Resource Centre

Spelling in the Curriculum

One hundred years of pain and confusion!

Ray Griffiths
Literacy Adviser, Dunedin College of Education
National Facilitator, Literacy Leadership Programme

Over the past century the teaching of spelling has been both an area of confusion and concern to teachers, parents and society generally. There is a long history of debate and struggles with issues in spelling. In recent times with curriculum changes and an emphasis on the writing process and the so-called "whole language" approach, the way ahead seems even less clear for teachers. Many researchers are asking, "Have we lost our way?" (Westwood, 1999 p. 5) In spite of this spelling gets little more than a mention in English in the New Zealand Curriculum.

For such a small (but important and high profile) area of the school curriculum there has been a large amount of research, guidelines for programmes and comment about spelling over the past one hundred and ten years. Along with the confusion that has been generated, a considerable range of themes are consistently pursued over this period: on-going concern over the poor standard of spelling, how difficult children find learning to spell, debate over how spelling is best learned, which words children should be learning, incidental verses systematic spelling, is spelling caught or taught, spelling in the writing programme, the place of word study, the relevance of phonological awareness skills in learning to read and the transfer between spelling, writing and reading and an obsession with testing rather than teaching spelling.

Spelling: a Key to Raising Literacy Achievement
An examination of these themes along with my own current observations and many comments from teachers brings me to the conclusion that spelling is not dealt with well in our curriculum or in many classroom programmes. My contention is that there is often a lack of balance evident in our views and understandings about both spelling theory and practice. Much could be done to raise achievement in spelling, to make it easier for learners and to provide benefits to literacy learning generally. "Our sole purpose in teaching children to spell should be to enable them to write clearly, confidently and accurately" (Croft, 1997). The Literacy Experts Group Report in 1999 recommended that, "Reading Recovery places greater emphasis on explicit instruction in phonological awareness and the use of spelling-to-sound patterns in recognizing unfamiliar words in text." Freebody and Luke (1990) stated that, "the fundamental skill that underlies the acquisition of literacy is that of "breaking the code" of print.

Over the past century there have been many reports, texts and research findings that have highlighted low standards, and even declining standards of spelling achievement. In 1891 in the New South Wales Education Gazette it was stated, "It must be generally acknowledged that spelling is not one of the strongest points either in our own schools or in those of any other English speaking community" (Bean, 2000). In A New Manual of Method in 1896 AH Garlick wrote of the difficulties many students have in learning to spell, the mass of anomalies in this area and the waste of time spent on a system where "some never spell correctly at all; and absolutely correct spelling is anything but a general accomplishment, even among educated people". The 1954 Spelling Syllabus for Primary Schools in New Zealand was an attempt to improve spelling systems in schools, as was the Learning to Spell manual by G.L. Arvidson in 1960. The Department of Education's report to the Minister on Educational Standards in State Schools in 1978 talked of the uncertainty in this subject, standards remaining the same in spite of recent handbooks and concluded that "there is still much to be done to improve standards of spelling" (p.39). The National Education Monitoring Project assessments in writing in 1999 expressed concern about the level of spelling ability. The 1999 Literacy Experts Group report to the Secretary for Education quoted New Zealand data that suggested there is a need for improvement (for example, Brann and Hattie, 1995).

Traditionally education has been more concerned with what to teach in spelling rather than how it might be taught and learned. Long before theories of how children learn became a major issue teachers and researchers were concerned with what words children should learn. Word lists were arbitrarily drawn up and it was not until 1911 that lists based on frequency with which they occurred (newspapers, business letters) appeared. Some lists derived from children's writing appeared (Cook and O'Shea, 1914) but lists continued to be influenced by adult sources. Even Schonell's Essential Spelling List (1932) is derived from adults' writing. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that there were serious studies of how children learned to spell and of the place of the auditory, visual and kinaesthetic aspects and spelling patterns and rules and procedures to help children learn. Schonell emphasized all means of ingress in learning words and stated that they must be "firmly cemented by writing" (Schonell, 1942).

