[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society J18 1995/1 p7-10]
[Patrick Groff: see Journals, Newsletter, Bulletins.]


Patrick Groff.

Professor of Education Emeritus San Diego State University (USA).
Editor's note: Groff here refers to "Whole Language Exclusivists" but not to "Whole Language Plus Phonics" advocates. "Whole Language Exclusivists" often are reacting to "Phonics Exclusivists" who taught over 100 skills in isolation, with much dull drill and little or no spontaneous writing. Literacy instruction will likely continue to swing from one of these extremes to the other until we get many regularized spellings accepted and used in schools.
A "great debate" over spelling instruction has intensified in the past generation. With the advent of the remarkable popularity of the "Whole Language" approach to literacy development in schools in the English-speaking nations, particularly in the United Kingdom, and the USA, Australia, and New Zealand, views as to the best way to promote students' orthographic skills have split into opposing camps. The Whole Language position is that spelling should be learned "naturally" in school, that is, in much the same way that preschool children learned to speak.

Literacy experts who base their judgements about spelling instruction on relevant experimental evidence disagree. They can find no empirical support for the ideological stand that Whole Language advocates take on this issue. Cognitive scientists offer support, noting that learning to speak and to literate are remarkably different processes (Liberman, 1989). Spelling reformers cannot escape being caught in the middle of this controversy.


Experimental research on the relative effectiveness of differing ways of teaching the correspondences between speech sounds and letters on students' ability to spell words in conventional ways offers some insights into what would happen if reformed spellings were used. It is logical to presume that the efficiency of any method of spelling instruction would be enhanced if this teaching were conducted with a reformed spelling system.

Rules in Reformed Spelling and Phonics.

How would instruction in spelling "rules" differ, depending on whether reformed or conventionally spelt words were used in teaching? The reformed spelling of words is analogous to what are called "regularly" spelt words in the experimental research. In both reformed and conventional spelling, these "regular" words are spelt according to predetermined "rules."

These rules in reformed spelling can be arrived at quite differently, it is clear, than the rules devised for teaching conventional spellings. For example, in certain reformed spelling systems, such as New Spelling 90 (Fennelly, 1991), the learner would have to master only a single spelling rule in order to spell correctly the high front vowel in stressed and open syllables that is called in "phonics" instruction the "long" vowel sound as heard in feed.

In school phonics programs that deal with conventionally spelled words, however, the student must become proficient in the application of at least four rules in order to spell the long sound in feed. The long sound in feed usually is taught first with the spelling in Pete. The spelling of the sound in Pete is part of the "mat-mate" problem, which some spelling reformers consider to be "at the very heart of the spelling problems of the English language" (Groff, 1993, p. 8).

This phonics instructions then is continued by teaching children the spelling of the long sound in question in feet and feat. Finally children learn how this long vowel sound is represented by letters in be and any, for example.

A Modern Study.

The effect that direct and systematic teaching of these phonics rules has on beginning speller's acquisition of conventional spelling ability has been examined extensively in experimental studies over the years (Groff, 1994). Their general findings have been replicated by recent, highly-regarded research by professor Barbara Foorman and her colleagues (1991) at the University of Houston (USA). They were concerned with how intensive versus nonintensive teaching of letter-speech sound correspondences relatively affects the reading and spelling progress of first-grade students. Sponsored by a grant from U.S. National Institute for Child Health and Human Development.

Following their extensive review of previous related experimental evidence, Foorman, et. al. began their investigation under the presumption that the relationship between students' application of phonics to spell words conventionally, and their application of word meaning for this purpose, was bidirectional. nat is, the researchers found previous empirical evidence that indicated phonics teaching for spelling development need not preclude word meaning as a medium for developing spelling skills. They also located evidence suggesting that stress on word meaning in spelling programs should not do so to the exclusion of the teaching of phonics information.

Spelling programs that emphasize word meaning (more than they do the development of pupils' phonics knowledge) typically make spelling errors that reflect the sensitivity to word meanings that these children have been taught to express. However, spelling programs that emphasize phonics teaching (and de-emphasize teaching the effect of word meaning on spelling) produce pupils whose spelling errors reflect their acquired knowledge of the phonics rules of spelling. In short, different spelling programs actually do produce the kind of spelling behavior that students have been taught.

Which Is the Better Product?

Whether these two kinds of spelling behavior, (a) as produced from word meaning training, or (b) as the result of mastery of phonics rules, are of equal value to beginning spellers trying to learn how to spell conventionally spelt words, is quite another matter, however. The findings of the Foorman, et. al. (1991) research makes this clear. They discovered in their year-long investigation of first-grade children in public schools that:

1. Phonics-trained children spell both spelt words (e.g. had), and irregularly-spelled words (e.g. have), significantly better than do meaning-trained pupils.

2. All the children in the study spelt regularly spelt words better than irregularly spelt ones. This is one of the most common findings in experimental spelling research. While unfortunately not so far the case, this finding by itself should be enough to attract educators to the spelling reform movement.

