High standards of spelling

British researchers studied nine schools in which the standardized spelling scores were particularly high. Their research sought to uncover some common factors in these schools’ approaches to teaching spelling. Careful study of classroom instruction revealed several key factors.

These schools systematically taught both spelling patterns and phonics; they fostered early independence in writing and reading; and they built effective partnerships with parents to practice spelling words regularly at home. In addition, regular testing, effective short teaching sessions and high expectations for all students were apparent in all nine schools.

Peter Daw, Jenifer Smith and Sally Wilkinson, Suffolk Advisory Team for English, conducted this study because of concern at the overall poor results achieved on standardized spelling tests in the district.

After identifying schools that consistently produced good spelling scores, they chose nine that balanced the different geographical areas of the district, mixing urban and rural schools and a wide range of school sizes and socioeconomic levels. They found that in schools with high spelling performance, the overall standard of reading and writing of ‘average’ students was high as well. Even so, it was clear that some students in these schools still found spelling difficult to learn, despite a high-quality spelling program.

These British researchers found the following common factors in schools that teach spelling exceptionally well:

  • An interest in language permeates the teaching from the earliest grades. Words are discussed across the curriculum.
  • Children use posted lists of key words and word clusters in their writing.
  • Teachers understand the approaches used by other teachers in the school, and a few key strategies are common throughout the school.
  • Phonics are taught early and systematically. Nursery rhymes along with lots of practice in auditory discrimination of letters and blends are apparent in the earliest grades.
  • Early and systematic writing, with independence is always the goal, but with sufficient structure to produce coherent, legible text.
  • Systematic teaching and discussion of major spelling regularities are combined with regular testing of progress.
  • The schools draw on a wide range of different sources for their spelling program, but all used weekly lists of words to ensure a systematic coverage of spelling patterns, as well as topic-related word lists drawn from the students’ own writing. Each spelling test included some ‘mastery’ words that had not been on the list but which used the spelling pattern being taught, to test whether students could generalize their knowledge.
  • Spelling groups within each class cater to different achievement levels. These groups received at least partially different lists of words to study. However, all students were expected to learn and were tested on a substantial number of words each week.
  • Teachers marked spelling errors in students’ writing. Younger students were given the correct spelling of the word next to their error, while older students were expected to find the correct spelling and copy it several times. (Not all schools checked to see if students did this.)
  • Parents helped their children to read and spell at home. Children brought home both spelling and reading diaries. Teachers took time to write comments in these, which showed parents that the school valued their involvement in their children’s learning.

In conclusion, in all the schools studied, spelling was regarded as important, and systems and structures were in place to support teachers and provide some continuity from grade to grade. The teaching was well-structured, with good use of a variety of reading material, scaffolding of early writing and early systematic phonics work. These researchers suggest that there was a clear correlation between spelling and the early mastery of independent reading and writing skills in these schools.

“Factors Associated with High Standards of Spelling in Years R-4”,English in Education, Volume 31, Number 1, Spring 1997, pp. 36-47.

Published in ERN May/ June 1997 Volume 10 Number 3.

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