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«Exploring Classroom Teachers' Spelling Practices and Beliefs By: Francine R. Johnston Johnston, F. R. (2001). Exploring classroom teachers’ ...»

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Exploring Classroom Teachers' Spelling Practices and Beliefs

By: Francine R. Johnston

Johnston, F. R. (2001). Exploring classroom teachers’ spelling practices and beliefs. Reading Research and

Instruction. 40, 143-155. DOI: 10.1080/19388070109558339

Made available courtesy of Taylor & Francis: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19388070109558339

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Using three perspectives on spelling instruction (i.e., memorization, generalizations, and developmental) as a framework, teachers in grades 2 to 5 were interviewed to investigate the practices and beliefs about spelling instruction which exist in a school system which has de-emphasized formal spelling instruction. An analysis of the response to open-ended questions suggests that the classroom teachers in this sample (n=42) persist in the use of weekly lists and testing, About half create their own lists and half rely on a published speller to some extent. While there is a range of activities associated with spelling, many traditional activities are still employed such as writing words multiple times and using words in sentences. Many of the teachers questioned such practices as invented spelling and do not appear to take a developmental view of spelling. The interviewed teachers were largely dissatisfied with the spelling ability of their students and current spelling instruction, but appeared to lack the knowledge and resources needed to teach spelling more effectively,


The state of spelling instruction appears to be characterized by a lack of agreement on a number of issues.

Classroom teachers are offered suggestions that range from assurances that children who read and write extensively will become capable spellers (Bean & Bouffler, 1987; Wilde, 1990) to calls for systematic instruction about generalizable features of spelling (Henderson, 1990; Templeton, 1991). Some researchers who have investigated classroom practices maintain that traditional instruction and the use of published spelling series remain the norm (Scharer, 1992; Wilde, 1990), while others report a decreased emphasis upon spelling as a formal school topic (Fresch, 2000; Hall, Cunningham, & Cunningham, 1994; Schlagal & Schlagal, 1992).

Even proponents of systematic formal instruction differ in the orientation taken toward learning how to spell, the words chosen for study, and the activities developed to master spelling. In this regard three perspectives have been identified: (a) rote visual memory, (b) generalization, and (c) developmental (Nelson, 1989). The perspective that spelling is a matter of rote visual memory is based upon the belief that English orthography is irregular and each word stands alone as a memory task. This perspective has led to the development of word lists that feature high frequency words needed for reading and writing (Hillerich, 1987; Horn, 1957) and activities which involve repeated practice and memorization of assigned words. The generalization perspective recognizes that English spelling has an underlying logic, or system, and therefore, the words students study should share similar sounds or orthographic patterns (Hanna, Hodges, & Hanna, 1971). Most current published spelling series reflect this perspective to some extent (Morris, Blanton, Blanton, & Perney, 1995; Scharer, 1992), organizing the most commonly used words in weekly lists which share generalizable features (e.g., flat, trap, lamp; make, late, place). Activities developed for this perspective focus children's attention upon the common features and rules of spelling. Research of the last 20 years overlays the generalization perspective with a developmental perspective. That is, words and orthographic features selected for study should reflect where students are on a continuum of developmental word knowledge. Students' spelling errors can be used as a way to determine the most appropriate generalizations to study or to place them at appropriate levels in published spelling materials (Henderson, 1990).

The variety of theories and perspectives is reflected in the pedagogical literature for preservice teachers. If one flips through five or six language arts textbooks, he/ she will find that spelling may command a chapter all of its own (Rubin, 1995) or it may be treated merely as a convention of writing and command only a small subsection of a chapter (Cox, 1996; Moffett & Wagner, 1992; Tompkins, 1997). One may even have to go to the index to find scattered references to spelling instruction (Froese, 1996).

In view of such diverse claims and theories about spelling instruction, it seems important to fmd out what, in fact, classroom teachers currently believe and practice. Recent surveys or observational studies have described the spelling-related practices of only small samples of classroom teachers (Gill & Scharer, 1996; Morris, Blanton, Blanton, & Perney, 1995), leaving the field with little information about what is really happening in classrooms. Professors in schools of education who are responsible for preparing teachers may know little about the current spelling practices in the elementary schools where their students will teach. Faced with this situation myself, I developed an inquiry project in which preservice teachers (university students) interviewed inservice teachers about spelling practices in the large school system where my students are trained and often hired. The results of that project are reported here and offer some tentative insights into current practices.

It is important to note that the state where this project took place had not reviewed or made funds available for published spelling programs in over a decade. When this study was conducted, the state language arts curriculum guidelines reflected a holistic philosophy, and it was suggested that teachers consider spelling primarily as a function of editing. According to central office administrators in our local school system, the directives had been nonprescriptive, leaving decisions about how to implement spelling up to individual schools. Aside from past announcements discouraging teachers from using spelling textbooks and not making any funds available to buy new textbooks, there were no formal central office policies. This lack of administrative directives and a de-emphasis upon published materials left spelling instruction very much up to teachers and individual schools. This setting provided an opportunity to explore the nature of instruction that has either survived or developed under such conditions.