3. The phonics-trained pupils made fewer errors in their spellings that were nonphonetic, i.e., that did not follow phonics rules, than did the word meaning-trained pupils. As noted, children's spelling behavior is malleable. It will conform to instruction.

4. All the children in the study made errors that indicated their efforts (more by the phonics-trained group) to regularize the spelling of the irregularly spelled words. In short, these young children often were behaving like spelling reformers. The best spelling reformers among these pupils were the ones who have been phonics-trained. This finding implies that young children shown how letters regularly can represent speech sounds likely are more hospitable to spelling reform than are adults. This attitude in children also suggests another reason why simplified spelling in school probably would promote the goal of students' competence more readily than conventional spelling programs have been able to do.

5. Students' abilities to segment the phonics of spoken words were good predictors of their spelling abilities at the end of the experiment. This conscious awareness of the phonemes in spoken words is measured, for example by having students count the number of sounds in words, repeat the speech sounds they hear, listen to isolated speech sounds said serially, and pronounce the word involved (e.g., /h/-- /i/--/t/ = hit), and to tell how the pronunciation of a word changes when speech sounds are added to it, removed from it, or substituted in it.

6. The relationship of children's conscious phonemic awareness and their spelling ability was found to be bidirectional. That is, capacity in one of these components was predictive of capability in the other. Not resolved by the Foorman, et. al., study, however, was the validity of the position held by some literacy experts that pupils' knowledge of how words are spelt precedes their ability to segment the phonemes in spoken words. Some of these authorities contend that phonemic awareness actually is caused by pupils learning to spell, rather than vice versa. They therefore question whether phonemic awareness is predominant prerequisite to learning to spell (Ehri, 1992).

7. The ability of the children in the study to spell predicted their reading ability. The better readers that the pupils were, the better they could spell. This finding confirms the earlier evidence that one of the best ways for children to reinforce their ability to recognize a written word is to learn to spell it. While this is a commonsense idea, as well as one supported by the empirical data, educators commonly ignore it. For example, one is likely to observe children in school learning to read one set of words, while learning to spell a separate, nonoverlapping list.

8. Foorman, et. al. found a "snowball" effect of knowledge of spelling. The children who made exceptional gains in spelling early in the course of the investigation maintained this differential in skill over their slower achieving cohorts as the school year progressed. An achievement gap in beginning spelling, for whatever reasons, is likely to persist.

Stanovich (1986) calls this common learning phenomenon the "Matthew Effect," referring to the Biblical revelation in the book of Matthew that the rich usually get richer, while the poor get poorer. This finding of the Matthew Effect in the study underscored the vital importance of the selection by schools of an empirically verified superior approach to spelling development in grade one. Only in this way is it possible for all school beginners to become "rich" in spelling skills, and then to retain their "affluence" in this respect in later grades.

Opposition to Phonics for Spelling.

The findings of the Foorman, et. al. study are useful as a summary of the effect on young children's conventional spelling skills of teaching them phonics information in a direct and systematic way. Foorman and her colleagues thus found it important to reveal some evidence, uncovered in the course of their study, of the shocking unwillingness of school officials to respect these historical empirical findings.

For example, Foorman and her team identified some teachers in the school districts they contacted who taught phonics information for spelling in a direct and systematic way. However, the study was denied access to these teachers as participants in the investigation because, school officials unabashedly told the researchers, these teachers' spelling instruction practices were in violation of school district teaching policies. In other words, the school districts here had banned the kind of spelling instruction that Foorman, et. al. (and many other similar previous investigations) had found to be the superior approach to first-grade children's spelling development.

Equally distressing in this respect was the observation by Foorman and her fellow researchers that schools that enrolled upper-income students were more likely to employ direct and systematic phonics teaching in their spelling programs than were schools that enrolled lower-income students. Thus, the students who typically have the greatest difficulty in learning to spell were taught by what Foorman, et. al. found to be the less efficient approach for delivering such skill.

Eminent critics of literacy research (e.g., Stahl & Miller, 1989) have not been able to find a single experimental study in which the word meaning approach to promote spelling, used with students classified as in a lower socioeconomic status, produced for them higher achievement scores than did the direct and systematic teaching of spelling. The fact that some school districts that Foorman and her cohorts contacted for possible inclusion in their study were perpetuating the continuation of the disastrous "Matthew Effect" on the spelling growth of young children from low-income families does not appear to be an exclusive Texas phenomenon. My extensive visits to public schools on a regular basis lead me to believe that many children in San Diego, California also are victims of this unintended result of spelling instruction.

The Whole language Barrier.

The oppostion to experimentally verified spelling instruction stems basically from the adoption by school districts across the nation of the Whole language "philosphy " (as its founders call it) of literacy teaching.

