become aware of common roots/base words, prefixes and suffixes, most of which are of Greek or Latin origin. These words appear frequently in academic language, and their length can pose difficulties both in reading and spelling for students who do not understand the basic concepts of word building.

Taken as a whole, developmental theories of learning to spell create a basic template for describing student growth in spelling. The difficulty arises when practitioners accept these stages as immutable, and assume that students progress sequentially through each without moving back and forth as they cope with unfamiliar words. Such an approach poses the risk of “slotting” students into specific stages, and providing instruction appropriate to that stage only. For example, if a student is assessed as being in the Patterns Within Words stage, an emphasis may be placed on examining various vowel and consonant patterns to the exclusion of basic word building activities such as adding affixes, building compound words, or adding simple prefixes and suffixes to common base words.

Overlapping Waves Theory
In contrast to the stage theories of spelling growth, proponents of the overlapping waves theory (Siegler, 1995; Varnhagen et al., 1997) suggest that children possess a range of strategies in their repertoires throughout their development, but tend to shift their reliance on different strategies over time. According to this theory, children might possess and be able to use knowledge of phonology, orthography, and morphology in their spelling even from an early age, but rely more strongly on certain strategies at different points in time (Kwong & Varnhagen, 2005). Unlike stage theories, which describe progress as sequential, unidirectional, and occurring in a fixed order, the overlapping waves theory predicts that children will oscillate among more or less sophisticated strategies.

Varnhagen et al. (1997) examined children’s spelling from Grades 1 through 6 and found that children at all grade levels made errors consistent with phonological, orthographic, and morphological spelling strategies. The study analyzed children’s spelling of silent –e long vowels and different types of –ed past tense words for signs of a strong developmental progression of qualitatively distinct stages from semiphonetic to phonetic to transitional to correct spelling over time. They concluded that the spelling samples were not consistent with the above qualities of a stage model but rather progressed from errors representing the phonetic stage directly to correct spelling. Furthermore, the stage theory was too broadly described to account for individual differences within stages and for variability in spelling attempts for a specific concept.

Although the overlapping waves theory has tended to illuminate the short-comings of stage models as a means of accounting for spelling development, Kwong & Varnhagen (2005) suggest that “it is likely that aspects of both perspectives, and methods derived from these perspectives, will ultimately provide a complete theory of spelling and spelling development (p.154).”

Implications for Instruction

The stage theory of spelling development has had an impact on spelling instruction since the 1980’s. Prior to the work of stage theorists such as Henderson (1985), spelling instruction focused on increasing the number of correctly-spelled words. As the nature of children’s spelling attempts became an area of interest, the emphasis shifted to helping children develop increasingly sophisticated understandings of the English spelling system. Assessment tools were developed to determine a child’s stage of spelling development (Gentry, 1982; Schlagel, 1986). At least one spelling series was sequenced to provide systematic coverage of spelling principles that mirrored the developmental progression of children’s spelling. Word lists were organized around linguistic patterns that matched the stage model. For example, in the early years of schooling, spelling texts focused on patterns of phonology, consistent with the Phonetic and Patterns within Words stages; later grades stressed morphological principles such as base and derived forms and word origins. The latter were intended to support students in the Syllable Juncture and Meaning-Derivations stages.

More recently, the use of word sorts has been advocated as an interactive means of helping students understand spelling concepts on an increasingly abstract level (Bear et al., 2004). The nature of the word sorts is geared to the developmental level of the student based on teacher assessment of student writing or performance on stage-based spelling inventories.

Results of studies linked to the overlapping wave theory point to different instructional approaches. Rather than grouping children into specific stages with assumed needs, this model is process-oriented and stresses the variability of strategies, the adaptation of strategies to meet the needs of the task, and the gradual movement towards retrieving correct spellings efficiently from memory. Therefore, instruction in multiple strategies is appropriate for even the earliest spellers (Kwong & Varnhagen, 2005). These studies indicate that children need continued experiences with a spelling in order to hold it in memory for later retrieval. Spelling the word correctly at the end of a unit in a spelling text does not ensure it has been committed to memory.

Today’s Classrooms

There is great variability in spelling instruction in contemporary classrooms (Schlagel, 2002; Boynton Hauerwas & Walker, 2004) and spelling remains a controversial topic in the realm of education. Schlagel (2002) identifies three basic approaches to programming for spelling. The first is called the incidental approach, which advocates teaching spelling as the need arises in student writing throughout the school day. The second approach, labeled developmental word study asserts that spelling be taught systematically in relation to individual development. Instruction is based on identified student needs as they progress through the developmental stages. The third approach involves the use of basal spellers, which are organized around developmental spelling stages and word lists that reflect increasingly complex levels of English orthography.

