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V.2 #5 Recommended Practices - Oh What a Tangled Web We Weave! Analyzing the Component Skills of Spe

In recent columns I have addressed the role of phonology and morphology in the development of literacy skills. In this column I will address how phonology and morphology, along with orthography, are foundational skills for effective spelling instruction.

Spelling is difficult for many students, but is especially troublesome for students who have dyslexia. The good news is that English is fairly predictable. Nearly 50 percent of English words have regular sound-symbol correspondences (e.g., cat, ditch, slip). Another 37 percent of the more common words are almost predictable except for one sound (e.g., gnat, toad, comb). When we consider morphology into the equation, specifically the origins of roots and endings (e.g., Latin, Greek, or French), we can identify regular patterns of spelling for all but approximately 4 percent of words that are truly irregular (Kessler & Treiman, 2003). This is good news for planning effective and systematic spelling instruction.

The twenty-six letters of our alphabet, alone and in combination, are used to write the sounds of English speech—somewhere between 40-48 sounds or phonemes (depending on local speech patterns, with 42-44 being the most common) needed to say the entire English lexicon. These phonemes, which are spelled with about 250 graphemes, comprise the nearly 87 percent of the English language that has predictable spelling patterns. While the majority of the spelling patterns are predictable, it is nevertheless, highly complex. An example of this complexity is seen in the letter A. The letter A has 5 phonemes, or sounds, as seen in the following example sentence: Ann hates a small spa (short a, long a, schwa, /aw/, short o). The long A phoneme alone is represented by 7 graphemes in English:

Long a – spelled a_e, as in cave Long a – spelled ei, as in vein Long a – spelled eigh, as in neighbor Long a – spelled ai, as in rain Long a – spelled ay as in hay Long a – spelled ea, as in steak Long a – spelled ey, as in grey

Additionally, the same grapheme can represent different phonemes (e.g. chair, character, chute). Also, the same phoneme (e.g. /sh/) may have a variety of graphemes (e.g., sure, ship, machine, motion, and special).

Knowledge of phoneme-grapheme relationships is needed for skilled reading and spelling. While students with dyslexia may struggle with word recall, spelling instruction that explores word structure, word origin, and word meaning can improve their skills in this area. Instruction that makes clear the connection between speech sounds and written symbols, teaches the reoccurring word patterns, and emphasizes meaningful word parts, helps students remember whole words. With this in mind, spelling programs should be organized to teach a sequence of regular spelling patterns.

Starting in first grade, spelling instruction should correspond with decoding instruction in reading.

When are children typically expected to spell these words? Trapped, offered, plate, illustrate, preparing

Plate: end of first grade when the most common long vowel spelling is learned.

Trapped: end of second grade when the basic doubling rule for endings beginning with vowels is learned.

Preparing: end of fourth grade when students expand their knowledge to Latin-based words with prefixes, roots, and suffixes.

Illustrate: end of fifth grade when more complex words with prefix, root, and suffixes are learned.

Offered: end of sixth grade when patterns involve prefixes, roots and suffixes, and more complex spelling changes.

From: Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science (1999).

While most students can read many more words, systematic instruction is necessary for the development of spelling skills starting with understanding the correspondences between sounds and letters. Next, predictable vowel patterns need to be taught. English vowels patterns are classified as six basic syllable types. They are:

  1. Closed syllable: One vowel followed by a consonant; the vowel is short (e.g., mug)

  2. Silent “e” syllable: Vowel-consonant-silent “e”; the vowel is long and the “e” is silent (e.g., bake)

  3. Open syllable: Long vowel at the end of a syllable (e.g., he)

  4. Consonant “le” syllable: Comes at the end of the word; sounds like /ul/ (e.g., turtle)

  5. “R” controlled syllable: When a vowel is paired with the letter “r”, it has a different sound (e.g., barnyard) (bossy “r")

  6. Vowel team syllable: Two vowels with one sound (e.g., power)

Next, teach students the rules for adding endings to words. Daily practice of irregular, high frequency words should occur. Students with dyslexia need many opportunities to build their memories for words, write words accurately, and this means careful introduction of only a few new words at a time. Practice makes permanent! Systematic, intensive practice includes an emphasis on:

  • Multisensory techniques

  • Sequencing sounds correctly

  • Writing words from memory

  • Providing practice and review.

