George Lucas Educational Foundation

Beyond the Weekly Word List

Differentiating spelling instruction using evidence-based approaches helps students develop a skill that is vital to their reading ability.

June 25, 2018

We live in a literate society, where conventional spelling is a necessity if a person wants to be taken seriously at work. But spelling instruction is often neglected—taught as an isolated task primarily consisting of whole group instruction, a uniform spelling list, and weekly tests.

There is solid research demonstrating that spelling is important. Explicit, systematic spelling instruction has been shown to improve performance in reading fluency and comprehension. In fact, practice at spelling helps a student’s reading ability more than practice at reading helps spelling.

And spelling ability is a reliable predictor of reading ability. In “How Spelling Supports Reading,” Louisa Moats discusses research showing that learning to spell and learning to read are connected—they draw on similar cognitive practices and on the same knowledge, such as the relationships between letters and sounds.

There is also a strong correlation between ease with spelling and writing fluency. Students who must dedicate a lot of time to basic skills like handwriting, spelling, and grammar when they’re drafting lose valuable cognitive resources needed for fluent writing. Ultimately, they lose their voice because all too often they get stuck trying to spell a word. Before children can give attention to planning, organizing, and constructing written pieces, they must first become fluent in handwriting skills and spelling.

So being able to spell well is important. As Moats says, “The benefits go well beyond good spelling. For young children, research clearly indicates that spelling supports learning to read, and for older children, it’s likely that learning about meaningful relationships between words will contribute to vocabulary growth and reading comprehension.”

To meet students where they are, we must understand the progression of spelling development and determine their needs and how to develop their spelling abilities.

Understanding Spelling Development

As students learn to spell, they advance in their understanding of three so-called layers of words: the alphabetic, pattern, and meaning layers. Spelling is not a skill of rote memorization, but instead requires an understanding of the spelling system.

  • The alphabetic layer represents letter and sound correspondences.
  • The pattern layer looks beyond letter-sound relationships and focuses on patterns that guide the grouping of letters such as vowel categories. Understanding letter patterns helps students develop fluency in oral reading and writing.
  • The meaning layer relies on groups of letters (prefixes, suffixes, and Greek and Latin stems) to provide meaning.

Following this progression allows students to build upon their word knowledge, become more informed and flexible with spelling strategies, and make connections between spelling and meaning.

Spelling Assessment

When looking at students’ spelling, it is essential to go beyond their mastery of the weekly word list. This is an opportunity to dig a little deeper and evaluate students’ understanding of sounds and patterns.

For example, what do students do correctly? What words do they frequently misspell? Are there common errors? The diagnostic possibilities of examining students’ spelling include allowing the teacher to construct small, homogenous groups for word study and to truly understand the relationship between the students’ development and the instructional opportunities.

Spelling inventories are an effective tool in identifying mastery of word elements and specific weaknesses.

  • Quick Phonics Screener is an informal phonics assessment that can be used to identify a student’s abilities and instructional needs in phonics and decoding.
  • Primary Spelling Inventory considers a student’s spelling skills to determine the developmental level and spelling stage. It brings together what the student has mastered and what skills need attention.

Developmentally Appropriate Word Study

Word study is an evidence-based approach that can be used during small group instruction. It’s an explicit, systematic approach to teaching word structure based on letter-sound relationships, word patterns, and word meaning. Word Sorts from Words Their Way are one effective means of exploring words during word study (word games and word hunts are two others). In Word Sorts, students explore words by comparing pictures, sounds, and meanings. This helps students use what they know about words and related patterns, which can be helpful in analyzing unknown words in reading and spelling. Word Sorts are directed at the student’s instructional level, and are hands on, flexible, and efficient.

Understanding the spelling system and an individual student’s needs gives teachers the opportunity to differentiate and design an appropriate instructional plan for all students. Utilizing small groups to deliver explicit and organized word study provides students with the foundational skills and strategies they need to become better spellers, readers, and writers.

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Filed Under

  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School

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