Spelling linked with word study

2:02:48 PM CDT - Wednesday, November 12, 2003

By Julie Rausch

Dr. Phil has his book out on weight management, and now Dr. Kenn has a program on spelling.

Spelling is something we all do every day, but many adults and students don't do it very well, according to Dr. Kenn.

Dr. Kenn is Kenn Apel, a WSU professor of communicative disorders and sciences. Because of the important connection spelling has to language skills, he co-developed the spelling program with colleagues Julie Masterson from Southwest Missouri State University and Jan Wasowicz from Northwestern University.

Their current spelling diagnostic software program called SPELL, and an instructional workbook, Spell-Links to Literacy, that will be released this spring, have strategies that can help students become better spellers. The software program's SPELL stands for Spelling Performance Evaluation for Language and Literacy.

With these materials, Apel and his colleagues hope to improve spelling assessment instruction in the language arts curriculum. The application for the program goes beyond the school setting and could be used for anyone, young or old, wanting to improve language and literacy skills.

"Research shows that reading and writing are language skills," says Apel. "Spelling is the best window into what people know about language, because to be a good speller you have to know about sounds of language, how the sounds are linked to letters and vice versa and to understand the meaning relationship among words."

A large portion of English spelling is based on meaning and not sound, Apel says. An example would be the words "magic" and "magician." Although they sound differently, they are spelled similarly because of meaning.
The more students think about how words are related, the more that helps their spelling, Apel says. In addition, in order to be a good speller, people develop visual images of words or word parts. Unfortunately, Apel says, in almost every classroom, spelling words are given on Monday and the students practice them for a test given on Friday.

The teaching of spelling in most schools is inefficient and that is unfortunate, because spelling has such power behind it, Apel says.

"It's not the teachers' fault because current teaching methods have not yet caught up with current research, but by using only a memorization method there is no organized way of thinking about sounds from the phonological aspect, or of thinking about word meanings," he says. "Typically students do not receive a spelling program that emphasizes the foundational underlying skills that they can apply strategically."

Apel and colleagues have been particularly interested in helping boost the skills of children who are struggling with language skills.

"We have done a number of studies that bombard students with the linguistic skills, which lead to improved spelling skills and better reading ability," Apel says. "What we are doing is engaging students in word study. I wish I could toss out the word spelling, because with that word people think of drill and practice, spelling tests and spelling bees. Instead we want students to think of words in terms of language and learning skills including strategies for sounds, patterns and word relationships."

In one study Apel and other researchers studied two third-grade classes, which were pre-tested and found to have similar abilities. With class A, traditional spelling memorization methods were used to learn to spell 100 words. With class B, they used the same words but instead emphasized phonological, or sound, awareness, spelling patterns and meanings. After post-testing, class B made noticeable gains when compared to the pre-tested performance. Class A didn't improve from the pre-test.

The crucial thing for learning about words, Apel says, is that it creates a domino effect for all language skills. Word study increases your brain's decoding abilities, and as you become better at decoding, your mind is freed up to process individual words, and then comprehension and fluency improves, Apel says.

"Research shows that as you become a better speller your written composition improves," Apel says. "The kids we see that have literacy problems with writing is that they will write for you but they avoid words they don't know how to spell so their essay is very impoverished because they are using short words. As spelling improves, word choice improves."

For information about the SPELL software go to www.learningbydesign.com or contact Apel, 978-3298 or kenn.apel@wichita.edu.

Second-graders needed for study

Researchers in the department of communicative disorders and sciences at WSU are studying the effects of different teaching strategies for learning to spell new words. Second-grade children who have not received any special education services in school are needed to participate in this brief study in early December.

If you know of a child who would qualify to participate in this research, please contact Julie Wolter, CDS doctoral student, or Kenn Apel, professor and CDS chair, by calling 978-3298 or e-mailing jawolter@wichita.edu or kenn.apel@wichita.edu.

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