This article is part of a series drawn from work in the Handbook of Reading Research: Volume III (Kamil, Mosenthal, Pearson, & Barr, 2000). In the coming months, Reading Online will publish additional chapter summaries from the book, prepared by the chapter authors.

Reconceptualizing Spelling Development and Instruction

Shane Templeton
Darrell Morris


Writing in 1980, Richard Venezky observed that “few cognitive psychologists have confessed an interest in spelling processes and only a handful in the last decade have even suggested that this topic was worthy of serious investigation. Similarly, the public schools exhibit limited enthusiasm for spelling” (p. 10). This state of affairs has definitely changed. In the past 20 years, psychologists -- cognitive, developmental, educational -- as well as language arts educators have all focused on spelling to a degree not seen since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when spelling instruction was considered the first step toward learning to read.

The ways in which spelling has been conceptualized have evolved dramatically over the last few decades, from considering spelling simply as a tool for writing to recognizing that spelling offers perhaps the best window on what an individual knows about words. There has been a similar reconceptualization of the development of spelling knowledge: It is now seen primarily as a process of conceptual learning, rather than one of rote memorization. This review explores the evolution of this reconceptualization through a discussion of spelling as a system, as a subject of instruction, and as a psychological and linguistic process in writing and reading.

 

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Nature of the Spelling System | Context of Spelling Research and Instruction | Word Knowledge in Spelling and in Reading | Implications for Instruction | Conclusion | References



The Nature of the English Spelling System

For over a hundred years, most linguists have agreed that the English spelling system reflects a greater degree of regularity than commonly assumed. For over 30 years, educators have been describing how students can be guided toward an awareness of this regularity. It is striking -- though probably not surprising -- that this perspective has yet to have a significant effect on attitudes toward spelling and its instruction.

While English spelling corresponds more predictably than commonly assumed to its sound system (or phonology), it also represents quite predictably the meaning (or semantic) system in the language. This is because a spelling (or orthographic) system has to do more than simply record speech sounds; ultimately, the written representation of a language is for the eye rather than the ear (Bradley, 1919; Chomsky & Halle, 1968; Craigie, 1927; Francis, 1958; Hockett, 1958; Scragg, 1974; Vachek, 1989; Venezky, 1970, 1999).

For educators, Henderson and Templeton (1986) explained the effects of the different functions of spelling features in terms of three layers of information that spelling represents:

The proficient reader/writer may call upon any or all of these types of information when puzzling over a spelling. For example, if uncertain whether alledge or allege is the correct spelling, an individual could try to recall the different conditions that govern the spelling of the /j/ sound in stressed syllables in polysyllabic words -- or the individual could try the more economical and productive strategy of thinking of a word that is related in spelling and meaning, perhaps coming up with allegation. Because the spelling of this word is known -- and because words that are related in meaning are often related in spelling as well -- the g in allegation is the clue that solves the riddle of how to spell the /j/ sound in allege.

One might ask, however, whether in the age of computer spellcheckers we should even be concerned. Herein lies the essence of the broader conception of the role of spelling knowledge: It is more than a specific skill for writing. Arguably, the type of word knowledge that allows individuals to make the link between allegation and allege also plays a consequential role during the reading process and in the continuing development of vocabulary knowledge, as we explore below.

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Historical and Contemporary Context of Spelling Research and Instruction

Until the mid-1800s in the United States, spelling and reading instruction were closely related: Spelling was the road to reading; pupils learned the alphabet, simple two-letter syllables, and eventually whole words. Throughout much of the twentieth century they were separated for the most part. Three distinct theoretical and research perspectives emerged that had an effect on classroom instruction during this period.

Spelling Is a Process of Rote Memorization

Early in the twentieth century, educational and psychological researchers were guided by what we characterize as a phonocentric view of the English spelling system. The assumption was that English spelling is irregular and that its acquisition is best achieved primarily through rote memorization. Indeed, the latter belief was pervasive throughout much of the century and is still legion in the folk wisdom of the general culture. This belief led quickly to the conclusion that instruction should emphasize the development of visual memory for the spelling of words (Cahen, Craun, & Johnson, 1969; E. Horn, 1960; T. Horn, 1969).

