What is Needed for Good Spelling?

Before children even learn to read and write, they learn important things about sound through listening, growing their receptive language systems. They use sound in speech, growing their oral language skills to express meaning. Meaning is conveyed because language follows a grammatical structure, which children pick up as they listen and practice talking. At the onset of literacy, children build on their listening and speaking language systems to develop a whole new set of skills: reading and writing. 

Learning to use sound for literacy uses a set of skills called phonological processing. When these sounds are connected to letters, we use an aspect of phonological processing known as sound-to-letter mapping. 

Word mapping occurs when we use our phonological system with our orthographic knowledge (spelling rules and patterns) to bond sound to spelling within a word, no matter how complex, such as:

th ough t  in the word  thought

Once words are efficiently mapped, word form memory occurs — the ability to quickly and efficiently recognize and spell words. 

Word form memory, researchers believe, develops when we efficiently bind the sounds we hear (phonological processing) to the spelling we see (orthography). The result is incredibly efficient word storage and word retrieval. But these "word forms" must include word parts (prefixes and suffixes) that also connect to meaning and grammar (morphology) for true accuracy and fluency.

Morphological awareness is our ability to attend to word structure and to manipulate that structure. This is called morphology because a morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in words, such as base words, prefixes, and suffixes. Morphological awareness allows us to connect a vast number of words by meaning and grammar. For example, the words do, does, done, doing, did are all related and easily read, even though the sounds and spellings differ. This "do" family of words is also associated with did not, didn't, don't. Managing meaningful word parts (derivations and inflections created by combining base words and affixes) not only improves spelling, but contributes to vocabulary growth, grammatical flexibility, and overall proficiency in literacy.  

We can't teach spelling separate from sound processing, separate from orthographic mapping, nor separate from morphological awareness (which we call word study). All of these skills are needed for spelling, and they are all tied to word-level reading skills, vocabulary building, fluency, comprehension, grammar, and writing composition.

To learn how to approach spelling with all three necessary components, explore educator master course: Foundations for Teaching, Reading, Writing & Spelling

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