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young girl reading, under title: The Reading-Spelling Connection—Krashen looks at a century of spelling researchyoung girl reading, under title: The Reading-Spelling Connection—Krashen looks at a century of spelling researchyoung girl reading, under title: The Reading-Spelling Connection—Krashen looks at a century of spelling researchyoung girl reading, under title: The Reading-Spelling Connection—Krashen looks at a century of spelling research

By Stephen Krashen © 2002

The following is adapted (and used by permission of the author) from a letter from researcher Stephen Krashen to Education Week, suggesting a more practical approach to spelling instruction than direct instruction. It was sent in response to an article on spelling and writing research by Steve Graham ("Studies Back Lessons in Writing, Spelling," Nov. 20, 2002)

Spelling, like reading, remains a focus for various factions in literacy research, though it comes with less of the political and rhetoric used in reading battles. Two of the most frequent questions are:

    How important is spelling in the writing process?
    How do we best polish student spelling skills?

   While there is ample evidence that diverting attention to spelling when writing "disrupts the planning process" of writing, there is an alternative to those who propose spending more time on direct spelling instruction:

Advise writers to delay focusing on correct spelling until their ideas are firmly in place, while, at the same time, building up spelling competence through massive reading.

   A number of studies show that good writers delay editing concerns until the final draft, and "premature editing" has been shown to be a predictor of the frequency of writing blocks. Mike Rose found this was the case for writers in English, and Sy-ying Lee of National Taipei University has shown that premature concern with form and editing relates to writing blocks for writers in Chinese, as well as for writers in English as a foreign language.
spelling icon   There is also very good evidence that direct instruction in spelling has limited effects. It begins with J. M. Rice's study "The Futility of the Spelling Grind," published in 1897, that showed no relationship between the amount of time devoted to spelling and spelling achievement, when measured on tests involving words in sentences and compositions. And it includes Oliver Cornman's study, published in 1902, showing that dropping formal spelling instruction had no effect on spelling accuracy, whether measured in isolation or in compositions. In a 1991 paper, Howard White and I reanalyzed the Rice and Cornman data using modern statistics and confirmed their results.
   In 1977, Donald Hamill, Stephen Larsen, and Gaye McNutt reported that children who had spelling instruction spelled better than uninstructed students in grades 3 and 4 did, but the differences disappeared by grades 4 and 5. This suggests that spelling instruction, when it works, only succeeds in helping children learn to spell words that they would have learned to spell on their own anyway.
   Additional evidence comes from Sandra Wilde's work: Ms. Wilde estimated that each spelling word learned through direct instruction takes about 20 minutes of instructional time. Given the huge number of words, this result strongly suggests that instruction cannot do the job.
   A focus on spelling rules is equally hopeless. W. Cook, back in 1912, tested high school and college students who had just completed a semester of intensive study of spelling rules. There was no difference in spelling accuracy among those who said they knew the rules and used them, those who said they knew the rules and did not use them, and those who said they did not know the rules. He also found that even though the students had just studied the rules, many could not recall them. When asked to state the rules, they typically gave versions much simpler than the complex rules they had been taught.
girl reader   spacerThe most likely candidate for building spelling competence is reading. This conjecture is supported by studies showing that each time readers read a passage containing words they cannot spell, they make a small amount of progress in acquiring the correct spelling, as well as by studies showing that spelling gets worse when we read misspelled words. Also, some studies show positive correlations between spelling competence and the amount of reading done.
   I am fully aware that many people who are well-read are not perfect spellers. My claim is that reading will make one a very good, but not a perfect speller; well-read writers usually have problems with a tiny percentage of the words they write.
   I think that the solution to this problem is to let spelling develop naturally through massive reading in the early years, and provide older writers with some guidance in the use of spell-checkers and spelling dictionaries, as well as advising them to delay spelling concerns until the final draft.
   Good evidence that this is a reasonable solution is the fact that so many of us know when we are about to make a spelling mistake, and we can usually recognize the correct spelling of a word when presented with alternatives on a spell-checker. I think that this feel for correctness comes from extensive reading. It is pointless to urge children to look up words before they have developed this "spelling sense."

Stephen KrashenMore of  Stephen Krashen's research on reading and writing can be found in his book The Power of Reading (Heinemann/Libraries Unlimited). More Krashen research:
    Krashen rebuts the NRP on SSR
    Krashen rebuts the NRP on Phonemic

   Krashen Home Page


A note from Trelease on Reading & Spelling

FOR those obsessing over spelling and phonics, here's something to ponder. In fact, if you ponder it long enough, it could drive you crazy or at least make you reconsider previous positions. The following paragraph arrived in my email in October, 2003. Nearly every word of it is inexcusably misspelled and phonetically impossible, yet I had no trouble reading and understanding it. You probably won't either.

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer inwaht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is tahtthe frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae.The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit any porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, butthe wrod as a wlohe.

   First of all, there is no such Cambridge Research; it's an urban legend. The paragraph, however, did provoke quite a storm of letters and discussion world-wide. For a look at both the research-rebuke and subsequent actual research, check out these links:


INDEX for all NCLB, NRP, and Reading First essays and articles

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