Is Phonics Important When Teaching Spelling

Phonics and SpellingI cannot tell a lie; I love a good debate! Here is the topic: Is explicit phonics instruction important when teaching spelling? I like to hear points and proof, rebuttals and rebukes. So, to handle this one, I thought I would let the people who claim improving spelling with phonics is “for the birds” give their points, and I will then give my response, as politely as possible. Obviously, I find phonics to be foundational when teaching spelling. It is also a key component in a structured literacy approach.

Point 1: There are just too many exceptions to phonics rules. Teaching phonics is a waste of time.

My rebuttal: While there are exceptions, the majority of our words prove phonetically — actually, around 84 percent. And that percentage is mostly if the words are spelled on sound-symbol correspondences alone. One letter may be off, but the word is mostly predictable. And the other roughly 16 percent are not that far off when things like word origin are taken into account. Researchers estimate that only four percent of English words are truly irregular.1  Teaching the system of the language through explicit phonics instruction can help students learn patterns and can give them a framework for spelling that will increase their chances for spelling accuracy.

Point 2: Phonics may be helpful for reading but not for spelling.

My rebuttal: Research has again brought to light the clear connection of reading and spelling. Spelling is merely the reverse process of reading. When we read, we break down, or decode, the symbols used to represent certain sounds and use the pattern of those letters within a particular word to figure out what the word is (how to say it). Essentially, we are translating a printed word into sound. For spelling, we do the reverse in that we take sounds and convert them into printed words based upon our phonological awareness and understanding of word patterns. Both require a developmental understanding that starts with a letter-to-sound correspondence and then moves to an understanding of within-word patterns, syllable structure, and derivations.2

Point 3: Can’t we just use spell check instead of learning spelling patterns and rules?

My rebuttal: Spell checkers actually help only those who can spell reasonably well so that they produce a close approximation of the target word. In fact, one study reported that spell checkers usually catch just 30 to 80 percent of misspellings overall (partly because they miss errors like here vs. hear) and that spell checkers identified the target word, from the misspellings of students with learning disabilities, only 53 percent of the time.3

Those who have a learning disability in reading usually also have a learning disability in spelling. These challenges stem from the same core deficit that typically involves poor phonemic awareness or poor knowledge of letter-sound relationships.4  They cannot improve their spelling or reading strategies by merely having more exposure to words, and they cannot merely rely on spell check. They need to have a solid base in sound spelling skills, and that comes from systematic phonics instruction.  Rudimentary spelling skills or just taking a stab at it is not sufficient.

Point 4: Phonics alone is not enough to help with spelling.

My rebuttal: Okay — they have a point on this one. While the evidence is clear that a phonetic base is an essential component to good spelling instruction, some additional information must be presented.

First, in order to address that small percentage of words that cannot be proven phonetically, word-specific knowledge and morphological knowledge are necessary.5  For example, a base in phonics knowledge would help us spell the word shirt because we would know that the Digraph sh says /sh/ and t  says /t/, but there are actually three possibilities for the /er/ sound: er, ur, and ir. The only way to know for sure how to spell it would be a familiarity with that word — a word-specific knowledge. (That can be greatly enhanced by attaching meaning when teaching spelling, because that creates another neural footprint to help store and retrieve the word when a visual of the word and word meaning are attached to the word pattern.) Morphological knowledge is about the root words and relationships among words. If students know the spelling for the root word, then spelling the derivations is much easier.

Second, since spelling instruction that explores word structure, word origin, and word meaning is the most effective,6 we need to address the importance of teaching word meaning. Anytime we attach meaning to a new concept, we are more likely to store it, and we will be able to retrieve it from our working memories. While attaching meaning isn’t key to helping us spell a word correctly, it does create a connection for further usage of the word. And when meaning is attached to the orthographic representation, it can actually help us imprint the word pattern, since the definition will connect to our word-specific experience.


It is clear that while phonics isn’t the only necessary type of instruction for effective spelling, it is what provides the base and allows access to over 80 percent of our words. Numbers like that cannot be ignored. There is also ample evidence to prove the connection between reading and spelling, showing that difficulties in either often stem from the same place and respond to the same research-based phonics instruction.

A base in phonics and spelling rules, with an understanding in word origin and enriched with word meaning, ensures spelling success. Phonics instruction for spelling is NOT “for the birds.”

I rest my case.


1. Moats, Louisa C. (2005). How Spelling Supports Reading. American Educator, Winter 2005/06, 12-43.

2. Ehri, L.C. (1998). Grapheme-phoneme knowledge is essential for learning to read words in English. In J.L. Metsala & L.C. Ehri (Eds.), Word recognition in beginning literacy (pp. 3-40). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

3. Moats, Louisa C. (2005). How Spelling Supports Reading. American Educator, Winter 2005/06, 12-43.

4. Ehri, L. C. (1998). Learning to read and learning to spell are one and the same, almost. In C. Perfetti, L. Rieben, & M. Fayol (Eds.), Learning to spell: Research, theory and practice across languages (pp. 237-269). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

5. Moats, L. C. (1995). Spelling: Development, disability, and instruction. Timonium, MD: York Press.

6. International Dyslexic Association (2008). Spelling. Web. http://www.ldonline.org/article/Spelling_and_Dyslexia