Most of the empirical research on spelling instruction was carried out during this period (see Horn, 1969, for a comprehensive review of this research). The focus was on the following:

Spelling Is a Process of Abstracting Regular Sound-Spelling Patterns

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the comprehensive analyses of the alphabetic, syllabic, and morphological aspects of English revealed the levels of regularity noted above (Chomsky & Halle, 1968; Cummings, 1988; Venezky, 1970, 1999). The first work that directly affected instructional practice was that of Hanna, Hanna, Hodges, and Rudorf (1966), which revealed the effects of position and sound on spelling. Whereas frequency of usage previously guided the selection of spelling words, frequency of usage and of pattern occurrence now guided the selection. In noting the role of morphology in influencing regularity of spelling, Hanna et al. and others (e.g., Dale, O’Rourke, & Bamman, 1971) emphasized the importance of integrating spelling and morphology, a theme that later researchers and educators would also take up.

Spelling Is a Developmental Process

The work of Carol Chomsky and Charles Read in the late 1960s and early ’70s motivated the conceptualization of spelling as a developmental process (Chomsky, 1970; Read, 1971). This work revealed that young children are capable of constructing knowledge about the relationships between sounds and letters without explicit instruction. Subsequent research mapped out and extended this developmental perspective (e.g., Ehri, 1993; Frith, 1985; Henderson & Beers, 1980; Seymour, 1992; Templeton & Bear, 1992; Wilde, 1991). A number of investigators focused on the investigation of young children’s invented spellings (e.g., Ellis & Cataldo, 1990; Hughes & Searle, 1997; Huxford, Terrell, & Bradley, 1992; Treiman, 1993;), while others explored word knowledge as manifested through spelling at later phases of literacy development (e.g., Derwing, Smith, & Wiebe, 1995; Fischer, Shankweiler, & Liberman, 1985; Fowler & Liberman, 1995; Marsh, Friedman, Welch, & Desberg, 1980; Templeton, 1979; Templeton & Scarborough-Franks, 1985), which has led to a more systematic exploration of the role that morphology plays in the spelling system.

The fundamental insight that has emerged from this line of research is that most learners share a common developmental sequence of acquisition of orthographic knowledge. There is not unanimity of opinion, however, regarding the description and characterization of this development over time and the roles of explicit and implicit learning in this process.

Stage or phase models are the primary vehicle for characterizing developmental growth (e.g., Ehri, 1998). The first such model emerged from the work of Edmund Henderson and his students at the University of Virginia (Henderson & Beers, 1980; Templeton & Bear, 1992). The genesis of these studies was Henderson’s hypothesis in the late 1960s that looking at how children spell words can provide insight into how they read words, or their lexical representation for words (Henderson, 1981). The Virginia work explored and refined developmental phases of orthographic knowledge that Henderson labeled preliterate, letter name or alphabetic, within-word pattern, syllable juncture, and derivational constancy. The labels reflect the salient orthographic features learners explore in both spelling and reading at each phase of development. In general, learners’ progression through these phases reflects growth in sophistication of knowledge about letters and sounds, letter patterns and syllable patterns, and how meaning is directly represented through spelling.

The work of Linnea Ehri, beginning with the exploration of the development of children’s ability to read words (e.g., Ehri, 1975; Ehri & Wilce, 1979) and later exploring their ability to spell words (Ehri, 1997), has converged on a similar developmental progression. For example, her full alphabetic phase is equivalent to Henderson’s letter name, and consolidated alphabetic is equivalent in part to Henderson’s within-word pattern (Ehri considers further development falling within the consolidated alphabetic phase as well).

