Is “spelling” a dying skill?

It all started with a tweet from Michelle Fawcett (@michellefawcett), a wonderful Grade 5/6 teacher from a neighbouring Ancaster School:


I had to jump in. As usual, I couldn’t stick to the 140 character limit, 🙂 so my thoughts are actually spread over 3 tweets, all shared here:

From these three tweets, many others followed. Numerous educators chimed in on the need to teach or not to teach spelling. In a constant flow of tweets, we answered questions such as,

  • Should we be giving weekly spelling tests?
  • Our curriculum document has expectations for spelling, but does this mean, memorized spelling?
  • In the age of computers, is spelling a dying skill? What happens to those students that can’t afford this technology?
  • When considering equitable access, do the benefits of technology to assist with spelling really benefit all?

Some educators were sure that in the future, technology would be available for everyone at a reasonable price. Money would play even less of a role than it does now.  I agree with Michelle, who voiced her concerns about this. As the two of us continued this conversation later in a shared GoogleDoc, Michelle made this point:

I would rather not think in terms of technology or lack of technology. While technology does change our approach to spelling — with underlined words and auto-correct — we cannot forget about the paper dictionary. I have a class set of dictionaries in my classroom, and even with all of the tools that my students use as well — from computers to mobile technology — many still consult the paper dictionary. This is a resource for them to use, and a valuable one at that.

I also may not assign weekly spelling tests, but students work with words daily. They learn about different parts of words, and experiment with breaking words apart, working with chunks of words, and adding prefixes and suffixes to change words. My concern with a spelling test is that students memorize the words, but are not using these words in their writing. I want to teach spelling in a meaningful context.

All students are also not misspelling the same words, so why must they all memorize the same words? Some students are also really strong spellers, so why do they need a spelling test to spell words that they already know? If I’m differentiating in my classroom, then I need to meet all of the unique needs of my students, and this includes when teaching spelling.

As I mentioned in one of my tweets during this conversation, texting has also changed the nature of spelling. People understand each other despite spelling mistakes, and maybe in some way, this perpetuates the spelling mistakes. I don’t want to encourage incorrect spelling of words, but I also don’t want to make writing all about spelling. In my experience, this is how we get even more reluctant writers.

As a Grade 1 teacher, a Grade 1/2 teacher, and now a Grade 6 teacher, I’ve noticed that students become more aware of spelling errors as they begin to blog more. They now have an audience for their work, and if the audience cannot understand what they’re writing, these people may not comment on their posts. Their drive to spell correctly is now fuelled by more than just the teacher telling them to check for spelling errors.

So, is there a perfect way to approach this spelling issue? No. But as students have more access to technology, more opportunities to collaborate with others that can assist them with spelling errors, and a more meaningful audience for their work through various blogging opportunities, writing definitely becomes about more than just spelling. This is the way I think it should be. What do you think?



10 thoughts on “Is “spelling” a dying skill?

  1. I agree with you on differentiation. I see no point in students memorizing/practicing words they can already spell correctly. It is a waste of their time and ours. Attention to spelling should be done during the editing process so it doesn’t take their attention away from the content they are writing. I always told my second graders to write their thoughts, we will check for spelling later. Conventions versus content. I’ll go for content every time and edit for conventions! Authors typically take a year to write a new book because they are always revising and editing. We need to let the kids know it’s ok to make mistakes as long as we go back and revisit the writing piece.

    • Thanks for the comment, Laura! You make a great point here. How do you approach spelling during this editing time? Do students consult a dictionary, do they use word chunks to help spell other words, or do you give them the correct spelling? In Grade 2, do you correct all spelling errors or just words students should know how to spell given their grade? I always struggle with this. Thanks again!


