Although we have often taught spelling as a subject, separate from reading and writing, research conducted over the last decade, or more, has redefined the way we think about how students learn to spell.

The research has helped us understand that:

  • purposeful writing experiences combined with instruction are the keys to cognitive growth in spelling

  • early emphasis on mechanical correctness of spelling inhibits developmental growth

  • spelling is not a matter of simple memorization

  • children advance through identifiable stages that build on one another in their growth as spellers

  • change from one stage to the next is a gradual one

  • spellers need to develop and apply knowledge of letter-sound relationships (phonetics), letter combinations (visual), and word meaning (morphemic) strategies

  • a student’s spelling stage can serve as a guide for instruction

  • teachers can help students develop strategies for transferring their knowledge to authentic writing situations

*Word study

Word study provides students with opportunities to investigate and understand the patterns in words. Knowledge of these patterns means that students do not need to learn to spell one word at a time.

Word study gives students the opportunity to fully explore and manipulate words so that they can make sense of word patterns and their relationships to one another. Spelling "rules" are not dictated by the teacher for students to memorize. Rather, spelling patterns and generalizations are discovered by students.

A cycle of instruction for word study might include the following:

  • introduce the spelling pattern by choosing words for students to sort

  • encourage students to discover the pattern in their reading and writing

  • use reinforcement activities to help students relate this pattern to previously acquired word knowledge

Read the complete article by Diane Henry Leipzig: Word Study: A New Approach to Teaching Spelling, published online at Reading Rockets.

It is important to remember that spelling and opportunities for purposeful writing go hand in hand. Spelling has no purpose outside of writing. Please refer to the Development of Writing section of the website for additional information.

Adapted from First Steps Literacy and the work of Richard Gentry.


Gentry, J. Richard. The Science of Spelling: the Explicit Specifics That Make Great Readers, and Writers (and Spellers!). Heinemann, 2004. This article is available online and has numerous ideas of quality-based spelling instruction.

For more information about the research behind developmental spelling, check out the following sources:

Gentry, J. Richard. "An Analysis of Developmental Spelling in GNYS AT WRK." The Reading Teacher 36 (1982).

Hodges, Richard E. Learning to Spell. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills and National Council of Teachers of English, 1981. ED 202 016.

Read, Charles. Children’s Categorization of Speech Sounds in English. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills and National Council of Teachers of English; Arlington, VA: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics, 1975. ED 112 426.


© 2023, Literacy Today