Thursday, January 01, 2009

How Words Cast Their Spell

I have a friend who teachers higher level math at a local big-time university. Sometimes we talk about the current state of education. He turned me on to this article from the current issue of American Educator. I highly recommend it to those of you who are interested in reading, writing, and spelling instruction. I knew most of this stuff already, and you homeschoolers probably know it too. But to see it expressed out in the open, without apologies, as if it's become OK to challenge the educational status quo; that was exciting!

Here's a lengthy excerpt. It's a lengthy scholarly article, but I highly recommend reading the whole thing . . . if you're interested in teaching reading. The only quibble I have is that the pace they recommend can be a lot faster, as it is with Riggs.
More recent studies, however, do not support the notion that visual memory is the key to good spelling.6 Several researchers
have found that rote visual memory for letter strings is limited to
two or three letters in a word.7 In addition, studies of the errors children make indicate that something other than visual memory
is at work. If children relied on visual memory for spelling, regular
words (e.g., stamp, sing, strike) and irregular words that are
similar in length and frequency (e.g., sword, said, enough) should
be misspelled equally often. But they are not. Children misspell
irregular words more often than regular words.8
So, if words aren’t memorized visually, how do we spell? That
will be thoroughly explained later in this article. For now, here’s
the short answer: Webster was right not just on the importance
of spelling, but on how to teach it too. Spelling is a linguistic task
that requires knowledge of sounds and letter patterns. Unlike
poor spellers, who fail to make such connections, good spellers
develop insights into how words are spelled based on soundletter
correspondences,† meaningful parts of words (like the root
bio and the suffix logy), and word origins and history.9 This
knowledge, in turn, supports a specialized memory system—
memory for letters in words. The technical term for this is “orthographic
memory,” and it’s developed in tandem with awareness
of a word’s internal structure—its sounds, syllables, meaningful
parts, oddities, history, and so forth. Therefore, explicit instruction
in language structure, and especially sound structure, is
essential to learning to spell.

Don’t Students Learn to Spell through
Flashcards and Writing Words?

Given both the widespread belief that English spelling is irregular
and the previous studies that stressed visual memory for words, it’s no surprise that many teachers teach spelling by writing
words on flashcards and exposing students to them many
times or by having students write words 5 to 10 times. Unfortunately,
the effectiveness of such methods is not well established.
In contrast, studies show that spelling instruction based on the
sounds of language produces good results. For example, to test
whether a visual approach or language-based method is better,
researchers taught spelling to typical second graders using two
different methods: a visual method and a method in which students
focused on correspondences between sounds and letters.10
After administering lists of words as spelling tests, these investigators
drew the attention of the visual group to their errors, wrote
the correct spellings on flashcards, and showed children the correct
spellings. In contrast, the children in the language-based
group were given instruction on the sounds involved in their
misspellings. The group that received the language-based spelling
instruction showed significantly greater progress than the
visual group. Similarly, another researcher, after examining five
successful spelling instructional approaches for children with
learning disabilities, observed that the successful programs had
one thing in common: they were all based on structured language
instruction that explicitly taught principles like soundletter
correspondences.11 Researchers also have found that
second and third graders at risk of literacy problems improved
their spelling (as well as their word recognition, handwriting,
and composition skills) after structured spelling instruction
based on the concept that speech sounds are represented by
letters in printed words (i.e., the alphabetic principle).12 And a
series of studies showed that training in phonological awareness
(i.e., awareness of the sounds that make up language) improved
the spelling and reading of children in low-income, inner-city schools. The training was especially effective among the lowestperforming
children.13 In sum, these and other studies have
found that effective spelling instruction explicitly teaches students
sound-spelling patterns. Students are taught to think about
language, allowing them to learn how to spell—not just memorize

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At 10:18 PM, Blogger MightyMom said...

OK, I skimmed it so correct me if I'm wrong....but basically this whole long thing just says

"Hooked on Phonics worked for me!"


At 5:07 AM, Blogger Jungle Mom said...

Thanks for sharing this, Harry. I am sending it to a few friends.
Phonics is a linguistic tool. When I learned Ye'kwana, I had to learn the language and the patterns of the words and how they put them together to spell words. English is the same.
I do have one dyslexic daughter. She functions well and reads anything but struggles with spelling. She begins college next year, I am wondering if you may know of any book or material with suggestions for her.

At 8:17 PM, Blogger Harry said...

Sort of, but it goes into more depth and helps students build a greater body of knowledge than Hooked on Phonics.

Jungle Mom,
If she could find somebody to tutor her in Riggs it would help. You could email The Riggs Institute (or I could if you tell me where your daughter is going to college) to see if they know of a Riggs tutor in the area. She could get help with letter formation, but would also probably have to learn the phonograms in order to get to the dictated spelling part of the program that would really help solve her dyslexia.

At 7:40 AM, Blogger Jungle Mom said...

Thanks I will look into it. We have done a lot with her and her spelling is legible. She does quite well in Spanish, probably in part to it being much easier linguistically speaking, and also she grew up hearing Spanish much more than English.
She is a math wizard and wants to study Nursing.

At 11:01 PM, Blogger MightyMom said...

have you heard of this?

At 8:15 PM, Blogger Harry said...

I took a look. I've never heard of them, but I've been able to correct letter reversals in many children. I assume that's what they mean by Dyslexia. It takes time and effort, but it doesn't have to cost a lot of money and involve a special program. Some people like Marva Collins, and others claim that there are no learning disabilities, only teaching disabilities. I don't know enough about how the brain works to know either way, but I do know that reversals can be corrected. It does take longer with older students who have spent more years being confused about which way the letters face.

Hilde Moss has a good book on learning disabilities, YOU CAN PREVENT OR CORRECT LEARNING DISORDERS, The Complete Handbook of Children's Reading Disorders.


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