Why Is Spelling Important? The Case for Spelling Instruction and Testing
Reading & Phonics
Spellcheck. Google. Autocorrect. Siri. There are so many tools to help us “spell” these days. Not to mention, with the proliferation of social meda, informal language has become more acceptable and spelling seemingly less important. It’s easy to think that battling with kids over phonics and spelling might just not be “worth it.” In fact, as the world goes more and more digital, spelling might be more important than ever.
So does all this technology help or hinder our kids as they learn to read and write? And why is spelling instruction important for children learning to read and write?
Why Does Spelling Matter?
Although written language has become more conversational and informal of late, especially with the advent of digital communication and emojis, spelling might be more important than ever. Sure, it’s totally acceptable to abbreviate and omit the odd punctuation mark in a text message. However, being able to spell properly can make or break an important email, tweet, or text when it matters.
And matter it does. Plenty of research shows that we’re being judged by our spelling. However unfairly, an inability to spell properly is perceived as a sign of lower intelligence and less credibility in social, academic, and professional settings.
Of course, we all make the odd typo, but knowing the rules of spelling empowers us to spell almost anything we want to communicate. In the digital age we don’t often communicate face-to-face, using text, DM and email over in-person and phone communication more than ever. Misspelled words can taint our message and our reputation.
Why Is Spelling Important for Reading?
Surely there are too many words in the English language to bother trying to memorize them all? The truth is, memorizing spellings is not the best way to learn.
90% of English words follow spelling rules and patterns, so learning spelling and phonics rules isn’t just empowering, it’s efficient. There is very much a “science” to the English language, and that science is best taught through a structured literacy approach including specific spelling and phonics instruction.
The same phonograms and phonics rules that help a child to read also help a child produce the correct spelling for the word they want to write. A 2021 review of the research on spelling shows a high correlation between spelling and reading skills across several studies. Certainly, understanding spelling rules can help free up cognitive resources for higher-level thinking while writing, just as understanding how to decode phonics can free up resources for comprehension while reading.
The Problem with Spellcheck
Don’t we have the technology to do this for us? Your child might wonder why they need to learn spelling rules when they are prompted with spelling suggestions while texting or benefit from highlighted errors in their Google Docs. It’s true that spellcheck programs help students self-edit and can catch typing mistakes that the eye might miss in a read-through. However, over-reliance on spellcheck is an increasing problem among students.
A long-term comparison of university students’ writing errors showed that, more and more, students are making whole-word errors. Instead of forgetting a consonant or botching a pluralization, spellcheck reliance means misspelled words are being corrected to completely different words. Imagine your child’s finger slips while typing and they type “peacr” instead of “peace,” but the software auto-corrects this to “peach.” It’s very easy to miss these improper corrections. This can be particularly challenging with homonyms. For example, if your child has written “to much” instead of “too much,” the software may not pick up on the improper use of the word “to.”
Of course, a final read-through can help you catch these errors before turning in a document, but therein lies the problem. Students are relying on technology more than ever and tending to do less manual proofreading, it seems. This leads to papers still being turned in with errors, albeit different errors from in previous generations when editing was done by hand and/or by peers.
The Case for the Return of the Spelling Test
There’s a good chance your child has received far less direct spelling instruction than you did during your school years. While prevalence varies across geographical areas, boards, and individual classrooms, traditional spelling instruction through rote practice and the use of spelling tests has declined over recent decades. One U.S. survey found that of 250 schools studied, every single one had abandoned or been directed to abandon spelling tests as part of their curriculum.
It seems that, along with handwriting, spelling has been a victim of digitization. However, several researchers have evaluated the usefulness of spelling tests and found them worthy, especially in a test-study-test method. Put simply, the child is given a pre-test of spelling words. Errors are identified, and this leads to the most improvement in spelling when the errors are self-identified. Finally, a re-test is done. In this way, spelling seems to be most effectively taught and retained.
As a parent, this makes an excellent case for pre-testing at home and studying in advance of school spelling tests, if they are being delivered.
1. Pre-test your child on spelling words in a low-stakes environment, like at the kitchen table while you’re preparing dinner.
2. Ask your child to self-correct any misspellings or identify any words they suspect are misspelled, even if they don’t know the correct spelling.
4. If a word belongs to the 90% which follow spelling rules & patterns, review the word and other examples. Are they writing “kiten” for kitten? “Cotage” for cottage? In this case, the rule of the doubled consonant is: In a two-syllable word with a short vowel before the middle consonant, double the consonant. Review the rule and examples. Focus on one word at a time together.
5. Re-test the following day or in advance of the in-school test.
👆 Try to give a few days’ leeway so as not to rush and give this routine a try at home before your child’s next spelling test. Or make spelling practice and the test-study-test a part of your language practice during family homework time.
If your child is struggling with spelling and you feel unsure about your ability to assist them, reach out for a friendly chat with The Reading School Director, Diane Duff, to learn more about our online structured literacy education including phonics and spelling.
Has your child learned the spelling and phonics rules? Do you believe spelling instruction is a thing of the past or an important part of language education? Share your thoughts!