The Complexity of Teaching Spelling

Our spelling system is complex. We cannot just depend upon sounding out words and matching those sounds to an appropriate letter or combination of letters.  Phonology, orthography, and morphology and etymology all play a role in how words are spelled.

Spelling continuum with phonemic awareness, segment sounds, phoneme and grapheme correspondence, morphology and etymology

Phonology (Sound system in language) and Sound Segmentation

When we are first beginning spelling instruction, we are building the awareness of sounds.  Students should start by segmenting the individual sounds they hear in words. Helping students segment and identify each phoneme in a word will help students build a correspondence between one phoneme (sound) and one grapheme (letter or letter combination).  We can do this by using Elkonin or sound boxes, which can first be utilized with chips in boxes and then attaching them to print when  the student is ready.

Sound Boxes Elkonin Boxes

Students may also use a fist in the air to segment and count individual sounds in words.

Phonemes and Graphemes

Once students are able to segment individual sounds in words, they are ready to map sounds to the graphemes, or written representations of sound. Roughly 50% of words are easily spelled by sound-symbol correspondence (Moats, Speech to Print), an additional 30% can be spelled correctly using this same strategy- with exception of one sound. Our language does have many consistent spelling patterns that can be easily explained by our spelling rules.

When students are ready to start attaching sounds to print, we can utilize phoneme grapheme mapping templates, sound boxes with space to write the whole word, or a variety of other strategies.

Spelling Dictation Template Phoneme Grapheme Mapping

Morphology and Etymology

Morphology and etymology also play a role in how words are spelled. Morphology adds word parts to the beginning or end of the word (prefixes, suffixes) that change the word meaning in some way. For example, the ending -ed is added to words to denote past tense.  However, the surrounding letters will affect how the ending -ed is pronounced.  Thus, students MUST understand that the ending affects not only the meaning but pronunciation is affected as well. Ending -ed will not always be pronounced /id/, but may also say /d/ or /t/ depending upon what letter or sound ends the base word.

Etymology, or word origin, affects the spelling of words- sometimes in surprising ways.  For example why is the number two spelled with a tw? When we look at the etymology of the word we notice that there are Proto-Germanic origins for the spelling tw.  All of these words are impacted in spelling by the origin of tw:

Two – one more than one
Twin – double (two born at once)
Twelve – “two left” over ten
Twenty – two times ten
Between – something placed in the middle of two objects

TW Source: Etymonline

When we think about spelling, it is important to remember that we need to also look beyond just sounding out words, but also look at the meaningful word parts and word origin to help students understand the complexity that lies beneath the surface.


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