[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1993/1 p23-25 later designated J14]
[See Journal and Newsletter articles by Patrick Groff.]

Update on Spelling Instruction:

Patrick Groff.

Professor of Education Emeritus: San Diego State University.

The kinds of spelling research conducted, and the discussions thereof in educational publications doubtless impact upon the progress of spelling reform. Spelling reforms obviously will be influenced by what educators accept from experimental research as valid guidelines to spelling instruction. The latest summary of the research on students' acquisition of spelling abilities is presented in the Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts. [1] This volume was commissioned by the U.S. educational organizations, International Reading Association and National Council of Teachers of English. It is conceded that these two associations exert more influence over the teaching of spelling than do any others.

The Domination of Developmental Spelling.

The Handbook makes clear to educators its belief that emphasis on spelling should center "on the nature and development of spelling ability rather than on instructional issues" (p 775). Thus, whenever in this volume reference is made to spelling it is almost totally on what is called "developmental spelling' (DS). Research on spelling other than that on DS largely is ignored in the Handbook. Its clear implication is that educators should follow suit.

Advocates of DS observe that progress by students toward mastery of conventional spelling advances thru distinctly different developmental stages or levels. These points range from seemingly random use of letters to spell words, thru to a "phonetic" stage of spelling (which resembles reformed spelling), and on to a "correct" (conventional) level.

The proponents of DS then infer that students will move thru these stages at the most expeditious pace possible when they are not given direct and systematic spelling instruction. It is clear that DS is part of the grander "whole language" ("real books" in the U.K.) theory that children best learn to read and writer in precisely the same way they learn to speak. Students' normal progress thru the DS levels thus would be handicapped by formal instruction, it is held. The teacher dedicated to the ideas of DS simply will create a learning environment in which students formulate, and evaluate their own personal hypothesis about how words should be spelt.

Basic Shortcomings of DS.

There are some serious shortcomings about DS and the implications for instruction drawn from it.

One, the DS notion that direct instruction in spelling should not be begun before the "correct" spelling stage is not supported by the experimental research on spelling teaching. To the contrary, the empirical evidence indicates that direct and systematic instruction of spelling skills, no matter how these are determined, gets students to the "correct" stage of spelling faster than otherwise is possible.

Two, proponents of DS have described in only an imprecise and subjective way the parameters of the various DS levels, as well as the age norms at which children enter and leave these supposed stages. It is obvious that direct teaching of spelling would compound the difficulties in determining this time schedule for DS. Experimental research makes clear that formal spelling instruction accelerates children's acquisition of spelling skills. The critics of DS thus are asked to accept, in large measure, the intuitions of the defenders of DS as to its validity. [2]

DS and Spelling Reform.

No discussion of the research on spelling in the Handbook suggests that there is a connection between DS and spelling reform. Nonetheless, it is immediately apparent that students' spellings at the "semiphonetic" or "phonetic" levels of DS closely resemble some of the spellings advocated by spelling reformers. In this respect, it would appear that DS offers some support for spelling reform. Unfortunately, this encouragement to spelling reform is not forthcoming. The goal of DS is not to make sure that students can spell words phonetically in a reasonable and uniform manner, that is, DS does not challenge in any way the assumption that conventional spelling does not need to be reformed. The seemingly blind spot in DS prevents it from joining with spelling reform in an implementation of students' natural inclinations to spell words phonetically.

The only reference to spelling reform in the Handbook, in fact is to the "proposals to reform the alphabetic vagaries of English orthography [that have occurred] at least as far back as the thirteenth century" (p. 776). However, the volume goes on, "the English writing system is more than an apparently flawed graphic transcription of phonology; it also represents lexical, grammatical, and semantic features of language" (p. 776). The Handbook insists that these features of language seen in spellings must be preserved, i.e., that they present more advantages to the reader than they do disadvantages to the spelling. The reader rules over the speller in English language instruction, the Handbook implies. Hence, the unimportance of spelling reform which it presumes.

