Spelling Revealed

There are exciting changes happening in the world of spelling!

While most of us don’t think the words exciting and spelling can be used in the same sentence, it is possible. After decades of teaching spelling the same old way—testing kids on word lists—changes are afoot. Linguists are crossing into the field of education, giving new understanding to spelling and how best to teach it.

Possibly the worst spelling method, the “Sight Word” method, was taught to my children in their early years in traditional school. This method uses all the words included in the “first 100 words” list, encouraging kids to memorize what the word looks like. Unfortunately, memorizing words doesn’t work, and the lists consist of a bunch of words that have nothing in common. Like all test-driven spelling programs, the hope is that kids will be motivated to get good spelling grades, and therefore, study hard enough to remember. In fact, my children did get good spelling grades, but their spelling skills were mostly unchanged in their original writing.

In my years in Catholic school, I was taught using a traditional phonics approach. The traditional phonics approach to spelling looks like this: teach a phonics rule, practice lists of words that fit the rule, then learn all the exceptions to the rule. For example, there is a phonics “silent-e” rule that states that the single silent-e creates a long vowel sound, as in the word <make>, but there are many words that defy that rule, such as <come>, <house> and <give>. Those words aren’t exceptions, they just follow different spelling rules we need to learn—and teach!

Linguists share the many jobs of the silent-e, as well as the insight that words are spelled based on their history, or etymology, not based on phonics rules. In fact, one linguist, Gina Cooke renamed “sight” words as “insight” words. Thanks to these insights, spelling can be taught from an etymological perspective.

I teach spelling using a combination of the methods, because we use many pieces of information when we spell. Here is how our complex language system analyzes our complex spelling system:

  1. We track sounds that we hear in a word (using our phonology skills)

  2. We learn spelling expectancies for the sounds we track (using pattern recognition and word-form memory skills to learn orthography)

  3. We attend to the grammatical structure of words (using our syntax skills)

  4. We understand word meaning (using our semantic language skills)

  5. We understand how words are built and which words are related by origin (using knowledge or word structure known as morphology)

An acronym for this complex spelling method is POSSM: phonology, orthography, syntax, semantics and morphology. When we teach spelling to our children, we want to learn and teach from a POSSM perspective.

Here is a fun lesson to consider:

  • Rule: words that share the same job tend to share spelling patterns.

  • Most question words share a spelling pattern. Do you notice a spelling pattern?

  • Even more fascinating is that most corresponding answer words share a spelling pattern. Let’s look at that pattern by lining the words up to see for ourselves.


Many of our question words begin with a <wh> spelling pattern, and many of our answer words (especially old-fashioned ones) share a <th> pattern. Learning words together in their patterns can help us remember to spell question words with a <wh>! This can be especially helpful for children who confuse the spelling of <where> versus <were>!

When we teach spelling in relation to meaning and grammar, spelling becomes more interesting and it begins to make sense. History plays a primary role in spelling, so teaching spelling along with the history of the English language is a means for helping spelling stick! 


Rita CevascoComment