Northern Beaches Mums Group
Northern Beaches Mums Group

Debunking the top five myths around spelling

Although spelling is not related to intelligence, spelling errors are an easy target for others to snigger at, often putting a lot of pressure on learners to get it right. With so many bad habits and misplaced assumptions rife in the classroom, it’s time to bust five of the biggest myths about spelling.

Myth 1: Spelling tests help children

With a quarter of a million words in the English language, spelling is not about learning words by heart. A weekly test is never going to teach all those words, so it is difficult to understand why they remain so prevalent. In fact, research has shown that spelling tests have little to no influence on our spelling abilities outside the testing context. 

We don’t learn to spell words by heart. There are around 250,000 words in the English language in relatively common usage, and many of us know close to 60,000 of those words. We didn’t learn to spell those words through rote learning. We didn’t even learn them in those Friday morning spelling tests, because that would have been 6,000 tests, over about 150 years of schooling, assuming we had a perfect score each time.

Learning to spell through rote learning is not only impossible; it is also unnecessarily difficult. When we give students lists of words to be learned by heart, with no meaning attached and no investigation of how those words are constructed, then we are simply assigning them a task equivalent to learning ten random PIN numbers each week. That is not only very hard, it’s also pointless. We bring a lot more than our memory to the task of learning to spell.

Myth 2: Spelling is an innate skill and some of us possess it and some of us don’t 

Many approaches to spelling instruction reveal an underlying assumption that there is an innateness about a person’s ability to spell. In fact, many of us think spelling ability is something that some of us just have and others don’t. This is false. The truth is, good spelling comes from good teaching – and good teaching is often the part that’s lacking. 

Spelling is a learned skill. Our brains are not ready wired for spelling; each individual brain must learn to spell. There are some skills for which the brain comes ready wired – speaking and listening, for example. Reading, writing and spelling, however, have to be learned.

This is why without good teaching, it becomes inevitable that the low scorers will continue to score poorly. The children who score 10 out of 10 feel the reward, those who score three out of 10 feel the humiliation over and over again. Often they are sent off to write their incorrect words out 10 times. Little time is given to diagnosing the children’s errors, and the process simply repeats itself the next week.

Myth 3: You can help kids with spelling simply by sounding out the words 

Morphology is the study of morphemes in words. Morphemes are the parts of the word that carry meaning, for example, dogs has two morphemes: ‘dog’ and ‘s’. ‘Dog’ is obviously meaningful, but the ‘s’ is meaningful as well because it tells us that there is more than one dog. Notice how the ‘s’ on ‘dogs’ is making a ‘z’ sound? If we relied solely on the sounds we hear we would spell the word ‘dogz’. It is very useful therefore to talk to our children about the morphemes – or meaning components – of words.

Unpacking the meanings found within words is key to getting the spelling of the word right because English morphemes are quite regular, remaining consistent in their spelling even when their sound – or phonology – changes.

Consider the word jumped: if we relied on the sounds we hear, we are likely to spell it ‘jumt’, but if we think about the morphemes in jumped, we find ‘jump’ and ‘ed’. With ‘jump’ we can now hear the ‘p’ that had previously disappeared. And ‘ed’ tells us that the action happened in the past.

Morphemes are much more useful than syllables as an aid to spelling. Syllables are simply sound units, and breaking words into syllables renders the meanings of words invisible and therefore harder to learn. The two very useful morphemes in ‘magician’ simply disappear into abstract and unhelpful sound units when the word is broken into syllables: ma –gi – cian.

Myth 4: Words are just a string of letters to be remembered

In order to learn spelling in a way that will stick, it’s vital that children begin to understand the meanings of the words they’re trying to tackle. Words are not simply strings of letters, they are combinations of letter patterns and meaningful parts. 

For example, the word bicycle is not simply a string of seven letters. It has two distinctly meaningful parts: ‘bi’ meaning two (consider other bi words like bilingual, bifocal) and ‘cycle’ meaning circle or wheel. 

We can see this meaning structure in the more colloquial name for a bicycle: the two-wheeler. Rather than one string of seven letters to learn, we now have two smaller, meaning-laden parts to spell.

Myth 5: If you can’t spell it’s because you are not very good at reading or writing 

It’s easy to believe that poor spelling comes from a lack of ability in reading or writing, when in truth, it’s quite often the other way around. 

While spelling is not a measure of intelligence, it is true that doing poorly in spelling can affect a child’s performance in other areas of school. When children – and adults – feel unsure about their spelling, they can actively avoid tasks that involve writing. 

And when they do write they often choose phonetically regular words, or words they feel safe with, rather than the words they may want to use. The result can be writing that doesn’t do justice to their understanding and creativity.

Like all learning, the more fun, interesting, and engaging we can make spelling, the more likely these lessons are to stay with our children over the long term.

Misty Adoniou is an Associate Professor in Language and Literacy and is the author of Spelling It Out, a book that encourages children and adults to nurture a curiosity about words, discover their history and, in so doing, understand the logic behind the way they are spelled.