The reasons why DS distances itself from spelling reform remain a mystery however. For one thing, DS offers no proofs that students at the "phonetic" (i.e., reformed spelling) stage take into significant consideration when spelling, the grammatical and semantic features of words that DS claims are so important to sustain. In this regard, DS actually seems at odds with itself. On the one hand, it strongly endorses the idea that students should develop "an analogical spelling strategy" (p. 778) so that their knowledge of the spelling of certain words can be used to spell other words whose spellings have not been secured in memory. In this respect, DS puts great faith in the principle that learners should make generalizations about how words are spelt. Spelling reform would agree, of course, but add that the development of such rules by students about spelling are attained more readily with reformed than conventional spellings.

In any event, DS clings to conventional spelling as the foundation on which students make generalizations about the spelling of words, despite the fact that this understructure is visibly shaky, i.e., belies the existence of a satisfactory rationale. While DS concludes that "the most significant insight" from research "is the recognition of the active involvement of developing writers in their own learning" (p. 780), it appears insensitive to the implications of the fact that students reach the "phonetic" level of spelling, which is akin to reformed spellings, before they arrive at the "correct" or conventional spelling level. This chain of events might be an incentive for DS to insist that the "phonetic" level of spelling is preferable to the present conventional spelling system. Given that students need to develop a growing awareness of recurring, consistent orthographical patterns, "Would it not be easier to achieve this awareness with reformed spelling than the conventional mode?" DS advocates must be asked.

In fact, supporters of DS seem to unwittingly concede this argument. In their chapter on the Handbook, Dorothy Strickland and Joan Feeley observe that by grade two spelling becomes a "risky business" for children. By this they mean that as children move away from the "phonetic" stage of DS, the special pressures they encounter from trying to spell conventionally create such emotional distress for them that children "refuse to 'spell it like it sounds' or even to write much at all" (p. 292). These students seem as content with rational phonetic spelling as are the spelling reformers.

Can DS and Spelling Reform Be Allied?

As implied so far, DS presents a potential means for spelling reform to gain some greater general acceptability than it now has. As DS is now determined, however, certain trade-offs between it and reformed spelling would be necessary if an alliance between the two were forged. Notably, spelling reformers, at least those concerned with instruction, would have to give up for the time being their insistence on direct and systematic teaching of spelling. It is clear that for spelling to form a merger with DS it must in effect agree to a de-emphasis on the instructional issues regarding spelling, as called for by the Handbook, and concentrate on the nature and development of spelling. Doubtless, many spelling reformers could live with this arrangement. These are the reformers who presently believe that the instructional issues of spelling should remain for the educators to resolve.

In exchange for this concession by spelling reform, DS would be asked to assist in convincing the public that phonetic (i.e., reformed) spelling, which children find much easier and more natural to acquire, slowly replace the conventional variety. If this agreement could be shaped, spelling reform would gain an immensely influential ally, indeed. As noted, the forces of DS now dominate the field of educational research, its reports, its practice, and the journals that educators typically read. These periodicals at present will not print negative critiques of DS, per se. They may be amenable, however, to the acceptance of manuscripts that argue that since DS clearly has established that "phonetic" spelling is more pedagogically economical to strive for than is conventional spelling, the former ultimately should become the generally accepted orthography.

In this manner, spelling reform might open a much needed crack in the barriers to its advancement that now appear so formidable. In this way, the spelling reform movement, desperate for a means to better publicize its solution to the spelling burden that conventional spelling now engenders, could wedge its foot into the door, or get its nose under the tent, so to speak. If spelling reformers can agree that a new momentum for the movement is its most critical goal at present, an alliance with DS could be the needed agent for this advance.


[1] James Flood, et al. (Eds.) (1991). Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts. New York: Macmillan.

[2]. Patrick Groff (1986). The implications of developmental spelling research: A dissenting view. Elementary School Journal, 86, (3), 317-323.

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