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What is the best method for spelling instruction?

I often get asked what is the best instructional methodology for spelling outcomes. On a mechanistic level morphology instruction makes the most sense to me as the English language spelling system is based on morphology. On the other hand, teaching spelling through encoding (phonics) also makes sense to me, as if students can sound out words, it obviously comes easier to spell. 


Galuschka, Et al, conducted a meta-analysis on the topic of spelling and reading instruction strategies in 2020, focusing on students with learning disabilities. I would have prefered to look at a meta-analysis that looked at students in general; however, to the best of my knowledge no such meta-analysis exists. Moreover, in my experience with reading the literature, strategies that appear high yield for students in general are usually high yield for students with learning disabilities. Although, studies on students with learning disabilities typically yield lower effect sizes. Galuschka’s meta-analysis reviewed 2666 studies and excluded all but 28 individual studies. Studies without control groups, small sample sizes, or insufficient data were excluded. Overall the inclusion criteria appeared rigorous, which leads me to have faith in its’ results. 


The Galuschka meta-analysis looked at 5 types of instruction: morphological, phonological, orthographical, rote memorization, and computer program based. I excluded computer program based instruction from my review, because I think computer based instruction is too dependent on the program being used and was therefore not generalizable to a wider audience of educators. 



Morphology Instruction:

Instruction that teaches the meaning behind units of letters or morphemes. IE: ed indicates past tense. 


Phonics Instruction:

Instruction that teaches the sounds of letters and letter combinations.


Orthography Instruction:

Orthography instruction can be referred to as instruction that breaks down words according to the phonemes in it. For example, Orthography instruction might teach students to break down a word like sheep, as Sh-ee-p. The authors point out that more orthographically in-depth instruction focuses on the fact that multiple letter representations exist for many phonemes. For example, the “F sound can also be represented by GH and PH. Another term for orthography instruction might be, linguistic phonics. 


Rote Instruction:

Instruction that has students memorize the spelling of individual words. 


Spelling Instruction Discussion:

Overall we see significantly positive effect sizes for phonological, morphological, and orthographical instruction. However, we see very little benefit to rote memorization spelling instruction. This is contrary to traditional spelling instruction, which has students memorize word lists and be tested on them. It is also interesting to note that the orthography based spelling instruction under performed phonics based instruction, as the orthographic method is more linguistically accurate. I often see linguistic arguments for instructional strategies, but I personally remain cautious of the idea that deep linguistic accuracy is necessary for effective instruction. 


Reading Instruction Discussion: 

I think the reading instruction results were far more controversial than the spelling results. While, it is not all that surprising that phonics results were high, as this is consistent with the literature. It is surprising that rote memorization did better than morphology and orthography based instruction. This does not seem consistent with other meta-analyses on this topic and I would caution readers on jumping to the conclusion that rote memorization works for teaching reading, as there are too many words in the English language to memorize. That being said, I do think it is interesting that the two least linguistically accurate strategies outperformed.

One thing I think readers should take note of is the fact that effect sizes are not broken down by grade. I think this limits the scope of the validity of this research, as pedagogical methods usually show large variability in their effectiveness, across different grades. For example, phonics usually shows the highest outcomes in pre-kindergarten to grade 1. This meta-analysis only looked at grades 1-4, which might explain some of the outcomes found.


Practical Takeaways:

Phonics appears to be useful for both spelling and reading instruction; however, morphology instruction is the best method for spelling instruction. Teachers should therefore include both morphology and phonics based instruction in the primary years, with less phonics instruction as the students progress in their reading ability. 


Written by Nathaniel Hansford

Last Edited 2022-03-21


Galuschka, K., Görgen, R., Kalmar, J., Haberstroh, S., Schmalz, X., & Schulte-Körne, G. (2020). Effectiveness of spelling interventions for learners with dyslexia: A meta-analysis and systematic review. Educational Psychologist, 55(1), 1–20.

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