Are word lists really the best way to approach spelling instruction? Read on to find out what role, if any, word lists should play in teaching spelling.
It’s a cool spring day. Despite the chill in the air, my 10-year-old self feels the heat of embarrassment rising throughout my body as the telltale patches of red bloom on my cheeks. I am my school’s representative for the county spelling bee, and I just misspelled my word. I didn’t remember it from the practice list.
The spelling word list—most of us have probably encountered it in our own education, and many have used it in an attempt to teach our own children.
Spelling is developmental, following a fairly predictable progression through various stages. Formal instruction begins at the second, or Phonetic, stage. In this stage, the student is establishing phonemic awareness, which is “the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual sounds—phonemes—in spoken words.” (Source) Therefore, most instruction is focused on helping children match individual sounds in words with the symbols that represent them. In this stage, the use of carefully controlled word lists for dictation exercises can be extremely beneficial in the process.
The next stage is the Skill Development stage. At this point the student has a solid foundation in phonics, which is being applied to both reading and spelling. However, much to a child’s dismay, a large number of commonly used words in the English language are not spelled phonetically. A different approach—developing long-term memory—becomes necessary to master these more complex patterns and irregularly-spelled words. In an attempt to accomplish this, many programs turn to spelling word lists. These lists may be word-family based, grade-level based, theme based, or seemingly random. However, the reality is that the “drill and kill” spelling list approach simply does not work! As Edmund Henderson, a researcher at the University of Virginia, stated, “Those who set out to remember every letter of every word will never make it.” (From Teaching Spelling) This is because the brain treats individual words as item information, similar to a grocery list, which never makes it to long-term memory. If you’re lucky, the correct spellings will stick around for a few days, but they will subsequently disappear.
So if word lists don’t work, what does? According to Sandra Wilde, a professor at Hunter College, “An effective spelling curriculum should include a combination of reading, writing, and teaching…When you see a word in print once, you’ll probably be able to spell it better than before you’d seen it (particularly if it’s a long or tricky word), and the more times you see it, the more likely you are to be able to spell it correctly.” (Source) This is precisely the philosophy behind the Spelling You See program. In the Phonetic stage, dictation lists are provided to assist in the development of letter-sound correspondence. As the student enters the Skill Development stage, the use of high-interest passages rather than word lists provides the context necessary to promote linkage of the new information to long-term memory. The core activities of chunking, copywork, and dictation of a single passage throughout the week, along with personal guidance from the parent/teacher, provide the appropriate combination of reading, writing, repeated exposure, and teaching to help students develop into competent and confident spellers.