When we consider the more recent material with which teachers have been overloaded (for example, Arvidson, Croft, Gentry, De Ath, Andrew, Graves, Calkins, Hood, Bean, Bouffler, Peters) it is little wonder that there is confusion and often a retreat from confronting the problem. I believe that a study of the literature can give us evidence and directions which will challenge numerous practices of recent decades and provide a way forward.

How are Words Learned?
Contrary to research findings over the past century, we still appear to rely heavily on the auditory aspect for learning words. The New South Wales Education Gazette of 1891 (Bean, 2000) stated, "Spelling is best taught through the eye and not through the ear". Garlick (1896) said, "Spelling is essentially a matter for the eye". One hundred years later De Ath (1993) emphasized in the introduction to his work that "Spelling is a very visual skill depending more on the sense of sight than hearing". Since Schonell's emphasis on the auditory, visual and kinaesthetic there have been many attempts to group the strategies learners use, for example phonetic, visual, morphemic (meaning) (Department for Education and Children's Services, 1997); verbal ability, visual perception of word form, perceptuo - motor ability (Peters, 1985). Teachers are always aware of the children who just seem to be "natural spellers". They learn to spell as they develop other linguistic skills. They move beyond the sounds of the words and learn about word patterns, letter sequences within words and, as Peters' 1970 research showed "the most important attribute they possessed was good visual perception of word forms."

Systematic Teaching
There has long been controversy over whether spelling is acquired incidentally or needs to be taught systematically. Margaret Peters contends that a great many children do not "catch" spelling incidentally as they learn to read. Peters' 1960's research showed that children who did not "catch" spelling did learn to spell provided they were given good teaching in a consistent systematic way. Mem Fox, a strong advocate of "whole language", has strong views on spelling: "Why have some teachers stopped teaching things like spelling? I think they heard statements such as: "You don't do spelling lists in whole language" so they stopped teaching spelling altogether. It was the wrong message. We must teach spelling. We need the power of being able to spell correctly." (Fox, 1997). Many researchers have expressed concern at "immersion" methods. In particular, that children having difficulties with language learning do not learn effectively through holistic approaches to literacy. They do not learn sufficient basic words, an understanding of spelling strategies or generalizations simply through exposure. Arvidson (1960) states that those who hold the view that incidental learning of spelling during the course of the school day is sufficient "do so in the face of a body of research evidence which shows that additional systematic teaching and learning do bring about a significant improvement in spelling."

The Past Forty Years
Over the past forty years numerous developments that cover the range of incidental to systematic programmes have influenced spelling in New Zealand. Following a long period of arbitrary lists such as Schonell, the New Zealand Council for Educational Research provided the Learning to Spell manual (Arvidson, 1960). This was an attempt to provide a programme based on teaching children how to learn systematically those common words that they wanted to use in the course of their daily writing. These lists, arranged alphabetically and based on frequency of usage resulted in weekly learning lists, much testing and, in many cases, programmes where children were given a method for learning words and word study programmes. By the late 1970's it was again time to take stock. Cedric Croft undertook a survey of spelling practices in New Zealand primary schools. While 55 percent of teachers were using the basic principles of Learning to Spell, many additional practices had been introduced. In his study, Freyberg found "that the bottom 50 percent of pupils achieved less well under the approach to spelling described in Learning to Spell, and he suggested that the less able speller may benefit from a more structured word study programme." (Croft, 1983). The Spell Write programme and lists was designed for flexibility. It did not offer a set programme but rather a core vocabulary together with sound principles for spelling and suggestions for a spelling programme. While Croft is a strong advocate of writing being our main focus with spelling seen as merely a "tool", he emphasizes …"it is still reasonable to ask whether writing by itself provides a sufficient basis for spelling progress." (Croft, 1997). This researcher goes on to say how unlikely it is that the full range of spelling and other word-use skills will be "picked up" as children learn to write. Numerous current texts provide detailed and structured word level programmes. First Steps Developmental Continuum and Resource Book (1994), Mary Andrew's Reading and Spelling Made Simple (1988), Spelling from Beginnings to Independence (DECS, 1997) and Joy Allcock's Spelling Under Scrutiny (2000).