Students who are learning sight words should have these words incorporated into spelling instruction with a focus on the most common words. Having students keep lists of words that are mastered for reading and spelling, as well as lists of their own difficult to spell words they use frequently, and providing them with shortened lists for reference, are effective aides for generalization. Good spelling is vital to literacy development as it improves writing fluency and underpins reading success. Accurate spelling makes writing much easier by allowing the writer to focus on the ideas they wish to relay and not the letters they need to put on the paper. Spelling instruction impacts reading skills by creating an awareness of the phonemes that make up words and the graphemes that spell those sounds. As students’ who struggle with spelling participate in writing activities, accommodations can provide a positive and supportive atmosphere for them in the classroom.

Accommodations for students experiencing spelling difficulties include:

  • grading written work primarily on content,

  • providing the spellings for key content words to be used in writing,

  • allowing older students to use speech to text software for dictating exams and papers,

  • encouraging students to turn in drafts of work to allow for revision before grading,

  • providing proofreading assistance.

Students who are developing spelling skills are often discouraged by traditional weekly spelling tests. Lists of words to memorize with points given for accurate spellings are not only ineffective ways to test spelling development, but discouraging to the student. One way to provide a more positive testing experience while effectively monitor students’ progress in spelling is to apply a modified scoring procedure that gives points for approximating the accurate phoneme-grapheme relationships. The following rating scale can be used to evaluate spelling tests and support spelling progress:

0 points: random letters 1 point: One phonetically related letter 2 points: Correct initial phoneme 3 points: Two correct phonemes (does not have to be correct grapheme) 4 points: Correct number of syllables represented (only used for multisyllabic words) 5 points: All phonemes in the word are represented 6 points: All phonemes in the word are represented with possible English spellings (e.g., rane for rain) 7 points: Correct spelling

Adapted from: Tangel and Blachman (1992) and Kroese, Hynd, Knight, Hiemenz and Hall (2000).

Spelling is more than memorization; it is the intricate weaving of grapheme and phoneme relationships and orthographical knowledge. Effective spelling instruction for struggling learners incorporates all three skills while providing appropriate accommodations and modified grading procedures to encourage success.


Kessler, B. & Treiman, R. (2003). Is English spelling chaotic? Misconceptions concerning its irregularity. Reading Psychology, 24, 267-289.

Kroese, J.M., Hynd, G. W., Knight, D.F., and Hiemenz, J.R. and Hall, J. (2000). Clinical appraisal of spelling ability and its relationship to phonemic awareness (blending, segmenting, elision, and reversal), phonological memory, and reading in reading disabled, ADHD, and normal children. Journal Reading and Writing, 13, 105-131.

Tangel, D. M., Blachman, B. A. (1992). Effect of phoneme awareness instruction on kindergarten children’s invented spelling. Journal of Reading Behavior, 24(2), 233-261.

Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science: What Expert Teachers of Reading Should Know and Be Able To Do. (2000). Washington, DC: American Federation of Teachers. Downloaded from:

Recommended Resources

Joshi, R.M., Treiman, R., Carreker, S., & Moats, L.C. (Winter 2008-2009). Analyzing the component skills of spelling and its implications for effective instruction and intervention. American Educator, 32(4), 6-16, 42.

Word Study for Students with Learning Disabilities and English Language Learners.(2002). Vaughn Gross Center for Reading and Language Arts. Downloadable from:

Funded by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs, the intent of this manual is to present effective instructional techniques and lessons for teaching word study to all students with reading difficulties, including those who are English language learners. The first section provides an overview of effective word study instruction, including sample sequences for instruction and adaptations for English language learners. The second section provides lessons and activities to use in the area of word study.

Annmarie Urso, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the Ella Cline Shear School of Education, Division of Special Education, at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Her current research interests include the role of processing speed in the cognitive profiles of poor readers and effective interventions for students identified as treatment resisters in reading. Dr. Urso also studies pre-service teachers as they prepare to teach culturally and linguistically diverse exceptional learners. She is interested in the role of cultural historical activity theory and cultural modeling design as frameworks for course design in pre-service teacher education programs.

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