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Theoretical beliefs and instructional practices used for teaching spelling in elementary classrooms


The current study aimed to examine teachers’ reported spelling assessment and instruction practices. Analysis of the match between teachers’ theoretical beliefs about spelling and their reported pedagogy was conducted to elucidate factors that may support or impede the use of evidence-based teaching strategies in the classroom. An electronic survey was completed by 405 randomly selected (stratified by region and socioeconomic status) elementary school teachers in New Zealand. The survey examined the following areas: spelling assessment, spelling instruction, beliefs about spelling, preparing teachers to teach spelling, and teachers’ perceived strengths and weaknesses of their spelling program. There was large variability in spelling assessment and instructional practices across teachers. Most respondents reported implementing some aspects of a developmental approach to spelling instruction through analysis of children’s spelling errors (64 %) and/or individualization of the spelling program (60 %). There was a large dissociation between teachers’ beliefs about spelling and their frequency of use of specific instructional practices associated with those beliefs (e.g., phonological awareness, orthographic knowledge). The mismatch between beliefs and reported practice appeared to be due to lack of professional knowledge regarding implementing explicit spelling instruction and finding time to teach spelling within the curriculum. Increasing teachers’ knowledge about language structure, practical implementation of key assessment and instruction activities, and the links between spelling and other areas of the curriculum are important factors in improving spelling pedagogical practices.

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Correspondence to Brigid McNeill.

Appendix: Survey instrument

Appendix: Survey instrument

  1. 1.

    Demographic Information

    • What province is your school located in?

    • What decile is your school?

    • At what type of school do you teach?

      • Public

      • Private

      • Catholic

    • Which of the following best describes your school setting?

      • Main urban (min. pop. 30,000)

      • Secondary urban (10,000–29,999)

      • Minor urban (1,000–9,999)

      • Rural center (300–999)

      • Rural area (max. pop. 299)

    • What is the total number of students at your school?

    • What year(s) do you currently teach?

    • How many students in your class?

    • How many years have you been teaching?

    • What is your highest educational degree?

      • Bachelor

      • Masters

      • Doctoral

      • Other (please specify)

  1. 2.

    Spelling Assessment Practices

    1. 2-1.

      If you use a formal spelling assessment measure, please identify it here.

    2. 2-2.

      Do you use spelling assessment results to plan instruction? (yes–no)

    3. 2-3.

      If you use spelling assessment results to plan instruction, please explain how you do this.

  2. 3.

    Spelling Instruction Practices

    1. 3-1.

      If you use a published spelling program in your classroom, what do you use?

    2. 3-2.

      Do you separate students into spelling groups based on spelling ability? (yes–no)

    3. 3-3.

      If you separate students into spelling groups based on spelling ability, how is spelling ability determined?

    4. 3-4.

      Are students given spelling lists (e.g., a weekly set of words) to study? (yes–no)

    5. 3-5.

      If students are given spelling lists to study, how are these lists assigned? Please rate how often you used each of the strategies listed below. (never—not very often—about half the time—most of the time—always)

      • The whole class receives the same word list

      • Each spelling group receives the same list

      • Each student receives an individualized spelling list

      • Other (please specify)

  1. 3-6.

    If students are given spelling lists to study, how is the content of lists determined? Please rate how often you used each of the strategies listed below. (never—not very often—about half the time—most of the time—always)

    • Words that share common letter combinations or spelling patterns

    • Words from a published spelling program

    • Words from the curriculum

    • Words from current reading materials

    • Words suggested by students

    • Words misspelled in the students’ writing

    • Common high frequency words

    • Other (please specify)

  1. 3-7.

    Please rate how often you use each of the following instructional activities to teach spelling. (never—several times a year—monthly—weekly—several times a week—daily)

    • Completing text book exercises

    • Spelling games

    • Sorting words into different spelling patterns or word families

    • Writing the words multiple times

    • Alphabetizing the words

    • Looking up the words in the dictionary

    • Writing the words with their definitions

    • Using the words to write complete sentences or stories

    • Other (please specify)

  1. 3-8.

    How often do you provide explicit instruction in letter-sound knowledge? (never—several times a year—monthly—weekly, several times a week—daily)

  2. 3-9.

    How often do you provide explicit instruction in phonological awareness, such as rhyming, identifying the individual sounds in words, deleting or adding sounds in a word, substituting one sound for another in a word? (never—several times a year—monthly—weekly—several times a week—daily)

  3. 3-10.

    How often do you provide explicit instruction in the spelling rules of English? For example, “When we add a suffix to a word with a short vowel, the final consonant of the base word is doubled”. (never—several times a year—monthly—weekly—several times a week—daily)

  4. 3-11.

    How often do you provide explicit instruction in identifying meaningful chunks within words? For example, root/base words and common prefixes and suffixes. (never—several times a year—monthly—weekly—several times a week—daily)

  5. 3-12.

    How often do you provide instruction in visual strategies (e.g., look-cover-write-check) for spelling? (never–several times a year—monthly—weekly—several times a week—daily)

  6. 3-13.

    Please rate how often you make each of the following adaptations to your spelling curriculum for children who struggle with spelling. (never–several times a year—monthly—weekly—several times a week—daily)

    • One-on-one help from the teacher, another adult, or peer

    • Help from another professional (e.g., RTLit or RTLB)

    • Teaching of phonological awareness

    • Teaching of letter-sound correspondences

    • Assigning extra homework

    • Assigning fewer spelling words

    • Assigning words that are easier to spell

    • Other (please specify)

  1. 3-14.

    Do you make any modifications for advanced spellers? (yes–no)

  2. 3-16.

    If you do make modifications for advanced spellers, please briefly describe these modifications.

  1. 4.

    Comparison of beliefs about spelling instruction and reported current practice

    1. 4-1.

      Please rate the following beliefs about spelling (strongly agree—somewhat agree—neither agree nor disagree—somewhat disagree—strongly disagree)

      • Teaching letter-sound correspondences is an important component of spelling instruction.

      • Teaching phonological awareness is an important component of spelling instruction.

      • Teaching spelling rules is an important component of spelling instruction.

      • Spelling instruction should include practice at recognizing patterns and relationships between words through activities such as word sorting.

      • Writing a word several times is an effective way to learn to spell that word.

      • Students should be grouped by ability for spelling instruction.

      • Students should receive spelling lists based on their individual needs.

      • Using word lists from a recognized spelling program is an effective way of helping students develop spelling skills.

      • Spelling words should come from students’ own writings.

      • Students should self-select some of their own words for study.

  1. 5.

    Preparing teachers to teach spelling

    1. 5-1.

      Do you feel that you had adequate preparation in your teacher training program to teach spelling?

    2. 5-2.

      If you feel that your teacher training program did not adequately prepare you to teach spelling, what would you have liked to have learned?

    3. 5-3.

      If you feel that you received adequate preparation to teach spelling, what aspects of your teacher training program best prepared you?

  1. 6.

    Teachers’ perceived strengths and weaknesses in their spelling programs

    1. 6-1.

      The biggest strength in my current spelling program is….

    2. 6-2.

      The biggest weakness in my spelling program is….

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McNeill, B., Kirk, C. Theoretical beliefs and instructional practices used for teaching spelling in elementary classrooms. Read Writ 27, 535–554 (2014).

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