Many young readers are puzzled by the rules and exceptions of spelling. Research shows that learning to spell and learning to read rely on much of the same underlying knowledge. Learn more about the relationships between letters and sounds and how a proper understanding of spelling mechanics can lead to improved reading.
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And why it is more regular and predictable than you may think
Much about spelling is puzzling. Our society expects that any educated person can spell, yet literate adults commonly characterize themselves as poor spellers and make spelling mistakes. Many children have trouble spelling, but we do not know how many, or in relation to what standard, because state accountability assessments seldom include a direct measure of spelling competence. Few state standards specify what, exactly, a student at each grade level should be able to spell, and most subsume spelling under broad topics such as written composition and language proficiency. State writing tests may not even score children on spelling accuracy, as they prefer to lump it in with other “mechanical” skills in the scoring rubrics.
Nevertheless, research has shown that learning to spell and learning to read rely on much of the same underlying knowledge — such as the relationships between letters and sounds — and, not surprisingly, that spelling instruction can be designed to help children better understand that key knowledge, resulting in better reading. Catherine Snow et al. summarize the real importance of spelling for reading as follows: “Spelling and reading build and rely on the same mental representation of a word. Knowing the spelling of a word makes the representation of it sturdy and accessible for fluent reading.” In fact, Ehri and Snowling found that the ability to read words “by sight” (i.e. automatically) rests on the ability to map letters and letter combinations to sounds. Because words are not very visually distinctive (for example, car, can, cane), it is impossible for children to memorize more than a few dozen words unless they have developed insights into how letters and sounds correspond. Learning to spell requires instruction and gradual integration of information about print, speech sounds, and meaning — these, in turn, support memory for whole words, which is used in both spelling and sight reading.
Research also bears out a strong relationship between spelling and writing: Writers who must think too hard about how to spell use up valuable cognitive resources needed for higher level aspects of composition. Even more than reading, writing is a mental juggling act that depends on automatic deployment of basic skills such as handwriting, spelling, grammar, and punctuation so that the writer can keep track of such concerns as topic, organization, word choice, and audience needs. Poor spellers may restrict what they write to words they can spell, with inevitable loss of verbal power, or they may lose track of their thoughts when they get stuck trying to spell a word.
But what about spell check? Since the advent of word processing and spell checkers, some educators have argued that spelling instruction is unnecessary. It’s true that spell checkers work reasonably well for those of us who can spell reasonably well — but rudimentary spelling skills are insufficient to use a spell checker. Spell checkers do not catch all errors. Students who are very poor spellers do not produce the close approximations of target words necessary for the spell checker to suggest the right word. In fact, one study reported that spell checkers usually catch just 30 to 80 percent of misspellings overall (partly because they miss errors like here vs. hear), and that spell checkers identified the target word from the misspellings of students with learning disabilities only 53 percent of the time.
Clearly, the research base for claiming that spelling is important for young children is solid: Learning to spell enhances children’s reading and writing. But what about middle-school students? Does continued spelling instruction offer any added benefits? Here the research is sparse indeed. Yet, the nature of the English language’s spelling/writing system provides reason to believe that there would be significant benefits to older students from allocating a small amount of time to continued, appropriate spelling instruction. In addition to continuing to learn the rules of spelling, students can develop a deep understanding of English by studying the meanings of roots, prefixes, and suffixes; families of related words; the historical development of the English language; and words’ language of origin. It’s very likely that this sort of word study (in addition to being intrinsically interesting to many students) would support vocabulary development and facilitate reading by enabling students to view any new word from the angles of sound, meaning, language of origin, and syntax. As a result, students would be more likely to be able to figure out the new word’s meaning as well as how to spell it and how to use it with precision.
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Those of us who can spell reasonably well take for granted the role that spelling plays in daily life. Filing alphabetically; looking up words in a phone book, dictionary, or thesaurus; recognizing the right choice from the possibilities presented by a spell checker; writing notes that others can read—and even playing parlor games—are all dependent on spelling. In a literate society, conventional spelling is expected and anything beyond a few small errors is equated with ignorance and incompetence. In fact, the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges reported that 80 percent of the time an employment application is doomed if it is poorly written or poorly spelled. Why does spelling appear on the one hand to be simple, something any reasonably intelligent person should be able to do, but on the other hand, cause so many students academic grief? How can spelling be taught so that it will support reading instruction as well as help students understand how the spelling system works and see the ways in which spelling is predictable? This article attempts to answer both of these questions by first exploring the nature of the English language’s writing/spelling system and, second, by outlining the key content that students should master in kindergarten through seventh grade.