As adults, we know that the professional world judges spelling mistakes severely. Errors in a job application, resume, or email bias recruiters against candidates and significantly harm career advancement. What we parents may not fully appreciate is that the consequences of spelling woes emerge in elementary school, long before students enter the workforce.
Here are four things you need to know now about how spelling impacts your child—and how you can impact their spelling:
Spelling errors negatively bias teacher assessments. Presentation matters. Researchers have found that it’s hard for teachers to separate the content of student writing (the knowledge it displays, arguments it makes, and quality of supporting evidence) from its presentation (handwriting, spelling, and grammar). Even when content is what teachers aim to assess, they struggle to fairly and validly view the substance of work that has spelling issues.
With misspellings clouding teachers’ judgment, those who struggle with spelling are at risk of receiving lower grades and having their competency overlooked. This teacher bias especially impacts struggling spellers who handwrite assignments. Bottom line: Kids benefit when they learn to spell well early.
Spelling is integral to kids’ development as readers and writers. Spelling is the glue that sticks words in memory, renders them instantly recognizable in print, and makes reading them faster and more fluent. The act of spelling brings together children’s knowledge of words’ sound patterns, letter sequences, and meanings. The interweaving of these distinct but related understandings of a words’ look, sound and sense boost reading speed and comprehension. There’s even new evidence that strong spelling knowledge directly boosts 3rd grade reading scores on the pesky high-stakes state tests that keep schools and families on edge.
Formal spelling instruction works—and children of all ages can benefit. Numerous studies have strongly and consistently shown that direct, systematic spelling instruction improves students’ spelling and also their reading and writing. And high-quality spelling instruction better equips children to read for meaning, not just for pronunciation. Data shows that the benefits of formal spelling instruction extend throughout the elementary school and even middle school years.
Parents can make a huge difference. Despite its proven benefits, formal spelling instruction is generally neglected in schools, creating a meaningful opportunity for parents to pick up the mantle. Researchers have described spelling instruction as “the abandoned stepchild in the family of language arts.” Teachers devote minimal minutes per day to spelling instruction, yet fully one quarter of students experience substantial spelling difficulty, by teachers’ own reports.
As a parent, you are uniquely well-positioned to spur critical spelling development. You have access to volumes of authentic writing in the lists, letters, and stories kids pen at home—which you can use to identify the words your child wants to use and those they struggle to spell. Free from the confines of rigid school schedules, you have more time to deliver formal spelling instruction, when and how it’s needed, than classroom teachers. You’re also a ready resource to respond to in-the-moment spelling questions and challenges that pop up in your kids’ daily life.
This doesn’t mean hours of drills or forgoing more relaxed playtime with your child: A little parent spelling instruction, offered consistently, goes a long way. Next up: How to teach your child to spell.
Sources and Further Reading
Martin-Lacroux, Christelle, and Alain Lacroux, “Do Employers Forgive Applicants’ Bad Spelling in Resumes?” Business and Professional Communication Quarterly (2016), https://doi.org/10.1177/2329490616671310.
Graham, Steve, Karen R. Harris, and Michael Hebert, “It Is More than Just the Message: Analysis of Presentation Effects in Scoring Writing,” Focus on Exceptional Children 44, no. 4 (2011): 1–12.
Rossi, Maya, Sandra Martin-Chang, and Gene Ouellette, “Exploring the Space Between Good and Poor Spelling: Orthographic Quality and Reading Speed,” Scientific Studies of Reading 23, no. 2 (2019): 192–201, https://doi.org/10.1080/10888438.2018.1508213.
Paige, David D., Grant S. Smith, Timothy Victor Rasinki, William H. Rupley, Theresa Magpuri-Lavell, and William D. Nichols, “A path analytic model linking foundational skills to Grade 3 state reading achievement,” The Journal of Educational Research (2018): 1–11, https://doi.org/10.1080/00220671.2018.1445609.
Graham, Steve and Tanya Santangelo, “Does spelling instruction make students better spellers, readers, and writers? A meta-analytic review,” Reading and Writing 27 (2014): 1703–1743.
Joshi, R. Malatesha, Rebecca Treiman, Suzanne Carreker, and Louisa C. Moats, “How words cast their spell,” American Educator 32 (2008): 6–16.