As mentioned above, a number of investigations have explored in depth young children’s invented spellings (e.g., Ellis & Cataldo, 1990; Hughes & Searle, 1997; Huxford, Terrell, & Bradley, 1992; Treiman, 1993). Children’s semiphonetic, partial alphabetic and phonetic, full alphabetic spellings reflect the conception that the spelling system represents sounds in a predominately left-to-right fashion. For example, a child in the semiphonetic or partial alphabetic phase may spell truck as HRK; in the subsequent phonetic or full alphabetic phase, the spelling may develop to CHRIK, CHRUK, and TRUK. In time, conventional representations for most short vowels are learned, though long vowel sounds may continue to be spelled with single letters.

Children’s invented spellings eventually evidence silent letters accompanying long vowels, which indicates that they are beginning to attend to the pattern layer in English spelling (e.g., TAEK for take and PLAYN for plane). They conceptualize the vowel and what follows within a word as an orthographic unit (Ehri, 1989; Invernizzi, 1985). This leads to the understanding that spelling is not a strictly linear left-to-right match up of letters; some letters do not themselves correspond to sound but instead provide information about the pronunciation of other letters within the pattern.

With further development, spellings reveal closure on most vowel patterns in single-syllable words, and errors on stressed syllables of polysyllabic words reflect how these syllables would be spelled if they were single syllables (e.g., PARAIDING for parading); errors also occur at the juncture of syllables (e.g., HAPEN for happen or STRIPPED for striped). This type of spelling knowledge is characterized as syllable juncture. Other errors characteristic of this phase occur with the spelling of the schwa or reduced vowel in unstressed syllables (e.g., LOCLE for local, PILAT for pilot). As students encounter increasing numbers of words through their reading that reflect more advanced morphological processes, their errors at this level characterize the derivational constancy phase. They are ready to explore more systematically how spelling preserves the semantic relationships across derivationally related words (e.g., DEFANITE for definite, CONFADENT for confident, or OPISITION for opposition).

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The Relationship Between Word Knowledge in Spelling and Word Knowledge in Reading

Spelling and reading processes both draw upon and reflect a common underlying base of orthographic knowledge (e.g., Ehri, 1997; Ganske, 1994; Gill, 1992; Invernizzi, 1992; Richgels, 1995; Zutell & Rasinski, 1989). Perfetti (1992) observed that “spelling and reading use the same lexical representation. In fact, spelling is a good test of the quality of representation” (p. 170). Examining students’ spelling can provide insights about the types of perceptual units engaged during word recognition in reading. If the full conventional orthographic representation of a word an individual can identify in reading is not held in memory, then the way in which the reader spells that word provides insight into the type of orthographic knowledge he or she is using perceptually to process the word during reading.

Morris (1983, 1993) found that a reciprocal relationship exists between kindergarten and first-grade students’ developing awareness of beginning sounds and the concept of a word in print -- that is, the realization that a word is a series of letters bound by spaces at both ends -- when they are able to point to or “touch read” the words in a line of text as they are reciting the text from memory. Children evidence awareness of a stable concept of word in print. Encouraging children to write is critical at this level, as the exercise of letter-name knowledge through writing facilitates the development of phonemic awareness (Ehri & Wilce, 1987). Letters themselves can serve the function of making sound concrete, and while much of this process is implicit (e.g., Perfetti, 1992) it leads to children’s conscious, reflective awareness of constituent sounds within words (Yaden & Templeton, 1986).

A stable concept of word indicates that a child has a stable mental representation that frames and sequences the sounds and letters within words. Knowing not only that printed words correspond to spoken words but where printed words begin and end sets the stage for the conscious awareness and manipulation of vowels as well as consonants. In tracing this developmental phenomenon, Morris (1983, 1993) has supported the conception that the development of phonemic awareness is not an all-or-none affair: In syllables and single-syllable words, children’s awareness develops from beginning sounds to ending sounds to the medial sound, which is last to appear.

