Teaching spelling can be difficult and frustrating. No matter how hard we work and regardless of how many rules we learn, we always encounter exceptions. They are inevitable because the English language has
evolved from so many different languages. We cannot consistently predict which pattern or rule will apply.
Most spelling programs are based on the premise that if children memorize a certain sequence of letters or words, they will
become good spellers. The procedure is to present a word list
to the children on Monday; have them study it in various ways
all week; take the test on Friday, and expect them to spell each
word correctly the next time they write. This approach does not
work well because the brain perceives these word lists as item
knowledge. Without something meaningful to connect
the words to—without linkage—the brain simply reverts to rote memory, storing the words
for a few days and then discarding them.
The words never make it into long-term
Decades ago a linguist name Charles
Read (1971) noticed that preschoolers made consistent and similar assumptions about words when they
were trying to figure out how to
spell. From that landmark observation, numerous other researchers from the University
of Virginia, headed by Dr. Edmund Henderson, confirmed
and extended Read’s work.
Their various studies suggested that spellers advance
through a common progression, starting with sound-to-letter correspondence and
moving toward more advanced and complicated spelling structures. Eventually, after years of observations and
study, this group of university
professors presented a model of
developmental spelling based on
the consistent, sequential stages
through which all students move.
The developmental process of
spelling is similar to what children
go through when learning to walk. They need to develop the
prerequisite skill of crawling before they can move on to walk-
ing and then running. In the same way, learning to spell in de-
velopmental stages is the most effective way to teach spelling.
All students move through five stages as they learn to spell:
Preliterate, Phonetic, Skill Development, Word Extension, and
The Preliterate stage occurs when young children are beginning
to acquire some fundamental understandings about language.
They become aware that English words are written left to right,
and flow from the top to the bottom of the page. As they “
pretend write” their scribbles become more linear. Then
they start writing actual letters, often beginning
with their own names, showing words as strings
The Phonetic stage is auditory. As children
are increasingly exposed to language,
they develop phonemic awareness—the
ability to distinguish the individual
sounds that make up spoken words in
English. They can then relate these
sounds to print by understanding
that letters represent sounds; letters make up words, and that
each word looks different. At
this stage, most instruction involves helping children match
individual sounds in words to
their corresponding letters. They
often use all capital letters and
spell words incorrectly. For example, they may spell KAT for
cat, MI for my, LUV for love. Silent letters in words like bake or
lamb may be omitted. Instructors
welcome these spellings as in indication that the student is beginning to understand sound-to-letter
correspondence, the number one
predictor of learning to read. Children arrive at the end of the phonetic stage once they have learned the
2017 • The Elementary Years www.TheOldSchoolhouse.com
Karen J. Holinga, Ph.D.
Learning to spell in developmental stages is
the most effective way to teach spelling.