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Why Spelling Is Important and How To Teach It Effectively
Written by: Virginia W. Berninger, University of Washington, Seattle, USA and Michel
Fayol, Université Blaise Pascal & CNRS, Clermont-Ferrand, France
Spelling is a code that uses letter sequences to represent specific words that have an
associated pronunciation and meaning within the mental dictionary. Three kinds of
codes contribute to spelling: a phonological code (coding and awareness of sounds in
spoken words), an orthographic code (coding and awareness of letters in written
words), and a morphological code (word parts at the beginning of words that modify
shade of meaning and at end of words that mark tense, number, or part of speech). For
example, the word “jumped” has five small sounds in it: /j/, /u/, /m/, /p/, and /t/ (these
sounds are called phonemes). However, it has six letters. That is because the last two
letters correspond to a word part (morpheme) that marks the past tense but
corresponds to a single sound. In other words, that sound might be /d/ as in “named” or
/ed/ as in “wanted.”
Other sources of knowledge also contribute to spelling. These include vocabulary
knowledge (semantic features or meaning clues), phonotactics (permissible and
probable sound sequences, patterns, and positions in spoken words), and orthotactics
(permissible and probable letter sequences, patterns, and positions in written words).
For example, in English, words do not begin with the /m/ sound followed by the /l/ sound
or generally end with /h/. Also, u not a follows q and the letter x does not double at the
end of words but l, f, and s may. Further complicating matters is that the same word
pronunciation may be associated with multiple meanings, which linguists call polysemy.
Syntax (part of speech for a particular word and the permissible word order of the
language) provides the clues that help the writer clarify which of the multiple meanings
for that pronunciation is intended (e.g., He wound the clock. The wound did not heal.
The boy read the red book. )
Spelling knowledge may be expressed as rules, statistical patterns, or procedures and
these different kinds of knowledge have various implications for instruction. Examples of
English spelling rules include generalization about (a) when to double final consonants
in syllables as a function of accent patterns (e.g., when the accent is on the second
syllable, double the last consonant in the second syllable, but when the accent is on the
first syllable, do not double the last consonant). This rule is shown when “refer”
becomes “referring” but not when the accent is on the first syllable as in “secret” which
becomes “secretive” not “secrettive”) or (b) when to drop or add letter(s) to the end of a
base word when a derivational suffix beginning with i is added (e.g., final silent e is
dropped when adding “ing” as in “tame” becomes “taming”) (Dixon & Englemann, 2001).
French spelling rules specify that certain consonants double in certain positions but
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vowels do not double (Pacton, Perruchet, Fayol, & Cleeremans, 2001). Phonotactics
and orthotactics are based on abstracted statistical patterns that capture the sound
sequences in spoken words or letter sequences in written words. The abstraction takes
place through self-teaching (Share, 2004) in implicit memory outside conscious
awareness as children repeatedly encounter words in different codes (Pacton et al.,
2005b; Pacton et al., 2001). Although some of these statistical patterns can be
articulated like doubling f, l, and s at the end of words, many cannot be but yet influence
spelling knowledge. Mapping across different units of spoken and written words is
procedural knowledge learned best in conscious memory as children apply knowledge
of procedures for spelling single words from dictation.
The contrasting instructional implications of these different kinds of knowledge will now
be considered. Rules are articulated declarative knowledge, applied at the
metacognitive level in guiding, self-checking, or revising spelling. Teachers verbalize
these rules and ask children to verbalize them too. Linguistic awareness is not acquired
by verbalizing rules but rather by conscious reflections and operations on phonological,
orthographic, and morphological word-forms and their parts in conscious memory. For
example, children may engage in word sorts in which they have to reflect about
common and unique sounds or morpheme patterns in written words as they classify
them into categories. Little is known about how to teach children to abstract statistical
patterns related to sound sequencing or letter sequencing, however, it may help to draw
their attention to these patterns by playing games in which children judge whether
scrambled sequences of sounds in spoken words sound like words in their language or
scrambled sequences of letters look like written words in their language. Using
anagrams in which they unscramble the letters to spell a real word may also benefit
their spelling. Research reported later shows how specific procedures can be taught
through modeling for helping children generate word spellings at the levels of phoneme-
grapheme correspondences, onset-rimes, and whole words. Not all of the necessary
spelling knowledge can be taught as declarative knowledge or rules.
