Literacy Research

Literacy Research and learning to spell

Our research is pointing to a richer way to teach spelling. We expect students to write accurately and know how to spell. Research now shows us ways fo students to learn proper spelling for the language of their curriculum. We do instruct at the high sschool level for accurate spelling.

Traditional Spelling and Word Work

What was spelling instruction like for you?  If you’re like most of us, you had a weekly list of words from a textbook.  Sometimes the words were related – and sometimes not.  You were taught to memorize each word by copying it until you knew it.

And of course, you had the same list as everyone else in your class – whether or not one of you needed extra help or were ready for a more challenging list. When we give everybody the same list we are imposing unfair expectations that everyone should be ready to learn the same words at the same time—one size doesn’t fit all (Palmer & Invernizzi, 2015).

What’s wrong with the traditional approach to teaching spelling?

Rote memorization is not an effective way to learn and remember.   How many kids forget  their spelling words as soon as they finish the test? The brain is not wired to remember long lists of rules or words as individual units. It is a pattern detector.

With traditional spelling instruction, kids are passive learners.  Spelling is boring – for both the students and the teacher! We need to give kids an active role. Children move through the stages of spelling development at a different pace.  Just a handful of kids’ needs are met when the entire class has the same word list.

Traditional spelling instruction made spelling a “school” activity rather than a life skill. Words were memorized for the Friday test but they didn’t transfer their skills to real reading and writing (Palmer & Invernizzi, 2015). The purpose of spelling and phonics instruction is to make students better readers and writers. This can be accomplished with Word Work.


Word Work


  • It works for kids in preschool through high school.
  • It’s interesting.
  • It’s hands-on.
  • You don’t have to buy an expensive curriculum.
  • It’s great for the classroom.


What do we mean by word work? Word work is the spelling and phonics part of the literacy block.  Grammar and conventions are taught within the writing block.  In word work the students will be learning about words including spelling, relationships between words, patterns, meaning, and in upper grades historical origins. 

Word walls are often used in elementary grades.  High-frequency words and words with useful spelling patterns are introduced gradually and then put on the word wall.  Words are practiced in a variety of ways throughout the year.

In upper grades students work on big words with roots and affixes (prefix and suffix) because older students will encounter a high percentage of them in their reading.  According to Patricia Cunningham, “…big words contain most of the meaning, we cannot comprehend what we read unless we can pronounce and access meaning for these words” (2005, p. 125).  Students must know how the affix changes the meaning of a word and be able to transfer their knowledge across subject areas in order to make meaning as they read.  It is important for teachers in content areas to provide vocabulary instruction so that students can use domain specific terms.

Word work needs to be active.  There is very little transfer into daily work from drill and skill worksheets.  Students need to be building words, sorting and hunting for words, or using rhyming patterns to spell more words.  Dictionary skills may be taught in this time when trying to prove correct spelling as they are developing a visual checking system.

Cunningham, P. M. (2005). Phonics they use: Words for reading and writing. New York, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.


Palmer, J. L. and Invenizzi, M. (2015). No more phonics and spelling worksheets. Heineman: Portsmouth,


A better way to teach spelling (Word study, part 1). (2011, June 11). Retrieved January 4, 2016, from

About our Supernova Award winner:  She does all that is asked and often exceeds the expectations set out for her. She is always willing to help a friend.

Mrs. Porath, Teacher

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