A beginning conventional reader is also an alphabetic or letter-name speller. Learning to read words that contain spelling patterns not currently present in her spelling leads gradually to the appearance of, for example, silent letters in spelling. This builds the information within each lexical entry, moving it closer to convention and thus automaticity in both reading and spelling. For example, while a beginning reader may initially read the word tape as tap, the feedback that tape is pronounced with a long a sound has the effect, over time, of causing the child to look for reasons why: In this case, the presence of a word-final e emerges as the reason. Together with similar information about other words, this developing awareness gradually leads to the reorganization of the child’s lexicon so that long vowel sounds are distinguished from short vowel sounds in print by letters which themselves do not represent sounds. At this level, homophony may play an accompanying role in driving the lexicon forward; when the young reader spelled both tap and tape as TAP, she also spelled both hat and hate as HAT. This phenomenon, emerging first at a tacit level, becomes a conscious search for explanation.

Investigations of the relationship between higher level spelling knowledge and word identification in reading are not as extensive as those at the earlier developmental levels. When those that do exist are taken together with studies that have investigated reading words at this level and those that have investigated spelling words, however, there are suggestive parallels. Templeton (1992a) discussed possible relationships between the syllable juncture phase and derivational constancy phase in developmental spelling and the syllabic and morphemic layers of lexical decomposition described in several models of word recognition (e.g., Rayner & Pollatsek, 1995; Taft, 1991).

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Implications for Instruction

Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, we are seeing a definite evolution in the way spelling is conceptualized. Instructional implications have emerged that build upon the twin foundations of developmental appropriateness and the logic of the English spelling system. Instructional models range along a continuum from more explicit and deductive (e.g., Henry, 1996) to more implicit or inductive (e.g., Bear, Invernizzi, & Templeton, 1996; Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2000; Hughes & Searle, 1997; Invernizzi, Abouzeid, & Gill, 1994).

For most students it appears that an inductive or exploratory approach is appropriate, characterized by Hughes and Searle (1997) as a search for the “logical, negotiable patterns” (p. 133) in the system. The developmental learner explores words, seeking after pattern. The particular type of pattern to be explored -- alphabetic, within word, or meaning -- is a function of the developmental level of the learner. For severely struggling spellers who are working at an appropriate developmental level, a more deductive, systematic, and direct approach may be preferred.

Learning to spell is a developmental process, and for most students it requires direct facilitation and guidance. We cannot assume that spelling may be acquired on an “as needed” basis (Allal, 1997). Though the latter practice clearly models the importance of spelling and its application in the context of writing, it relies on a strong teacher knowledge base to present appropriate words that reflect the appropriate patterns at the appropriate time. More important, however, even if we assume that all teachers have this knowledge base readily available, such incidental instruction does not provide students the degree of exposure necessary for abstraction of appropriate spelling patterns. Providing opportunities to examine words and make connections across words to abstract patterns strengthens pathways within and between lexical items -- quite literally establishing connections at the neurological level (Foorman, 1995).

Systematic spelling instruction drives orthographic knowledge that is important both to spelling and to word recognition -- and, indirectly, to comprehension (Perfetti, 1985; Stanovich & Cunningham, 1993). Templeton (1991) suggests that spelling instruction ought to be reconceptualized from having as its purpose the simple mastery of conventional spellings to emphasizing more broadly word study. What type of instruction is of most benefit? Given the studies that have investigated the effect of examining words in the context of an active search for pattern, some general conclusions are strongly suggested:

In order to provide appropriate instruction, however, teachers need first to assess their students’ levels of spelling knowledge (Henderson, 1990; Morris, Blanton, Blanton, Nowacek, & Perney, 1995; Morris, Blanton, Blanton, & Perney, 1995; Morris, Nelson, & Perney, 1986; Schlagal, 1992). It is too often the case that students are presented with new information about words before they have consolidated what they know about known words. Once teachers determine where students fall along a developmental continuum, the appropriate known words in reading may be examined to support conceptual development for spelling patterns; this pattern knowledge then can be extended to unknown words.

