on the teaching
of spelling

Too much that is known about how to teach spelling isn't being put into practice. I can think of no subject we teach more poorly or harbor more myths about than spelling.—Richard Gentry, 1987


For decades, more people seem to have considered themselves poor spellers than good spellers, despite the fact that most of us spell correctly the vast majority of the words we write. With spelling, we seem to expect that all of us should spell one hundred percent correctly, even on first drafts, and even as young children. Perhaps it is this unrealistic expectation that leads some parents and others to object when teachers use newer methods of helping children learn to spell, such as encouraging children to "use invented spelling" in their early attempts to write. Such critics mistakenly assume that children who initially use approximate spellings will never become good spellers, or that if the time-honored method of memorizing spelling lists were used instead, every child would become a perfect speller. Neither observed experience nor research supports these assumptions.

What research demonstrates

What helps children learn to spell


Bolton, F., & Snowball, D. (1993). Teaching spelling: A practical resource. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Buchanan, E. (1989). Spelling for whole language classrooms. Katonah, NY: Richard C. Owen.

Clarke, L. K. (1988). Invented versus traditional spelling in first graders' writings: Effects on learning to spell and read. Research in the Teaching of English, 22, 281-309.

Cunningham, P. M. (1995). Phonics they use: Words for reading and writing (2nd ed.). New York: HarperCollins College Pubs.

Gentry, J. Richard. (1987). Spel . . . is a four-letter word. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gunderson, L., & Shapiro, J. (1987). Some findings on whole language instruction. Reading-Canada-Lecture, 5 (1), 22-26.

Gunderson, L., & Shapiro, J. (1988). Whole language instruction: Writing in 1st grade. The Reading Teacher, 41, 430-437.

Laminack, L. L., & Wood, K. (1996). Spelling in use. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

McGee, L. M., & Richgels, D. J. (1990). Literacy's beginnings: Supporting young readers and writers. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Routman, R. (1991). Invitations: Changing as teachers and learners K-12. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Routman, R., & Maxim, D. (1996). Invented spelling: What it is and what it isn't. School Talk, 1 (4). Urbana, IL:National Council of Teachers of English.

Stice, C. F., & Bertrand, N. P. (1990). Whole language and the emergent literacy of at-risk children: A two-year comparative study. Nashville: Center for Excellence, Basic Skills, Tennessee State University. ERIC: ED 324 636.

Temple, C., Nathan, R., Temple, F., & Burris, N. A. (1993). The beginnings of writing (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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

Prepared for the Michigan English Language Arts Framework project and © 1996 by Constance Weaver. A similar version was published as a SLATE Starter Sheet by the National Couincil of Teachers of English (1996). In C. Weaver, L. Gillmeister-Krause, & G. Vento-Zogby, Creating Support for Effective Literacy Education (Heinemann, 1996). May be copied.

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