Writing Process and Whole Language
Three further developments have impacted greatly on thinking about spelling and classroom practice over the past twenty-five years. First, we have the "process writing" movement as promoted by Graves and others. Secondly, there was the concept of the developmental stages of learning to spell. Thirdly, there was the movement away from skills based instruction to a more holistic integrated approach. The 1963 syllabus Language in the Primary School talked of spelling being "a tool of written expression". This concept had been expressed in earlier syllabi and handbooks but it was not until the arrival of "process writing" that spelling took a secondary position to the writing. Advocates at the time spoke with one voice: "remove the constraint of correct spelling from children's writing attempts." While "process writing", even in the early stumbling days, had numerous positive features such as daily writing, topic choice, a structure to follow and an environment which encouraged putting ideas on papers, it was plagued with misunderstandings and inappropriate practices. In many cases, as observed by Mem Fox in Australia, spelling programmes disappeared. "Invented spelling" was probably the most unfortunate term ever to enter teachers' vocabulary. Teachers had little understanding of this stage of developmental spelling and as a public relations exercise it was a disaster. The idea of taking such spelling on from this phonetic stage (spelling by sound) to memorizing words, learning patterns, generalization and visual strategies to achieve correct spelling often did not come into the equation. I do not believe children invent anything. They put down what they know and can hear - they make attempts and approximations based on their understandings of print. Attempted spelling is a more useful term, which accurately describes the processes at work.

The developmental stages of spelling (Gentry, 1987; DECS, 1997) have been a breakthrough in terms of adding to our understanding of how children learn to spell. There is a real case for a better understanding of these stages, the importance of helping children beyond phonetic spelling, knowledge of the strategies needed at each stage and also the limitations of this structure. Bean and Bouffler (1987) have elaborated on their concerns, showing that many children were showing indicators from more than one stage. They have produced their own ten categories or strategies (also in Spelling from Beginning to Independence (DECS, 1997)) that learners use and this is a useful addition to our understanding of the developmental stages. The First Steps Programme (Education Department of Western Australia, 1994) puts emphasis on spelling as a thinking process and elaborates on the strategies learners need at each of the developmental stages.

Focus on Writing
Lucy Calkins writes about children who have been taught to regard writing as a display of spelling, grammatical correctness and punctuation. She believes that "the most important thing we can do for these students is to help them write freely and unselfconsciously." (Calkins, p.290). When she talks about those children who say they have nothing to write about when really they mean they cannot spell, she places this in the context of removing spelling as a barrier to writing. However, that is not the end of her argument. She maintains that we must give some attention to written conventions during writing, not just at the editing stage. Students must "develop the strategies and concepts of a speller" and be encouraged to "explore, enjoy, understand and wonder about these things." (p.302). Children need to be encouraged to be building a vocabulary of basic words that they can spell accurately from early years, they must rely on more than just "sounding out", they need to learn patterns and use generalizations and they must develop an attitude of knowing they can get mileage out of what they already know. This all implies teacher intervention, teaching spelling strategies and skills and students moving towards greater accuracy.

The Importance of a Core Vocabulary
"Research has shown for some considerable time now that a relatively small group of 300 words account for about three quarters of children's writing." (Croft, 1997). The ten most frequent words together account for just over one quarter of the words written and the most used fifty words account for fifty percent. Sandra Wilde in her book You Kan Red This! states that she found by the time children were in their third or fourth year at school the same thirty-seven words accounted for half of what the students write (Wilde, 1991). New Zealand writers have supported these findings. "I believe we must be more proactive in developing a core of known words from an early age." (Hood, 2000). "Children need to learn the most commonly used words as early as possible." (De Ath, 1993). Obviously the core vocabulary that writers must have is small compared to the typical wider vocabulary they will use. Ideally, the core vocabulary will be mastered as part of the process of learning to read and write. The question is: "When is direct teaching appropriate?" Croft suggests later rather than sooner and not before the fourth year. Do we wait until they are struggling and frustrated? There is no suggestion that words are being learned in isolation. These are words they need in their writing on a daily basis. Teachers will do what they believe is best and use their professional judgement. This will extend to deciding what will be considered as the core vocabulary. Some will make use of mastery lists (for example, De Ath) as references of words that are commonly part of children's writing vocabulary.