Because individual students progress at different rates along this developmental continuum, spelling instruction should accommodate individual differences. Morris and his colleagues explored the issue of defining and determining students’ spelling instructional level (Blanton, Blanton, Nowacek, & Perney, 1995). This research established that when third-grade students whose spelling instructional level is second grade are taught at this level, they perform better than similar students who are taught inappropriately (i.e., “over their heads”); they learn more about the spelling system than did the low spellers who were taught inappropriately and are better able to apply this knowledge.

Whether teachers fashion their own word-study approach based on professional resources or teach with a published program of some type, there is a need for them to understand both the spelling system and the stages of the learner (Barone, 1992; Ganske, 1994; Hughes & Searle, 1997; Morris, Blanton, Blanton, Nowacek, & Perney, 1995). Indeed, teachers frequently express concern about a lack of knowledge regarding how best to teach spelling or of the nature of the spelling system itself (Gill & Scharer, 1996). Many teachers believe that emphasizing types of spelling patterns is important, but their knowledge of the nature and possible sequence of these patterns is limited. Hughes and Searle (1997) concluded that

[M]any teachers themselves see spelling as more arbitrary than systematic; at least, they give that impression to their students. Even when that is not the case, it is likely that their own knowledge of the spelling system is largely implicit or relatively poorly understood. For example, they may teach spelling as a solely sound-based system long after that is useful.... If we teachers do not believe that spelling has logical, negotiable patterns, how can we hope to help children develop that insight? (p. 133)

This state of affairs suggests that more attention needs to be given to developing a knowledge base in the content and application of a word-study curriculum in both preservice teacher education and at the inservice level.

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Conclusion

In his landmark study, Cummings (1988) characterized the spelling system of American English in terms of an “intricate simplicity.” While its intricacies lie in the different levels on which it represents information from sound through meaning, its simplicity lies in the design and consistency with which it represents this information at each level (Templeton, 1992a). Educators’ knowledge of the nature of the English spelling system will better inform their instruction. Learners’ appreciation of the consistency and simplicity resonates with their advancing cognitive sophistication and knowledge. We can only hope that the recent dramatic reconceptualization of spelling and of learning to spell will be more widely disseminated. Were this to occur, we might attain what Cummings suggested: “It seems probable that a better understanding of the American English orthographic system would lead us to a better teaching of literacy” (pp. 462-463).

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About the Authors

portrait of Shane Templeton  

Shane Templeton is Foundation Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Nevada, Reno, USA (e-mail wst@unr.edu), where he also coordinates the literacy studies program and serves as associate director of the Center for Learning and Literacy. He is a former classroom teacher at the primary and secondary levels. His research has focused on developmental word knowledge in elementary, middle, and high school students. His books include Children’s Literacy: Contexts for Meaningful Learning (1995), Teaching the Integrated Language Arts (2nd ed., 1997), and, with Donald Bear, Marcia Invernizzi, and Francine Johnston, Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction (2nd ed., 2000). Since 1987 he has been a member of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.

portrait of Darrell Morris  

Darrell Morris is a professor of education at Appalachian State University (Boone, NC, USA; e-mail Morrisrd@appstate.edu), where he directs the reading clinic and conducts field-based research in the areas of beginning reading and spelling development. He has published in journals including The Reading Teacher, Elementary School Journal, and Research in the Teaching of English. He is author of The Howard Street Tutoring Manual, which presents a comprehensive program of reading, writing, and word study for struggling readers of all ages. More popularly known as “Early Steps,” this intervention program is used in a number of school districts across the United States.

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Citation: Templeton, S., & Morris, D. (2001, October). Reconceptualizing spelling development and instruction. Reading Online, 5(3). Available: http://www.readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF=/articles/handbook/templeton/index.html




Reading Online, www.readingonline.org
Posted October 2001
© 2001 International Reading Association, Inc.   ISSN 1096-1232