Past views that spelling goes through sequential stages from phonological to
orthographic to morphological (e.g., Templeton & Bear, 1992) are being reconsidered
based on research showing that first graders have not only phonological but also
orthographic (Cassar & Treiman, 1993; Pacton et al., 2001; Treiman, 1993) and
morphological (Carlisle, & Nomanbhoy,1993; Pacton et al., 2005b; Treiman & Cassar,
1996) knowledge that they apply to spelling. Both beginning spelling and developing
spelling, when words are longer and morphologically more complex (Carlisle & Fleming,
2003), draw on phonology, orthography, and morphology (Berninger, Garcia, & Abbott,
2009; Silliman, Barr, & Peters, 2006; Walker & Hauerwas, 2006). Woodcock Johnson
Third Edition (WJ III) Spell Sounds Subtest (Woodcock, McGrew, & Mather, 2001)
assesses phonological spelling with pseudowords. Process Assessment of the Learner,
Second Edition (PAL II) Word Choice subtest (Berninger, 2007) uses real words and
pseudohomophones to assess orthographic spelling. PAL II Find the Fixes (Berninger,
2007) uses real words with common spelling units that are true affixes (e.g. reread) and
foils (e.g., ready) that are spelled like a real prefix or suffix but are not morphemes to
assess morphological spelling.
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Spelling instruction is still important in the computer age, even with spell checks for self-
monitoring and revising spelling. Most spelling instruction research has focused on word
frequency and words children use frequently in their writing at specific grade levels and
the role of alphabetic principle taught in the phoneme-to-grapheme direction. However,
the role of specific words (Largy, Cousin, Bryant, & Fayol, 2007) and rules (Fayol,
Thévenin, Totereau & Jarousse, 1999) in learning to spell continues to be debated.
During spelling instruction children have to coordinate phonological, orthographic, and
morphological codes in working memory; through instruction and practice, children
create a mental dictionary with spellings of written words in long-term memory.
Instruction should teach spelling strategies and provide practice in applying them to
develop automatic spelling, which is fast, effortless retrieval of word-specific spelling
(Steffler, Varnhaggen, Friesen, & Treiman, 1998).
Different modes of spelling instruction can be differentially beneficial, for example,
keyboarding is better for writing letters and sometimes words in sentences; but pen is
better for composing essays (Berninger, Richards, Stock, Abbott, Trivedi, Altemeier et
al., 2007). Spelling is not the inverse of reading (Read, 1981), but word reading and
spelling share reciprocal relationships (Ehri, 1992, 2000; Holmes, & Carruthers, 1998)
and teaching spelling may transfer to reading (Treiman, 1998). Although good spellers
tend to be good readers and poor spellers tend to be poor readers, about four percent
of French children have good reading and poor spelling and about four percent of
French children have good spelling and poor reading (fluency) (Fayol, Zorman, & Lété,
Key Research Questions and Findings
1) Is explicit instruction in mapping spoken words onto written words at specific
unit sizes or rules effective in teaching spelling?
In large, randomized controlled studies different instructional approaches to teaching
conscious procedural knowledge for mapping units of spoken words onto units of written
words were compared. Both lexical mapping (naming each letter in a written word in
sequential order and then pronouncing it) and onset-rime mapping (naming the onset
grapheme[s], making the corresponding sounds for phoneme[s], naming the letters in
the rime unit and finally, pronouncing the remaining part of the syllable) were effective in
learning to spell taught and new one-syllable words. However, alphabetic principle
mapping (naming each one- or two- letter unit and then saying the corresponding
phoneme) resulted in more accurate spelling during composing (Berninger, Vaughan,
Abbott, Brooks, Abbott, Reed et al., 1998). The results supported teaching mapping
procedures for the whole word, onset-rime, and alphabet principle to at-risk second
Half the children reached grade level and maintained gains at beginning and end of
third grade. The other half received additional spelling instruction in third grade that
included the three mapping procedures for spelling two-syllable words with and without
syllable awareness training; they also wrote sentences from dictation. All reached
average range for grade and maintained gains at end of third grade; syllable awareness
training showed an advantage for silent-e words (e.g., became) (Berninger, Vaughan,
Abbott, Brooks, Begay, Curtin et al., 2000). Spelling mastery of practiced words was
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achieved only when specific words were spelled in dictated sentences in each of the 24
lessons during the study (see Dreyer et al., 1995, for role of practice in improving long-
term spelling retention).