  2. Well, I’m in first now so it’s a whole different bowl of wax!! lol In second, each child had a list of words that came from our word study rule of the week and some came directly out of their writing. Then we did word study (build mix fix- look say cover write check, etc.). This helped with words that they ALWAYS spell incorrectly like “because” and “was”. As far as content words, I let them peer edit first. Their editing buddy would go over their work and find all the words they could and circle them. Then, they had to fix them via word wall or word books…we didn’t implement the dictionary until later in the year. After that, I would look it over and circle any grade appropriate words for them to look up. The rest I let go. After all, with 23 kids it is impossible to edit EVERY child for EVERY mistake. Also, in my class, they would keep their stories in their writing folder so they could always go back. I found it VERY difficult to let it go but they were better off when I did. They do find ways to compensate when they are older…ex: my son (a hearing/speech child) can’t spell AT ALL! He was taught phonetic spelling at school and transitioned into “rules” in second grade but his articulation was so poor that his phonetic spelling has always been awful. He is an excellent reader, so I always thought he would eventually figure it out. He NEVER did, so what does he do now as an 8th grader? He right clicks all the red underlined words and uses the thesaurus feature on the computer. Compensating. And I also edit his papers after he has edited them several times. Neither one of us wants me to see the first copy…eeks! So, with all the tools they have available, do they need spelling? Yes..we have to do our jobs and teach it. Do they have to master it like we (or most of us) did? No… Have I struggled with this as a teacher..absolutely! Just my thoughts…Hope they help!

    • Thanks Laura for clarifying this! While I am not a fan of spelling lists, I do love your differentiated approach. You make spelling meaningful to each of the children. My concern with a focus on spelling is that the other traits of writing get lost in both the creating and editing process. What do you do to ensure that students focus on more than just conventions when editing?

      Thanks for the great conversation!

      • I think revision is when the other traits come in to play and editing is for conventions. And yes, I think it is important and appropriate for students to not focus on conventions while they are writing and revising drafts – the focus should be on the content. I think speed writing activities can help students become comfortable with this approach but I’ve never tried them…something to try next week.

  3. That’s funny because when they read something to me (I always have them read it), they automatically fix their mistakes. I also try to focus on what our mini-lesson/trait we are working on at the time of the conference. When they peer edit I try to match reading ability as closely as possible and they do ask each other questions if it isn’t clear. The writing process is made up of so many components that we focus on one at a time (depending on what the class needs determined from their previous work). Check out the book Word Matters by Fountas & Pinnell (I think). That is where my word study comes from:) As far as the writing process, we use the 6+1 writing traits (which is the title of the book) and the Literacy Framework by Fountas & Pinnell. My district LOVES F&P so most of our ELA comes from them. I hope this all makes sense. I live, breathe and eat this stuff so I hope I’m explaining it correctly and not confusing you. lol

    • Thanks Laura for clarifying this! I have used and love these resources too, and I think they certainly have some wonderful ideas. Your comments give me a real view into your classroom, and I enjoy hearing about what you’re doing. Thanks for being so willing to share!


  4. Thought I’d chime in. I too am not a fan of the weekly generic word list and spelling test. Over the last few years I have tried several different approaches. When I taught grade one I created personal spelling lists based on student writing errors. While this was very individualized it was VERY time consuming. I think this approach could work better with older students as they could be taught how to create their own lists. I currently teach grade 3 and since last year have used the Words Their Way program. In September I assess students to determine where they are on the spelling continuum. This helps me to group them based on their needs. This year I have 3 groups. Students are given words each week but the focus is on sorting the words based on spelling features and sounds not on memorization. Each week students work with a partner to complete a variety of activities and games and also complete activities at home. I think this program is a nice balance between “old school” and “new school” methods. We also study vocabulary outside of this program connected to content areas, read alouds, etc.

    • Thanks for commenting, Iris! It’s always nice to hear how other people approach spelling. I’m glad to hear that you’ve found a way to differentiate. Today, I was tweeting with Ira Socol, an educator on Twitter, and he asked me why we teach spelling? He thinks that examining this “why” might be important. I’m starting to think that could be the case too.

      Thanks again!

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