What really matters in Spelling instruction?

 In Support for Struggling Readers

Spelling is Difficult

“Does spelling count?”

Does this question drive anyone else crazy? Of course spelling counts!  Would they spell a word differently depending on whether its spelling “counts” or not?  We always encourage our student writers to spell every word as well as they can. We never want them to avoid using the best word because they don’t know every letter in order.

Unfortunately, when we say, “spell as well as you can,” too many of our students hear, “spelling doesn’t matter.”  That’s because they don’t really know what you mean. They’ve been taught that spelling is either right or wrong; they don’t realize that there are degrees of correctness.  Even in upper grades, we need to model invented spelling:  start with what is known, then approximate the rest of the word by spelling in chunks, stretching out sounds and applying patterns we know from other words.

But we also need to lay out expectations of what words must be spelled conventionally all the time. A mere 900 words make up over 70% of the reading we do in English. These are the words that must be taught, practised, reinforced, and spelled automatically. Click here to read more about teaching spelling – just 10 minutes a day to build a repertoire of high frequency words.

Spelling is a relatively insignificant factor in the entire spectrum of communication.  In fact, it really only matters when it interferes with a reader’s ability to decode the message. But society often judges people on their spelling ability.  I’ve heard of teens failing to get jobs in fast food joints because they had spelling errors on the application forms, even though the jobs required no spelling or writing.  And yet, we know that spelling is less about intelligence and more about good visual memory. Some people can just see a word in their minds while some very smart people struggle to spell even simple words correctly. But the good news is everyone can learn to spell most words. It’s like any skill or talent; we can’t all be Wayne Gretzky, but we can all learn to skate and shoot without falling on our faces. We owe it to our students to provide them with instruction and expectations – and not leave spelling to chance.

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