• Emina McLean

Spelling instruction: What’s the evidence?

Updated: Jul 24

Every teacher teaches spelling, but like with word-level reading instruction, what is taught and how it is taught are highly variable within schools and between schools. Does this matter? Our NAPLAN data tells us that about 1 in 5 or 1 in 6 students, even by mid high school, are still at or below the minimum benchmark for spelling in Australia, so yes, how spelling is taught probably matters.

As with reading, there are two key schools of thought with respect to spelling instruction. The first is that spelling is ‘caught’ and the second is that spelling is ‘taught’. Graham and Santangelo (2014, p.1705) outline each of these approaches in a meta-analysis which I will be discussing in in this blogpost.

Graham, S., & Santangelo, T. (2014). Does spelling instruction make students better spellers, readers, and writers? A meta-analytic review. Reading and Writing, 27(9), 1703-1743.

“There is considerable disagreement about how spelling competence is best acquired. On one side of the debate are advocates for the spelling is “caught” approach. According to this viewpoint, spelling is acquired naturally and effortlessly, much as learning to speak. Proponents of this method argue that spelling proficiency is acquired incidentally through the act of reading and writing, as an indirect result of teaching reading, and through informal methods of spelling instruction. Such informal methods include teachers modeling correct spelling when writing in class, providing students with plenty of opportunities to share and display their writing (to increase the likelihood students will attend to correct spelling in social and practical situations), and capitalizing on “teachable moments” that occur throughout the school day to address current spelling needs.
On the other side of the debate on how spelling skills are best acquired are advocates for the spelling is “taught” approach. Proponents of this viewpoint argue that spelling proficiency is achieved by directly and systematically teaching students how to spell. Such formal spelling instruction includes a variety of activities, including teaching students: (1) how to spell specific words (e.g., through direct practice in spelling them); (2) how to use skills, rules, and strategies to spell unknown words; and/or (3) how to connect and extend students’ grasp of the spelling system using systematic word study activities.”

Sound familiar?

First, a bit about writing

It is thought that writing is the product of transcription and ideation. If we unpack that a bit more, the skills required for writing include:

  • transcription (effortless spelling and handwriting)

  • text generation (knowledge of vocabulary, sentence structure, text structure and genre, audience and purpose, idea generation, idea translation)

  • executive functioning (attention, organisation, planning)

  • working memory (holding on to and manipulating information while planning and executing a writing task)

A good paper which expands on these complexities is:

Kim, Y. S. G., & Schatschneider, C. (2017). Expanding the developmental models of writing: A direct and indirect effects model of developmental writing (DIEW). Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(1), 35.

Students with poor written expression will typically have difficulties in one or more of these areas, and if they continue to struggle in even one aspect, other aspects are affected over time. For example, if a student does not develop accurate spelling or fluent handwriting skills, they will be held back from developing their text generation skills. Teaching decoding for accurate and fluent word-level reading gives students access to the larger world of reading. Teaching spelling (and handwriting) does the same. Grünke and Leonard-Zabel (2015, p.140) discuss some of the impacts of poor spelling and handwriting on writing skill development in the following key quotes.

“It is mandatory to first excel in lower-level skills before it becomes possible to master higher-level abilities … Students with a written language disability and other forms of poor written expression usually experience severe difficulty with the mechanics of the writing process … All initial writers struggle with fluency and legibility in one way or another, but children with problems in composition writing have never overcome this hurdle. Thus, they have to continue to devote a large share of their cognitive resources to forming legible letters instead of attending to planning, organizing, or other composing processes. In many instances, students cannot even read their own notes. This makes studying for a test, at best, very difficult and, at worst, nearly impossible.”

“[They are] constantly so engaged in trying to meet the demands of lower-level text production tasks that they cannot think about the content of what they want to communicate and are unable to consider their potential audience. It is thus not surprising that these children and youth produce generally very short, incomplete, and poorly organized texts. Their brief writing products mainly contain irrelevant information that is not arranged in any structured manner.”

Grünke, M., & Leonard-Zabel, A. M. (2015). How to support struggling writers: What the research stipulates. International Journal of Special Education, 30(3), 137-149.

Okay, back to spelling

Graham & Santangelo (2014) conducted a meta-analysis, within which they asked and answered eight questions. They analysed findings from 53 studies, which included over 6000 students, across all years of schooling. The questions were:

1. Does formal instruction produce greater spelling gains than no spelling instruction?

As you would expect, the answer to this question was yes. Formal spelling instruction was better than no spelling instruction or unrelated instruction. The Effect Size was 0.54 and the p value was ≤0.001.

