Next Generation Spelling for Students with Learning Disabilities: Translating Research into Practice

By Santangelo, Tanya | Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

Next Generation Spelling for Students with Learning Disabilities: Translating Research into Practice


Santangelo, Tanya, Perspectives on Language and Literacy


The Challenge and Importance of Spelling

Fundamentally, spelling is just matching the sounds in spoken language to the symbols in written language. However, the actual process of spelling is far more challenging than that definition implies-particularly for students with learning disabilities (LD; Graham, 1999). To spell a word, one needs to hear and differentiate the sounds in oral language (phonemic awareness) and map those sounds to letters (alphabetic knowledge) within a particular writing system (orthography). Because English orthography is complex, spelling in English is especially challenging. For example, unlike many other alphabetic languages where each letter of the alphabet corresponds to a single sound, in English the 26 letters of the alphabet represent approximately 44 sounds that are spelled using 250 different combinations of the letters of the alphabet (Reed, 2012). Additionally, English orthography represents not only the sounds of spoken language, but also the underlying meanings of words (morphology) and the language origins of words (e.g., words that begin with the consonant digraph ph are of Greek origin). Moreover, whereas reading (decoding) involves recognizing letters and patterns in words and applying knowledge of the alphabetic principle, spelling (encoding) requires producing the appropriate letters and patterns from memory (Williams, Walker, Vaughn, & Wanzek, 2017).

Spelling is one of the most common areas of difficulty for students with LD (Vaughn, Bos, & Schumm, 2011). Among the many academic challenges students with LD experience, spelling is also one of the most significant. For example, Graham, Collins, and Rigby-Wills (2017) synthesized the findings from 53 studies that compared the writing performance of students with LD and their typically achieving peers and found students with LD scored significantly lower on every writing outcome measure (e.g., quality, organization, vocabulary). However, the difficulty students with LD experienced in spelling, relative to their peers, was about 1.5 to 2 times greater than that in any other area of writing. Represented as a standardized metric, the difference between the average spelling scores of students with LD and their typically achieving peers was 43 percentile points. Although the etiology is not entirely understood, the prevalence and severity of spelling difficulties among students with LD likely stems from the considerable overlap between the characteristic deficits of LD and the catalysts of spelling development, such as phonological skills, morphological awareness, and working memory (e.g., Apel, Wilson-Fowler, Brimo, & Perrin, 2012; Bourassa & Treiman, 2001; Friend & Olson, 2008; Siegel, 2008; Vaughn et al., 2011).

Given the ubiquity of technology aids such as spell check, as well as the increasing informality of writing in the age of social media, some educators have questioned whether instructional time needs to be devoted to teaching students how to spell. However, ample motivation for prioritizing spelling instruction is derived from the role spelling plays in students' overall literacy development. For example, individual differences in spelling achievement explain a significant amount of the variance in students' overall reading and writing performance (e.g., Abbott, Berninger, & Fayol, 2010; Graham, Bern inger, Abbott, Abbott, & Whitaker, 1997). Additionally, multiple research syntheses have documented that formal spelling instruction leads to significant improvements in phonological awareness, reading, and writing skills among students with (and without) LD (e.g., Graham & Hebert, 2010; Graham & Santangelo, 2014; Wanzek et al., 2006).

Common Core Spelling Standards

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for spelling are located in the K-5 and 6-12 Language strands and correspond to the second conventions of English anchor standard (National Governors Association Center for Best Practice & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010). …

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