Current trends in spelling tend to favour the first two approaches. Basal spellers are often criticized for their prescriptive nature and their lack of attention to individual student needs (Wilde, 1990, 1992). Part of the difficulty has been that teachers, faced with a crowded curriculum, often assign exercises from spelling texts for homework, and thus do not capitalize on many of the interactive features built into such programs. There has not, however, been a consistent set of instructional approaches to replace these resources. Some teachers choose spelling words from children’s writing and teach mini-lessons as needed. Others integrate spelling instruction through content area studies. Still others have a set time for spelling, and use interactive activities such as word sorts to explore spelling patterns and develop spelling strategies. Schlagel (2002) emphasizes the need for research to evaluate the effectiveness of each approach to spelling.

Future Directions

The explosion of technology and its impact on spelling has only recently been addressed in quantitative research studies. Much media attention has been paid to how the use of text messaging (also known as texting) may have a negative effect on the writing skills of students. Many commentators in the popular press predict that standard spelling will be sacrificed for the abbreviated forms characteristic of texting (also known as textisms) (Thurlow, 2006). Early research studies, however, do not support these assertions. There appears to be no evidence of a detrimental effect of textisms’ exposure on conventional spelling (Kemp & Bushnell, 2011; Wood et al., 2011; Wood, Jackson, Hart, Plester, & Wilde, 2011; Plester, Wood, & Joshi, 2009; Plester, Wood, & Bell, 2008). These studies were carried out with pre-teens (8-12), but similar findings have been reported with adults (Powell & Dixon, 2011). Researchers hypothesize that, since textisms are usually phonetically acceptable versions of the words they replace, they may actually cue individuals to apply general phonological awareness skills, and perhaps even to strengthen them. 
There is at present an absence of research on the effects of textisms on younger students. Furthermore, little attention has been paid to spelling, vocabulary, and grammar applications available on tablets such as the iPad, and their influence on the development of linguistic skills at various developmental levels. Research in these areas is important as digital devices become increasingly prevalent both in homes and at school. 


Both developmental and overlapping wave theories acknowledge the importance of encouraging children to reflect on their use of spelling strategies. They also stress the need to provide effective scaffolding for students as they develop increasingly sophisticated understandings of English orthography. A more complete theoretical model that encompasses the best features of both may point to a more cohesive approach to spelling instruction.

Bear, D., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2004). Words their way: Word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction. New Jersey: Pearson Education.

Boynton Hauerwas, L., & Walker, J. (2004). What can children’s spelling of running and jumped tell us about their need for spelling instruction? The Reading Teacher, 58(2), 168-176.

Ehri, L. C. ((1992). Review and commentary: Stages of spelling development. In S. Templeton & D.R. bear (Eds.), Development of orthographic knowledge and the foundations of literacy: A memorial festschrift for Edmund H. Henderson (pp.307-332). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Gentry, J. R. (1992). An analysis of developmental spelling in GYNS AT WRK. The Reading Teacher, 36, 192-200.

Henderson, E. (1981). Learning to read and spell: The child’s knowledge of words. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Henderson, E. (1985). Teaching spelling. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Hughes, M. & Searle, D. (1997). The violent e and other tricky sounds: Learning to spell from kindergarten through grade 6. York, MA: Stenhouse.

Kemp, N., & Bushnell, C. (2011). Children’s text messaging: abbreviations, input methods and links with literacy. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27(1), 18-27.

Plester, B., Wood, C., & Joshi, P. (2009). Exploring the relationship between children’s knowledge of text message abbreviations and school literacy outcomes. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27(1), 145-161.

Plester, B., Wood, C., & Bell, V. (2008). Txt msg n school literacy: Does texting and knowledge of text abbreviations adversely affect children’s literacy attainment? Literacy, 42(3), 137-144.

Powell, D., & Dixon, M. (2011). Does SMS text messaging help or harm adults’ knowledge of standard spelling? Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 58-66.

Read, C. (1971). Preschool children’s knowledge of English phonology. Harvard Educational Review, 41, 1-34.

Schlagel, R.C. (2002). Classroom spelling instruction: History, research, and practice. Reading Research and Instruction, (2002), 42(1), 44-57.

Schlagel, R.C. (1986). Informal and qualitative assessment of spelling. The Pointer 30(2): 37-41.

Siegler, R.S. (1996). Emerging minds: The process of change in children’s thinking. New York: Oxford University Press.

Templeton, S. (1991). Teaching and learning the English spelling system: Re-conceptualizing method and purpose, The Elementary School Journal, 92: 185-201.

Thurlow, C. (2006). From statistical panic to moral panic: The metadiscursive
construction and popular exaggeration of new media language in the print media. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(3), 667-701.

Wilde, S. (1990). A proposal for a new spelling curriculum. Elementary School Journal, 90, 275-289.

Wilde, S. (1992). You can red this! Spelling and punctuation for whole language classrooms, K-6. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Wood, C., Jackson, E., Hart, L., Plester, B., & Wilde, L. (2011). The effect of text
messaging on 9- and 10-year old children’s reading, spelling and phonological processing skills. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 28-36.

Wood, C., Meachem, S., Bowyer, S., Jackson, E., Tarczynski-Bowles, M. L., & Plester, B. (2011). A longitudinal study of children’s text messaging and literacy development. British Journal of Psychology, 102, 431-442.
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