Phonological Awareness, Spelling and Reading
Over the past decade there has been increasing interest and debate on the importance of phonemic awareness (a demonstrated ability to recognize, sequence and manipulate sounds in words) and its influence on reading, spelling and writing acquisition. The Literacy Experts group in its report to The Task Force in 1999 stated with regard to effective practice, "We do not support the view that beginning reading instruction should focus on teaching children to rely on sentence context cues as the primary strategy for identifying unfamiliar words in text. Rather, greater attention needs to be focused on the development of word-level skills and strategies in beginning reading instructions, including the development of phonological awareness." Recommendation nine reported on the work of Iversen and Tunmer (1993) who "found that the effectiveness of Reading Recovery could be improved considerably by incorporating more intensive and explicit training in phonological processing skills." Croft (1997) wrote, "increasingly, there is research which identifies phonemic awareness as an important element in early reading success." Others such as Tunmer and Chapman (2001), Nicholson (1998), Pressley (1998) and Brann (1996) follow the same theme. Mary Andrew in her book Reading and Spelling Made Simple (1988) offers a twelve step structured approach to teaching word level strategies. The three-circle diagram on the front of the book has patterns of letters and sounds in the middle, linked to reading and spelling on either side. Teachers in classrooms have always been aware of how important word level strategies are to literacy learners. Many of the debates about what, when, how and who for are largely academic. Even the doubters as to the value of word-level strategies in the reading process realize that they are essential skills for writing. Often very able readers can benefit from work in this area in order to help bring their achievement in writing nearer to the level of their reading. The evidence from both research and teachers' experience is strongly suggesting that the whole area of phonological awareness and word level strategies is not always learned incidentally. Perhaps most children can benefit from a structured programme and explicit teaching in the context of meaningful and enjoyable reading and writing.

Orthodoxies that Drive Practice
There have been various theoretical and philosophical stances over time that have restricted the efforts of teachers to raise achievement in spelling and therefore reading and writing generally. At any given time there always appear to be orthodoxies that drive practice. When these are overturned they are replaced by another set. Some of the "barriers" to effective spelling learning have been discussed: words children learn must only come from their writing, the misused term 'invented spelling', phonological awareness and word level strategies must not come before meaning, we must not give children the 'tools', for example, spelling to do the job of writing, spelling must never be taken at a set time apart from the reading/writing programme, word study should not be planned, explicit and systematic but rather as the need arises. Many such orthodoxies get in the way of what caring supportive teachers with high expectations, an understanding of their children's needs, good planning and exciting literacy programmes (including explicit teaching of skills and strategies) can achieve.

The time has come when we surely must develop a perspective that brings a balanced approach to many of these issues and draws together programmes that ensure that all learners have the opportunity to spell and write. We must not forget that spelling is a tool for writing and not an end in itself (Gentry & Gillet, 1993, p.57). We must not obstruct the creative aspects and free flow of early writing attempts by an over-emphasis on correct spelling. At the same time, learners need to form appropriate attitudes very early, for example, correct spelling is important but not the most important thing in early writing. Through explicit teaching and the opportunities in a rich reading and writing programme children should be encouraged to take responsibility for accurate spelling and developing abilities in their knowledge of phonological word-level strategies, a growing bank of core words, personal lists, visual strategies, patterns and spelling rules which show consistency, a method for tackling the spelling of new words, and a curiosity about language which will take them further into word origins, structures and meanings. Smith and Elley in their book How Children Learn to Write (1997) deal with spelling in Chapter 12 and the very succinct summary is a strong statement about how a "multi pronged" approach to spelling instruction should look in the classroom. Other works already mentioned such as First Steps, Spell Write (Croft, 1983) and Spelling from Beginnings to Independence (DECS, 1997) also provide very strong balanced guidelines for classroom programmes.

This brief overview of spelling themes, research and programme guidelines over the past one hundred and ten years has hopefully drawn attention to gaps in our understandings and some of the unfortunate misunderstandings, excesses and practices which have been part of our way of working. For too long students and teachers have suffered from being locked into one approach that is the conventional wisdom of the time. It has been suggested that a more balanced perspective based on the evidence will mean less confusion for teachers and a better deal for children. Not only will achievement levels in spelling be raised, but also a way forward to support and enhance literacy learning generally might well be the result.


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