The answer is no, and yes.
“Oh come on!” you say, and “Good grief!” Yes, I can hear the gripes and groans, even from my lofty perch on a hill in western Pennsylvania.
I admit I’ve tried to pull you in with a provocative title. But seriously, I do think the answer to the question is indeed “no” and “yes.” The “no” part comes from my thinking about the nature of how spelling works in the brain, as well as the sometimes impoverished state of spelling instruction in school classrooms. Interestingly, the “yes” comes from the same line of thinking!
As Dr. Richard Gentry has noted in his presentations, spelling was absent from the report issued by the National Reading Panel in 2000. Comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, phonemic awareness and phonics - they were in there. But there was no Big Idea of spelling. Now, I’m happy to say, spelling is more likely to be considered a critical part of reading . Recently, I’ve seen a number of articles and books about spelling and how it relates to not only the big ideas named by the National Reading Panel, but also to the seamless act of reading itself.
Now that spelling is once again being talked about and even seriously taught, we can take a moment to note how spelling instruction is something of a paradox. There's no doubt it should be taught as a stand-alone subject (Gentry & Graham, 2010). During this stand-alone spelling time, patterns and rules are introduced and explored, strategies are explained and practiced, and activities take place. All this activity leads to two important results: 1) children gain control and mastery of word parts, as well the understanding of how sound, pattern, and meaning come together to produce correctly spelled words, and 2) entire words are stored in the brains of the students. More specifically, words are stored in the orthographic processing system (the lexicon or dictionary of the mind).
The paradox comes about because spelling should also be taught through reading and writing. Reading widely gives kids opportunities to encode word spellings and meanings in specific brain areas, as well as build neural circuitry between the semantic, orthographic, and phonological processing systems. Of course, reading also provides opportunities to build background knowledge and vocabulary, practice strategic ways of reading, and so forth. Writing widely does many of the same things.
We cannot, however, rely only on writing and reading to teach students new word spellings and new spelling skills. While reading and writing do lead to spelling gains, the gains are not large (Graham & Harris, 2016). The direct and explicit teaching of spelling, however, leads to much greater gains in spelling competence. Still, stand-alone spelling instruction does not do enough if we want our students to become proficient readers and writers with mature reading and writing skills. In the end, when we look at the big picture, the best way to promote spelling development is to teach a combination of the two approaches: stand-alone and within reading and writing.
Why, then, would we ever want to abolish spelling instruction? It is because abolishing the idea of spelling instruction just might free us from thinking of reading as a collection of isolated skills. Just as playing music isn’t an exercise in jumping between the skills of playing rhythms, scales, melodies, and harmonies, the act of reading isn’t simply toggling between decoding, word meaning, prosody, visualizing, author’s purpose, and so on. Rather, the act of reading is a holistic and emergent performance. Although a simple formula for understanding reading might be word recognition + language understanding = reading comprehension, this formula is not like a math formula, where 2 + 2 = 4. When it comes to reading, the formula is more like 2 + 2 = 7.
The reason I say that yes, we should abolish spelling instruction, is because I hope this provocation will encourage others (basal publishers, administrators, teachers) to stop thinking of literacy as a collection of isolated silos labeled spelling, reading, grammar, writing, fluency, vocabulary, and so on. Isn't it time that we stopped saying “Open your spelling books” and then, 20 minutes later, “Open your phonics book?” As Linnea Ehri has repeatedly said, phonics and spelling are two sides of one coin. Just as you cannot have a one-sided coin, you cannot imagine writing down the spelling of a word without reading it. Conversely, you cannot read a word without your brain accessing its spelling (which is stored in your orthographic processing system). Research has clearly shown that when we read a word we do so by instantly recognizing its spelling. Therefore, why would a school district promote spelling and phonics as separate subjects? And with older students, why would anyone want to teach spelling and vocabulary in isolation?
Perhaps we should start teaching within an instructional framework labeled “Word Workshop.” The term Word Workshop occurred to me after a curriculum director in Texas, who described her district as a “workshop district,” said this: “Our district teaches literacy through Reading and Writing Workshop. During our literacy block, we have time carved out for word study. My teachers are also trying to teach phonics. But they don’t know how phonics relates to spelling and they feel they don’t have enough time to teach phonics. How can I help them to conceptualize what they need to teach, and how can I help them save time?”
I can't help but think that a teacher who is trying to teach phonics AND word work, really doesn't understand the definition of either. If I were a teacher using the Word Workshop framework, I would use my Word Workshop time (let’s say 15 or 20 minutes a day), to teach spelling-phonics-vocabulary.By the way, spelling-phonics-vocabulary is one thing, not three. Perhaps we can think of it as three sides of a coin! For example, if my spelling word list included cabbage, baggage, luggage, rummage, cottage, and marriage, I would add the words courage, encourage, package, and repackage (among others). Next, I would devote time throughout the week for directly and explicitly teaching (and then having kids practice) the following: 1) word attack strategies for reading multi-syllable words, 2) noticing and understanding the meaning-making parts of words (-age, bag, lug, marry, pack, re-), as well as the meaning of each word in its entirety, and 3) spelling patterns and rules (such as doubling consonants to preserve vowel sounds, changing a y to an i when adding suffixes) that help students spell, read, and understand the words on the lists, as well as words not on a list (such as scrimmage and discourage) that they may nonetheless want to read or write. The time I spent teaching these ideas, and the ways in which I taught them, would not be silo-based. Rather, I would move back and forth between them and often combine them in one teaching session, determining my focus by considering the needs of my students, as well as the demands of the day.
But even Word Workshop might not be the best way to teach spelling. Perhaps the best way to teach spelling is to simply refrain from labeling any instruction as “teaching spelling.” When I asked my mother, who ended her career teaching first grade, how she taught spelling, she replied, “I didn’t teach spelling.” I was surprised to hear her say this because I knew she had great success in getting her students to read and write. “You didn’t teach spelling?” I asked. “No,” she said. “In my literacy block I taught reading and writing. I taught reading and writing every day for about two and a half hours. That’s what I did.” When I pressed her on her statement, she admitted that she did indeed teach her students the names of the letters and their associated sounds, she did explicitly instruct her students in letter combinations (and their associated sounds), she did use activities that gave kids practice putting letters and patterns into specific orders to make words (and then noticing and analyzing word parts and their relationships to one another), and she did regularly assess her students to determine their abilities to do these skills. But she did all of this without ever saying to her students, “Now it is time for spelling.” In a way, she had abolished spelling instruction.
I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.