The guiding principle of the Whole language approach is that any aspect of literacy. spelling for instance, is best learned by students in school in the same informal manner that they acquired speech as preschoolers. Therefore, direct and systematic instruction in spelling is sharply de-emphasized in Whole Language classrooms.

Altho the great majority of school districts and state departments of education in the USA today strongly endorse the Whole Language style teaching of spelling, the experimental reserch findings on it consistently "are at variance with the major theoretical premises on which Whole Language approaches are based" (McKenna, et. al., 1994, p.34). Whole Language leaders are not discouraged nor embarrassed by this fact, however. "We do not wish to deal with hard data", they readily admit. One of the founders of the Whole Language movement explains why. To be a bona fide advocate of Whole Language one must believe that "only one kind of research has had anything useful to say about literacy," he claims, "and that is ethnographic or naturalistic (i.e., anecdotal) research."

Whole Language leader Shelly Harwayne (1994, p. 116) concurs. Whole language teachers "are not asking for more systematic investigations" into literacy, she avers. "They don't need any outsiders collecting data. They don't need to see more charts, matrices, and tables. They don't need to hear more about statistical analysis, control groups, and variables. They don't, for example, need batteries of standardized assessment test to tell them whether their students are growing" in literacy. Last, Whole Language demands that it be accepted as a nonfalsifiable hypothesis or process. At least that it be allowed to shield itself fully from the potential ravages of scientific evidence.


The Whole Language point of view of spelling instruction thus may create a love-hate relationship for spelling reformers. One the one hand, they doubtless will be favorably attracted to the Whole Language practice of allowing students to "invent" spelling words. In such spellings children tend to regularize orthography in ways that often are similar to reformed spelling patterns.

On the other hand, there appears to be nothing in the literature on spelling reform that would endorse Whole Language's rejection of the experimental research findings on spelling instruction. Also, reformed spelling is characterized by system, analysis, and gentility, characteristics notably missing in Whole Language.

In this regard, Whole Language leaders' reactions to negative criticisms of their ideological stance often are frantic, unduly suspicious, and/or outright hostile. To a researcher who would examine experimentally their practices, their response is: "Who the hell are you? You come into my classroom with a briefcase; you don't know anything about the children I teach" (Ohanian, 1994, p. 61). Experimental investigators merely "pretend to a role of neutral statesmen," it is charged (Edelsky, 1990 p. 7). It is seen as "outrageous" that they supposedly attempt to impose their whole-language violating agenda on them [WL educators] while expecting those educators to cooperate in the violation" (p. 7).

As I have argued previously in these pages, endorsement of reformed spelling by the hugely popular Whole Language movement would accelerate greatly the progress of the campaign to rationalize spelling. The association of spelling reform and Whole Language nonetheless would make strange bedfellows. This odd cohabitation would not be absurd, however, if it resulted in widespread acceptance of regularized spelling. There also is a consoling element in this matter. Reformed spelling, once established, doubtless would prove itself indispensable. Whole Language, to the contrary, inevitably will fade away, as have all the inviting, yet ultimately disappointing educational concoctions of the past.


Edelsky, C. (1990). Whose agenda is this anyway? A response to McKenna, Robinson, and Miller. Educational Researcher, 19 (8), p7-11.

Ehri, L. C. (1992). Reconceptualizing the development of sight word reading and its relationship to reading. In P. B. Gough, L. C. Ehri, & R. Treiman (Eds.), Reading acquisition (pp. 107-143). Hillsdale, NJ: Eribaum.

Fennelly, L. R. (1991). New spelling 90. Croydon, England: SSS.

Foorman, B. R., Francis D. J. Novy, D. M., & Liberman, D. (1991). How letter-sound instruction mediated progress in first-grade reading and spelling. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, p. 456-469.

Groff, P. (1993). Some empirical data on the mat-mate system. JSSS J15 1993/2 p8-9.

Groff, P. (1994). Recent spelling research: Some implications for spelling reform. JSSS J16 1994/1 p3-7.

Harawayne, S. (1994) Whole language: Now more than ever. In C. B. Smith (Ed.), Whole language: The Debate (pp. 112-123). Bloomington, In: EDINFO.

Liberman, A. M. (1989). Reading is hard just because listening is easy. In C. von Euler, I. Lunberg, & G. Lennerstrand (Eds.) Brain and reading (pp.197-205). London: Macmillan.

McKenna M. C., Robinson, R. D., and Miller, J. W. (1994). Whole language and research: The case for caution. In C. B. Smith (Ed.) Whole language: The Debate (pp.17-42). Bloomington, IN: EDINFO.

Ohanian, S. (1994). Who the hell are you? In C. B. Smith (Ed.) Whole language: The Debate (pp. 58-61). Bloomington, In: EDINFO.

Stahl, S. A. & Miller, P. D. (1989). Whole language and language, experience approaches for beginning reading; A quantitative research synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 59, 87-116.

Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-407.

Back to the top.