2. Does more formal instruction produce greater spelling gains than less formal instruction?

The answer was yes. The Effect Size was 0.70 and the p value was <0.01. Of note, increasing the amount of time spent on spelling instruction improved student spelling performance. Obviously it matters what we do with that time.

3. Does formal instruction produce greater spelling gains than spelling is caught approaches?

The answer was yes. The Effect Size was 0.43 and the p value was ≤0.001.

4. Does formal instruction produce gains in students’ correct spelling in writing?

The answer was yes. The Effect Size was 0.94 and the p value was <0.05.

5. Does formal instruction produce spelling gains that are maintained over time?

The answer was yes. The Effect Size was 0.53 and the p value was ≤0.001.

6. Does formal spelling instruction enhance students’ phonological awareness?

Yes, formal spelling instruction enhanced students’ phonological awareness. The Effect Size was 0.51 and the p value was <0.05. Students on average improved their phonological awareness by about one half of one standard deviation, for example moving from the 50th percentile to the 70th percentile.

7. Does formal spelling instruction enhance students’ reading skills?

It depends. Results were broken down into Word Reading, Reading Fluency and Reading Comprehension. Formal spelling instruction enhanced students’ word reading with an Effect Size of 0.44 and a p value of ≤0.001. Formal spelling instruction did not enhance seem to impact Reading Fluency, with an Effect Size of 0.36 and an insignificant p value. Formal spelling instruction enhanced Reading Comprehension, with an Effect Size of 0.66 and a p value of ≤0.001.

8. Does formal spelling instruction enhance students’ writing skills?

No, formal spelling instruction did not significantly enhance students’ writing skills, with an Effect Size of 0.19 and an insignificant p value. Students’ writing length and quality were examined after receiving formal spelling instruction. How I make sense of this is that while spelling skills give students access to writing, writing instruction still needs to be provided for writing to develop.

Positively, this meta-analysis demonstrated that formal spelling instruction is effective, it is more effective than other approaches, and gains are maintained over time. Formal spelling instruction that was explicit, direct and systematic outperformed all other approaches to spelling instruction. Formal spelling instruction resulted in more accurate spelling in students’ writing, with the average student making about one standard deviation of progress, for example moving from the 50th percentile to the 83rd percentile, in the studies that examined this effect. This finding tells us that it is possible for formal spelling instruction to generalise into students’ writing when done well, and with ample opportunities for practice.

Another positive finding from this review is that formal spelling instruction was found to be effective for older as well as younger students, with the recommendation to continue formal spelling instruction beyond the early years.

A few suggested resources for spelling instruction

First things first. Reading (decoding) and spelling should be taught together. Use a good quality systematic synthetic phonics program. When we are teaching sound-letter relationships for decoding (reading) words, we should also be teaching and practising spelling. A program like Sounds-Write covers both reading and spelling, from simple CVC words all the way through to complex, polysyllabic words. It covers spelling patterns including irregular vowels, schwa, double letters, and affixes. It essentially provides you with a good scope and sequence for word-level reading and spelling. There are quite a few good quality programs out there that do this. I only tend to list programs that I am trained in and have used myself and with schools with good effect in my blogposts.

‘The ABCs and All Their Tricks: The Complete Reference Book of Phonics and Spelling’ by Margaret Bishop covers exactly what the title promises, as does ‘The Complete Phonic Handbook: The Grapho-Phonic and Spelling Reference’ by Diana Hope.

‘Spelling for Life: Uncovering the Simplicity and Science of Spelling’ by Lyn Stone is a very comprehensive book which will answer many of your ‘what’, ‘why’ and 'how' questions about spelling. Lyn also runs 'Spelling for Life' as a whole-school PD and there is an online course.

‘Spelling Mastery’ (Levels A-F) is a Direct Instruction program designed for daily instruction across the primary school years. It is also appropriate to use with secondary school students who continue to demonstrate difficulties with spelling.

In closing

Students’ spelling performance improves following explicit, systematic instruction that includes multiple opportunities for practice, and immediate error correction. Explicit, systematic spelling instruction is superior to other approaches, and gains are maintained over time. This approach to spelling instruction is suitable for younger and older students.

Let’s get spelling right!


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