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Spelling makes a comeback

To be properly learned, teachers say, spelling must be properly taught.

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 17, 2005


Once a year, ESPN elevates spelling to the status of a national sport. In a live broadcast of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, young masters of the alphabet contort their faces or gaze into space as they inch their way - letter by letter - to victory or defeat.

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But champion spellers are to the average English student what Olympic athletes are to the average kickball player in gym class. And many teachers are at their wits' end as they attempt to get students to play by the rules of standard spelling.

While the elite are memorizing rare words in anticipation of the 78th annual competition in Washington June 1-2, seventh-graders in Rebekah Guerra's English class are still trying to master the basics. Some mistakes in a recent assignment: diddent; edjucation; coledge; pronounceation; absolutly.

Mrs. Guerra offers daily spelling instruction, a sign of the subject's comeback after several decades of neglect. While schools still vary greatly in their approaches to spelling, a growing emphasis on basic skills in US classrooms has prompted more teachers to return to explicit spelling instruction - instead of simply assuming that it's a skill that kids will pick up as they go along.

At Boston Trinity Academy, a small Christian school in Brookline, Mass., for grades 6 to 12, Guerra gets 90 minutes a day to guide her class through good literature as well as the mechanics of grammar and spelling.

Most of the students - a diverse group, both racially and economically - arrive with a weak background in phonics, she says, and some simply haven't been pushed to read enough.

But with small classes, she can tailor instruction to individual needs: Some struggle with spelling because they are bilingual; others have been diagnosed with learning disabilities.

After a while, she can tell which kids are just being lazy in applying spelling rules they've been taught. She takes a point off their grade for each misspelling of a word pattern they've learned.

The traditional approach to teaching spelling - memorize this list and take a test at the end of the week - isn't effective for many students, Guerra and others say.

But the type and amount of spelling instruction may vary greatly from school to school. Some districts have adopted specific spelling curricula shown by studies to be effective. Others, however, deem that to be expendable in an era of tight budgets. They might settle for reading-book supplements that contain word lists but little guidance for teaching spelling.

In the 1980s, spelling books largely fell by the wayside with the advent of the whole-language movement.

"The theory was that if kids were readers and writers, in effect they would 'catch' expert spelling," says Richard Gentry, author of "The Science of Spelling." When California adopted a whole-language framework in 1987, "it became in vogue in the whole nation to treat spelling as if it weren't important."

Phonics has since seen a revival, but whole language in some ways advanced the cause of spelling, Mr. Gentry says.

Kindergartners and first-graders are now more often encouraged to write, even though they have to get by with "creative spelling" until they develop specific word knowledge. That's useful, he says, because spelling skills - like speaking skills - develop in phases.

Research also indicates that early writing practice helps children "break the code" for reading, he says.

"Spelling, instead of being treated as a supplementary subject, should be put on a pedestal," Gentry says. "It's proving to be much more important than we've ever thought it to be."