Teaching mapping procedures for alphabetic principle improved children’s spelling of
function words (conjunctions, prepositions, articles, and pronouns that glue words
together in sentences but have no meaning of their own) (Berninger, Vaughan, Abbott,
Begay, Byrd, Curtin, et al., 2002). Teaching orthographic strategies for imaging words in
the mind’s eye improved spelling (Berninger, Abbott, Rogan, Reed, Abbott, Brooks, et
al., 1998; Berninger, Winn, Stock, Abbott, Eschen, Lin et al., 2008, Study 1) and
normalized brain activation during an fMRI spelling task (Richards, Aylward, Berninger,
Field, Parsons, Richards, et al., 2006). Explicit instruction in phonological (Nunes,
Bryant, &Olson, 2003) and morphological spelling rules is also effective (Fayol,
Thévenin, Jarousse, & Totereau, 1995; Nunes & Bryant, 1995; Nunes et al., 2003).
For evidence-based instructional tools and strategies for explicit spelling instruction, see
Berninger and Abbott (2003, Lesson Sets 4, 5, 7, and 10); Dixon and Engelmann (2001;
Fry (1996); Graham, Harris, and Loynachan (1996); Henry (2003); Masterson, Apel, and
Wasowicz (2002); Nunes and Bryant (2006); and Schalagar (2001). Also see readings
at end for teachers to expand their knowledge of the role of phonology, orthography,
morphology, vocabulary knowledge, phonotactics and orthotactics, and syntax in
spelling. Research has shown that teachers’ knowledge of language processes is as
important as the instructional tools they use in increasing their students’ literacy skills
2) Are reflective activities for developing phonological, orthographic, and
morphological awareness effective in teaching spelling?
Children acquire much spelling knowledge in implicit memory outside conscious
awareness (e.g., Nation, Angell, & Castles, 2007; Pacton, Perruchet, Fayol, &
Cleeremans, 2001; Share, 2004). Explicit instruction that brings those knowledge
sources into conscious awareness also improves spelling (e.g., Dreyer et al., 1995;
Berninger et al., 1998, 2000, 2002, 2007; Graham, Harris, & Chorzempa, 2002). Explicit
instruction does not have to be knowledge telling or direct instruction. It can include
activities such as word sorts that help children discover, through insight, awareness of
(a) alternations in English alphabet principle (Venezky, 1970, 1999) such that different
one- (e.g., c and k) and two-letter (e.g., ck or ch) graphemes spell the same phoneme
(e.g., /k/) (Berninger et al., 2002), (b) morphological awareness (Arnbach & Elbro,
2000), and (c)interrelationships among phonology, orthography, and morphology
(Berninger, Nagy, Carlisle, Thomson, Hoffer, Abbott, et al., 2003).
In languages such as French or English in which the same letter or letter group is not
always pronounced the same and semantic access is not direct: spelling, decoding, and
semantic access (to word meaning) are mediated by morphology (Pacton, & Fayol,
2005a). For French and English spelling, it is necessary to learn orthographic and
morphological regularities (Pacton et al: 2001, 2005b) and some lexical items (see
Martinet, Valdois, & Fayol, 2004). For example, in French it helps to find most silent
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letters placed at end of words (bavard has a final d because we can produce bavarde;
Pacton & Deacon, 2008). For French, morphology for marking singular and plural forms
must be taught because most of the marks (-s for plural nouns and adjectives; -nt for
plural verbs) have no phonological counterparts (Fayol, Largy, & Lemaire, 1994; Fayol,
Hupet, & Largy, 1999; Fayol, Thévenin, Jarousse, & Totereau, 1995). In English,
correspondences between sounds and letters alone do not assure access to
morphological structure, which must be parsed and coordinated with phonological
encoding (e.g., the vowel in nation is transformed when the suffix –al is added to
transform a noun into an adjective).
3) Does explicit instruction in spelling transfer to improved composing skills?
Training mapping procedures at three unit sizes (whole word, onset-rimes, and
phoneme-grapheme correspondences) improved word-spelling and transferred to
longer compositions (Berninger et al., 1998). Composing activities using grade-
appropriate high frequency words (Graham, Harris, & Loynachan, 1993, 1994) improved
spelling and composing (Berninger et al., 2000). Graham et al.’s (2002) spelling
instruction also transferred to improved composition. Therefore, evidence is growing for
the benefits of teaching spelling on another writing skill, namely, composition.
