Updated: Dec 16, 2021
Spelling is often thought of as something to be learned through rote visual memorization. In order to practice spelling people often use flash cards or they will write the word dozens of times. But poor spellers continue to struggle with spelling no matter how hard they study for that spelling test. Even if they can manage to remember the spelling long enough for the test, they will likely spell the word wrong again the next time they try writing it in another context. Studies are showing that good spelling is not learned through visual memory. Like reading, spelling is learned through learning the sound patterns of words. Successful spelling programs are all based on structured, explicit instruction about the sound letter correspondences and other rules for spelling in the English language.
Many people believe that the English language is too irregular to teach spelling patterns. But in reality, 50% of English words are completely predictable and another 34% of words are predictable except for one sound. Examples of this include “knit” and “two”. If a speller were also taught word origins, meanings that influence spelling, and rules about how the position in a word effects the sound of a letter there are only 4% of words that are truly irregular. In the examples above you would learn that these words are of Anglo-Saxon origin and are some of the oldest words in the English language. They were set to be spelled this way when the printing press was invented, and they were pronounced different at that time. Over time we stopped pronouncing “k” in front of “n”. You would also learn that “tw” often relates to the number two. (twin, twenty, twelve).
There are 5 things that affect the way that a sound will be spelled. The first one is word origin. Here is one example of how word origin effects spelling. The letters “ch” spell the sound /ch/ as in “chip” in Anglo-Saxon words but in words that came to English from Latin either directly or through the French language “ch” will spell the sound /sh/ as in “chef”. And if a word of Greek origin contains the letters “ch” it will make the sound /k/ as in “chemistry”. These things may seem mystifying as if the words where “ch” does not say /ch/ are breaking the rules but when you are taught about word origins it makes sense.
The 2nd thing that effects the spelling of a word is the letters that are next to each other. Of course, digraphs, both consonant digraphs like “ch”, and vowel digraphs like “oa” are examples of this. Also let’s think about the letter “c”. The letter “c” is a copycat and does not actually have its own sound. The sound the “c” will make depends upon what letter comes right after the “c”. If the “c” is followed by “e”, “I”, or “y” then the “c” will copy “s” but if any other letter follows then the “c” will copy “k”.
Syllable pattern is the next thing that affects the spelling of a word. Good teaching of both reading and spelling will teach all syllable patterns and what sound the vowel will make in that syllable pattern. There are 6 syllable patterns and vowels can make different sounds depending on which syllable they are in. Vowels are definitely the most confusing letters, and this is one of the reasons for the confusion. Another reason is the next thing that will affect spelling and is related to syllable patterns. It is accent. If a syllable is open and accented, then the vowel will be long but if the syllable is open but unaccented the vowel will not be long.
This brings us to the last thing that affects spelling of a word and that is the position of the sound in a word. An example of this is the sound of /k/, which can be spelled with a “ck” at the end of a word but never at the beginning of a word.
This may seem like a lot to learn but when it is taught in an explicit and sequential manner it will help any one of any age to both read and spell better. Instead of being an unknowable mystery the reasons for spelling will begin to make sense to you. Instead of thinking that you have to memorize every word you will begin to realize that you can spell words that you haven’t even seen before using your knowledge of sounds, word origins and spelling rules.
I am not suggesting that visual memory has no place in good spelling, but I would consider visual memory to have a supporting role, certainly not the main tool in your spelling toolbox. Good spellers will notice familiar patterns and constraints of the English language. They will learn patterns about when double letters are correct and when they are not. They will be aware that letter combinations like “bt” don’t do together, but that “bl” commonly do.
Learning to spell correctly also has a strong role in supporting comprehension. Sometimes the idea that we should spell everything completely phonetically seems like a good idea that could solve lots of problems but it would cause us to loose the meanings of many homonyms. A good speller thinks about the meaning of what they are spelling so that they will know whether to spell “tax” or “tacks”. The more you learn about how and why we spell things the way we do the more it will make sense, be interesting, and free up your mind to think about the content of what you want to write instead of worrying about finding a synonym that is easier to spell!