Caught Versus Taught: The Spelling Conundrum

Kim Van EsThe CACE Roundtable1 Comment

It is one thing to be a Christian educator. It’s another to be an excellent Christian educator. As teachers and administrators, we are called to be responsible stewards of the time and resources invested in young lives. Every day we make decisions about how to use that contact time and how to use financial resources. On what basis do we make those decisions?

Sometimes our practice is based simply on our own experience. For example, as a student, I LOVED spelling lists and the end-of-the-week spelling tests. This task was black-and-white (words were either wrong or right), and I was good at seeing words, repeating the letters aloud and remembering them. In fact, I represented my school in the Scripps Spelling Bee (Toot, Toot!). Clearly, spelling lists and tests are a normative part of the created order. ?

But wait a minute: To be excellent, we need to make data-informed decisions, especially when several studies support the same conclusion. To ignore such conclusions is to not live up to our role as professionals and as diligent servants in the Kingdom. So as a professional, Christian language arts instructor, I have to consider what the data says about the teaching and learning of spelling so that I can serve my students to the best of my ability.

As with many researched topics, the directives are not clear-cut. The experts fall into two major camps: those who believe that spelling is taught, and those who believe that spelling is caught.

A 2014 meta-analytic review by Steve Graham and Tanya Santangelo of 53 relevant studies supports the belief that spelling is taught. Their impressive review supported the following points:

  • Formal instruction produces greater spelling gains than no spelling instruction or spelling-is-caught instruction.
  • Formal instruction produces gains in students’ correct spelling in writing, and those gains are maintained over time.

These researchers recognize that spelling is taught most commonly in the primary grades, but based on their findings, they recommend emphasizing it in the upper elementary grades as well and even extending that instruction into middle school.

But the Graham/Santangelo spelling review came to another conclusion that should not be overlooked: “Formal spelling instruction did not statistically enhance students’ writing performance.” Isn’t good writing the broader and more significant goal? In their book Spelling in Use, Lester L. Laminack and Katie Wood Ray argue that we should be more concerned with competent writers than competent spellers.

Don’t get me wrong: I am a copyeditor. As drafts get revised, misspellings must be corrected because they distract readers from the message. But I believe that most language arts time should be spent reading and writing. Those activities allow our pattern-noticing brain to see and practice language. Spelling is not primarily a visual task of memorization: it is the brain recognizing word patterns and associating usages with particular contexts.

In my opinion, there is value in dedicating time, especially in the primary grades, to learning high-frequency words, especially those sight words that can’t be sounded out. As students get older, it makes sense to do word studies that look at the relationships between spelling and phonics and vocabulary (see the work of Donald Bear).

But above all, writing (including spelling) improves when students have time to read and to write—bringing their drafts through the revision process, with the help of others. When the emphasis stays on the rhetorical situation (topic, purpose, and audience), editing issues such as spelling matter. Half of the battle is getting students to care about spelling, a pride that is more likely to come with meaningful work than weekly spelling lists.


  • Kim Van Es

    Kim Van Es has been in the business of words for over 25 years. She taught English at the following schools in Iowa: Iowa Valley Jr.-Sr. High School in Marengo, Unity Christian High School in Orange City, Dordt University in Sioux Center, and Northwestern College (NWC) in Orange City. Kim served as the Director of the English Education program at NWC and continues to teach Business Writing there. She has presented at the National Council of Teachers of English convention and regularly presents at the Iowa Council of Teachers of English conference. Her business, Kim’s Writing & Editing Service, gives her many chances to learn new content and sharpen her skills.

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