METHOD Participants Preservice education students were assigned the task of interviewing classroom teachers at the different schools where they were placed for a ten-hour-a-week practicum. The survey included data from 42 teachers representing grades two through five (10 in second, 11 in third, 13 in fourth, and 8 in fifth) at 12 different schools. Years of teaching experience ranged from two to 35 with an average of 15 years. It should be noted that cooperating teachers for these placements are usually selected because of experience, reputation, and willingness to work with preservice teachers, so the teachers in this sample can be considered average or above average in terms of their knowledge, teaching ability, and commitment to professional growth.

The particular schools where the students are placed are Professional Development Schools (PDS) where university faculty interact with the school staff as supervisors of preservice teachers and occasionally as consultants. The 12 schools serve populations that range from middle to low socioeconomic status (SES), although most serve the lower end of the SES spectrum. The PDS school sites are chosen for a variety of reasons, but not because they have exemplary literacy programs. They can be considered representative of the 59 elementary schools in a large mid-Atlantic consolidated school system serving rural, suburban, and city residents.


Open-ended questions were used to probe a variety of issues related to spelling. Teachers were asked about:

instructional directives they have received, whether they use a published spelling program and to what extent, how they select words if they create their own lists, what teaching routines and activities they employ, and how instruction is modified for students with differing abilities. They were also asked their opinions about how well students spell today in comparison with the past, whether they felt spelling instruction is adequately addressed in the elementary curriculum, and how they felt about invented spelling.

Teacher beliefs were addressed directly in some questions such as their opinion of invented spelling, and indirectly as a result of inferences drawn from their practice. For example, one can infer that a teacher holds the visual memory perspective if the lists she creates consist primarily of words from content areas and reading materials, which are unlikely to share any common spelling features. If the word lists consist of words related by sounds and/or orthographic patterns, then the teacher probably holds a generalization perspective. If the teacher gives "easier" word lists for less able students, then one can infer that he or she is influenced by a developmental perspective.

Procedures The university students were prepared for the interviewing process in their Language Arts methods classes by either the author or another instructor. This course is taken about half way through the two years of methods course work required in their junior and senior year. Some were shown a video tape of an interview session. All were given directions about how to record teacher responses in writing and to probe for clarity. In most cases the university students interviewed the teachers to whom they were assigned, unless that teacher did not teach spelling. The university students were told to find a mutually convenient time of about 15 minutes in which to ask the questions. They were also encouraged to observe a spelling lesson and attach a copy of a weekly spelling list if it was available. Because these latter sources of information were not provided in all cases they are not formally reported here. Interviews were completed prior to any discussion of spelling in the language arts course so that students would have no preconceptions of what might be considered desirable beliefs and practices by the instructors giving the interview assignment.

RESULTS The answers to the survey questions were discussed informally in my Language Arts class as a way to introduce the topic of spelling and the range of possible practices. The results were then analyzed by myself and a student assistant. We worked independently to categorize the open-ended responses and then compared and discussed those categories to combine and refine them further. For most questions this was a fairly straightforward process of counting responses in the categories which emerged. The few disagreements were resolved via discussion. Table 1 summarizes the percentages of responses to each question.

Directives About half of the 42 teachers in grades two to five reported that they had received no directives as to how spelling should be taught (52%). Seven of these teachers made it clear that they had gotten the message indirectly that "teachers can do whatever they wish" or that they were "on their own." The other half of those surveyed reported a variety of suggestions and directives they had received. For example, four teachers mentioned that they had been told, directly or indirectly, that spelling books were not to be used. Nine teachers were directed to "integrate spelling into current topics of study," although less than half of them followed through on this instruction and were instead using a published series regularly. Of the total 42 teachers, five teachers said they had been told to encourage or accept invented spellings, one teacher reported that she had been told that "spelling should be taught by giving the children opportunities to write," and two teachers reported that they had been told to employ a particular approach. Overall, this group of teachers appear to have been offered either no direction for spelling instruction in recent years or a range of directives open to interpretation.

Instructional practices Results showed that, despite a lack of specific guidelines, nearly all the teachers (93%) employed a formal spelling program that involved the traditional practice of testing children weekly on an assigned list of words.

Most of the teachers (85%) averaged those test results into a single language arts grade. Three categories of formal instruction emerged: (a) the use of a published series, (b) a combination approach, and (c) an alternative approach.

Published Series. Exactly half of the teachers (50%) used a published spelling series to some extent. The teachers who used textbooks almost exclusively (29% of the total) clustered at four schools where a published series was used by the entire faculty. At one of these schools the teachers had approached the principal and asked her to find money to order new spelling books. They made it clear in the initial question about directives that this was a decision they had made for themselves. In some cases teachers did not have spelling books for student use and relied on copies of wordlists that came from a published series.

Published series present words in lists that share common spelling features that reflect a generalization perspective, and some teachers were clear in their statements that this was important to them. One teacher specifically said she had her students "do all the activities in the book to know the rules and phonics rather than just how to spell them." Ten of the teachers using a published series mentioned the need for students to develop phonics skills, and several said they had returned to the use of a series for this reason.

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