Recent Research Results
A longitudinal writing study (grades one to seven) showed that spelling at one grade
level contributes to spelling and often written composition at the next grade level
(manuscript in preparation). Orthographic, phonological, and morphological awareness
showed significant growth from grades one to two to three with continued morphological
awareness growth thereafter (submitted manuscript). At grades two, four, and six, a
second-order factor underlying these three kinds of linguistic awareness explained
unique variance in spelling and fit the model better than if each factor (code) was
considered alone (Berninger, Raskind, Richards, Abbott, & Stock, 2008). The
instructional application is that spelling benefits from instruction not only in each of the
three codes but also in their interrelationships. An example of instruction that teaches
the interrelationships is word sorting in which children sort words using suffixes to mark
number into these categories: plural pronounced /ez/ (e.g., busses), plural pronounced
/s/ (e.g., cats), plural pronounced /z/ (bees), or no suffix (e.g. miss).
More research is needed on phonotactic and orthotactic knowledge and their influences
on word storage and access in the mental lexicon. Fast mapping, which involves whole
spoken and written words that are learned quickly in one exposure or a few exposures,
is likely to be influenced by phonotactic and orthotactic knowledge.
With increasing globalization and immigration and more than one language spoken at
work and in the home, multi-lingualism is increasing and requires greater research
attention to spelling across languages: (a) transfer of spelling from one’s first language
to one’s second language; (b) similarities and differences in spelling related to how
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phonology and morphology/syntax are represented in the orthography; (c) dialects
within the same language (e.g. Kohler, Bahr, Silliman, Apel, & Wilkinson, 2007;
Treiman, & Barry, 2000); and (d) word-origin influences such as English words that
derive from French, Latin, or Greek origins and constitute the vast majority of words in
English texts used in schools in grades four and above (Henry, 2002).
Effective spelling instruction (a) facilitates abstraction of phonological, orthographic, and
morphological regularities in words (e.g., deciding which spoken or written pseudoword
resembles a real French or English word), (b) models explicit strategies for mapping
different units of spoken and written words, (c) teaches explicit spelling rules, (d)
designs reflective activities that foster phonological, orthographic, and morphological
awareness, (e) offers metacognitive guidance in self-checking and revising spelling if
necessary; (f) provides sufficient practice with specific words to develop automatic
spelling; and (g) couples spelling with vocabulary instruction aimed at fostering love of
and play with words (Stahl & Nagy, 2005).
Date Posted Online: 2008-01-22 14:57:52
Berninger, V., and Fayol, M.
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To learn more about phonological codes in spelling, see Berninger, Cartwright, Yates,
Swanson, and Abbott (1994), Treiman, Berch, Tincoff, and Weatherston (1993),
Varnhagen, Varnhagen, and Das (1992), and Varnhagen, Boechler, and Steffler
To learn more about orthographic coding in spelling, see Berninger, Yates, Cartwright,
Rutberg, Remy, and Abbott (1992), Caravolas, Kessler, Hulme, and Snowling
(2005), Holmes and Davis (2002), Jaffre and Fayol (2006), Johnson (1986), Olson,
Forsberg, and Wise (1994), Seymour (1997), Pacton, Fayol, and Perruchet
(2005b), and Varnhagen et al., (1992, 1999).
To learn more about morphological coding in spelling, see Bourassa, Treiman, and
Kessler (2006), Carlisle (1994), Derwing, Smith, and Wiebe (1995), Green,
McCutchen, Schwiebert, Quinlan, Eva-Wood, and Juelis (2003), Jaffré and Fayol
(2006), Leong, (2000); Nagy, Berninger, and Abbott (2006), Nagy, Berninger,
Abbott, Vaughan, and Vermeulen (2003), Nunes, Bryant, and Bindman (1997),
Pacton et al. (2005b), Treiman and Cassar (1996).
To learn more about the role of vocabulary knowledge in spelling, see Berninger et al.
(1992, 1994) and especially Stahl and Nagy (2005).
To learn more about the role of phonotactics in spelling, see Apel, Wolter, and
Masterson (2006), Bernstein and Treiman (2001), Kessler and Treiman (1997),
and Treiman, Kessler, Knewasser, Tincoff, and Bowman (2000),
To learn more about the role of orthotactics in spelling, see Apel et al. (2006) and
Pacton et al. (2005).
To learn more about the role of syntax in spelling, see Bryant, Nunes, and Bindman
(1997, 2000), Fayol, Totereau, and Barrouillet (2006), and Muter and Snowling
Apel, K., Wolter, J., & Masterson, J. (2006). Effects of phonotactic and orthotactic
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To cite this document:
Berninger, V., & Fayol, M. (2008). Why spelling is important and how to teach it
effectively. Encyclopedia of Language and Literacy Development (pp. 1-13).
London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Retrieved from