Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

In English, there are 26 letters, 44 sounds, and 250 or more different ways to spell those sounds. That means phonetic spelling will only get kids so far. Yet how many times have parents uttered “sound it out” to a child asking how to spell a word?

Kids’ responses to this refrain are often as wrong as they are reasonable. Think: spelling does with duz. Silent letters, single letters representing multiple sounds, and a slew of sounds with the same pronunciation, but vastly different spellings, all complicate English. Not to mention letter combinations like -ough, which is pronounced ten different ways. Yes, ten. (Rough, plough, through, slough, though, cough, hiccough, thought, thorough, lough.)

Don’t get me wrong: knowing how sounds typically correspond to letters is crucial for approximating spelling. But when there are multiple phonetically plausible options, spellers need more information to choose the correct one. There are three main ways they tend to get this information: exposure, memorization, and instruction.

Let’s take a look at each to gain insights that can help us parents facilitate better spelling sooner—and bolster reading speed and comprehension to boot.

Exposure. Kids learn a great deal about spelling without being explicitly taught, and this learning begins as soon as they pay attention to print. Their environments—the books, signs, and other text surrounding them—provide the raw material for subconscious learning. Whenever kids lock in on the letters in books, on signs, on toys, and elsewhere, they begin soaking up and analyzing simple visual characteristics of written language.

Kids instinctively apply this knowledge of letter combination probabilities to even their earliest spelling attempts. Preschool-aged kids demonstrate unconscious knowledge of visual patterns in spelling, long before learning that letters represent speech sounds or starting to attempt to spell phonetically. They tend to write common letter sequences (like bi) more often than infrequent ones (like bn) in those seemingly random strings of letters kids produce early on, according to multiple studies. As they advance in age toward kindergarten, children tend to overuse letters from their own names, and letter combinations in alphabetic order, in their word-like scribblings. Their writing attempts reflect the print they’ve noticed most.

Researchers call this process “statistical learning,” because kids’ spelling efforts are informed by how frequently they’ve seen letters appear in certain combinations, orders, and positions within words. The children aren’t consciously counting the instances of various letter sequences or calculating probabilities, but they’ve gathered the data and synthesized it to inform their own writing, nonetheless.

But great spellers aren’t made through print exposure and reading alone. Unconscious pattern recognition has its limits. First, children have to have sufficient exposure to print and pay attention to it for statistical learning to kick in. In the beginning, this focus requires an adult directing them—for instance, pointing to the text accompanying an illustration in a picture book, or their name on a paper.

And the more complex, contextual, or rare the pattern, the harder it is and longer it takes to grasp subconsciously. Patterns that exist in one circumstance but not another are tricky. (Think spelling the short o sound with an a after w or qu—like in swab, squad, or wallet—but spelling it with o otherwise—like in odd, body, or olive.)

Simply put, formal spelling instruction offers a more direct path to the language knowledge that kids need, as we’ll see lower in this post. Exposure supports and lays the groundwork for that instruction.

Memorization. Students also learn to spell words by memorizing them, although this method works worse than you’d expect, given its popularity in schools. Spelling isn’t a solely visual task that can be learned effectively by copying words or staring at them. Teachers commonly report that the method fails to help kids spell on tests or in real-world writing.

Still, many instructors keep on outsourcing such busywork to parents, asking us to oversee nightly spelling practice in preparation for Friday quizzes. Not that the word lists and quizzes themselves are the problem; it’s the lack of instruction in how to learn the words.

First-grade homework folders from coast to coast often include “spelling spirals”—writing the week’s words in coil shapes—and “rainbow writing”—copying words using different colored pencils. These kinds of copying activities show up frequently in spelling programs, leading teachers to think they deliver key spelling practice in a fun package. But there’s little evidence they help kids learn—and they aren’t much fun, either.

A group of educational psychologists (three of whom are parents whose kids had been assigned rainbow writing) decided to test the value of copying words in different colors. They performed some small experiments with first and second graders to measure the rainbow writing’s value against something called “retrieval practice.” In the latter, the teacher dictates a word, the student spells the word on paper, and compares their spelling attempts to the correct spelling, then the student flips his paper over, and does it all again.

Though both are essentially memorization exercises, time spent exerting effort to recall or “retrieve” spellings (versus merely rewriting them) was more effective. Retrieval practice led to better spelling and the students reported liking it more, too. Still, one-off memorization of individual words, one by one, through either copying or retrieval practice leaves something to be desired. Namely, deeper knowledge of our written language.

Instruction. Unsurprisingly, students also learn to spell well when they are directly taught how the language works. Properly approached, spelling is a rich, multifaceted content area that includes many areas of instruction:

  • Speech sounds: Discerning and segmenting consonant sounds, vowel sounds, and syllable patterns.
  • Letter knowledge: Spotting, naming, and forming letters; knowing that they can represent speech sounds in writing; and having a sense of their typical positions and combinations within words.
  • Spelling patterns: Knowing the most common spelling patterns and the patterns within the most frequently encountered words.
  • Meaning: Identifying, analyzing, and combining bases, prefixes, and suffixes. Understanding how suffixes can change a base word’s number, tense, or part of speech.
  • History: Recognizing that words come from a variety of sources, including other languages, and that their origin impacts spelling.

Practically speaking, just knowing that spelling is about more than sounding out words puts you ahead of the parent spelling-knowledge curve. Stay tuned for upcoming posts that tackle each of these spelling topics in turn.

What do you remember about how you learned to spell? Did you spend time copying words? Did you have word lists, weekly tests, or pattern lessons?

How Children Learn To Spell

Sources and Further Reading

Treiman, Rebecca, “Teaching and Learning Spelling,” Child Development Perspectives 12, 4 (2018): 235-239.

Treiman, Rebecca, “Statistical Learning and Spelling,” Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools 49 (2018): 644-652.

Sliter, L., “Cough, Cough: Here Are 10 Different Ways To Say ‘ough’,” Dictionary.com Everything After Z, accessed February 7, 2019, https://www.dictionary.com/e/s/ough/.

Treiman, Rebecca, and Brett Kessler, Kelly Boland, Hayley Clocksin, and Zhengdao Chen, “Statistical Learning and Spelling: Older Prephonological Spellers Produce More Wordlike Spellings Than Younger Prephonological Spellers,” Child Development, 89, 4 (August 2018): e431-e443.

Doyle, A., J. Zhang, and C. Mattatall, “Spelling Instruction in the Primary Grades: Teachers’ Beliefs, Practices, and Concerns,” Reading Horizons 54 (2015): 1–34.

Fresch, M. J., “A National Survey of Spelling Instruction: Investigating Teachers’ Beliefs and Practice,” J. Lit. Res. 35 (2003): 819–848.

Jones, A. C. et al, “Beyond the Rainbow: Retrieval Practice Leads to Better Spelling than does Rainbow Writing,” Educ. Psychol. Rev. 28 (2016): 385–400.