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Why teach spelling rules?

There's been some conversation recently about structured literacy programs that don't teach the most important spelling rules (generalisations) to students. This leads to the broader debate about whether spelling rules are an unnecessary distraction, and whether just teaching 'more common' and 'less common' spelling patterns is the way to go. In this post, I discuss why we at Playberry Laser T1-2 and Playberry T3 believe spelling rules are an important part of literacy instruction, and why failing to teach them dooms too many students to 'safe choices' when it comes to writing.
Picture of Bill Hansberry

Bill Hansberry

Co-Director Playberry Laser

Some folks argue against teaching spelling rules, arguing that this creates cognitive overload for students. I’m assuming their explanation would be that retrieving a spelling rule would create extraneous cognitive load and use up valuable working memory space that could otherwise be used to retrieve the correct letter string. If that’s the reason, then I’m dubious of it.  Programs that don’t teach spelling rules say that lots of exposure to orthographic letter strings is enough to anchor correct spelling in a learner’s long-term memory. For many students with strong orthographic processing, they’re right! We ‘good spellers’ (a population I’m lucky enough to be part of) have a couple of advantages going for us:

Advantage 1: Strong Phonology

Firstly, we have sharp phonological skills. We have no difficulty mentally lining up speech sounds (phonemes) when we want to spell a word. We don’t muddle the phoneme sequence and get ‘hostipal’ for ‘hospital’ when we put those sounds to paper as a sequence of letters. Folks with dyslexia often have difficulty at this level of spelling until they’re given targeted training to remediate this difficulty that originates in their language circuits. Phonological awareness training accompanied by additional and targeted practice matching letters to sounds makes a big difference.  

Advantage 2: Strong Orthographic Processing

Secondly, I and the others who find spelling easy are good at storing and retrieving orthographic images (correct letter strings) and the words these letter strings belong to. We can reliably retrieve the ‘aught’ when spelling ‘taught’, the ‘ic’ at the end of ‘frantic’ or the ‘ick’ on ‘brick’. We correctly choose ‘ale’ to spell ‘pale’ and ‘ail’ to complete ‘mail’ (and we also know we’re spelling what comes to the letter box, not a gender).

This ease of storage and retrieval of correct letter strings isn’t the result of hard work! Despite little study, we were the kids who constantly got 10/10 on weekly spelling tests! We were born with neural circuits that specialized well for this job when we learned to spell and read! We were lucky! Time to stop looking down our noses at folks who don’t spell as well as us. We didn’t earn it!

What if you don’t have strong orthographic processing?

So, where does that leave folks who don’t reliably store and retrieve the orthographically correct letter sequences that make up the words of our language? What do they do when they want to use a really cool word in a story like ‘frantic’ or ‘panicked’ to describe a high-emotion moment in a story? Do we doom them to safer but less descriptive words like ‘sad’ or ‘worry’ because they’re more likely to be able to spell these and avoid embarrassment?

What if that student, at that moment, can recall:

Whether the student has learned and practised that rule in tier 1 (whole classroom) instruction or in intervention, the fact is that if the program is a good one, they’ve received a lot of repeated exposure to the spelling rule and plenty of practice using it. It’s not as if it’s been taught once and then been expected to use it (BTW, that’s what can cause cognitive overload).

For this student, even though stopping and retrieving this rule will take them a moment, it does give them a chance to use this higher-level vocabulary word in their story instead of jumping to safe bets like ‘sad’ or having to grammatically re-structure the sentence so they can use ‘worry’ instead of ‘worried’ (there’s more cognitive overload).

By the way, there’s also a spelling rule that teaches students how to add -ed to ‘worry’ as well!

Philomena Ott, a giant in this space, tells us, quite correctly, that “Learning rules is not an infallible way to teach spelling”. She’s right. Being able to recite a rule doesn’t even come close to guaranteeing a student will then spell every word which a rule applies flawlessly, forever, “But it puts down markers, charts unknown territory and can prevent the dyslexic child from floundering in the quagmire of English spelling.”

(How to Detect and Manage Dyslexia by Philomena Ott)

Now, Philomena Ott is specifically referring to students with dyslexia. However, students with dyslexia or spelling difficulties that are dyslexic-like make up a large percentage of the population—some say up to twenty percent. Even if these students’ phonological difficulties are remediated, their orthographic difficulties persist due to their difficulty with storing and retrieving the correct letter strings of our complicated spelling system. 

I’ve not found one shred of evidence to suggest that teaching spelling rules to already strong spellers holds them back in any way. In fact, knowledge of the most important rules that govern English orthography sparks much interest in more capable spellers and encourages more risk-taking when spelling. 

When English spelling was standardised, around the time of the writing of the first dictionary by Samuel Johnson, rules were decided upon to govern the spelling of English words.

Why on earth would we withhold them?

Playberry Laser T1-2 is a teacher-supportive multisensory literacy resource for primary teachers to support their teaching in line with research. We’ve taken the planning and resource design load to free teachers to focus on building content knowledge and sharpening their delivery in line with Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction.

 

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