Book Review: Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners

Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners, Johanna Stirling, Lulu: Raleigh, 2011, 279 pgs.

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Johanna Stirling’s Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners advocates for explicit spelling instruction as a tenet of writing instruction for students learning English as a Second Language. Stirling views poor spelling as an obstacle to language development, but also sees it  as a hindrance to future educational and career opportunities.

Stirling sets out to present a new look at an old and infamous problem – the spelling conventions of the English Language. She examines the complex orthography of the language, and she offers educators with instructional strategies that address English spelling.

Additionally, Stirling indicates the importance of spelling skills to producing quality writing plainly stating: “…if you are too busy concentrating on spelling letter by letter, your brain is unlikely to be at its creative or intellectual best.”

Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners is divided into three main sections. Part A provides an overview of the challenges of teaching and understanding spelling. Part B presents an approach for instruction in spelling. Part C offers more than 50 instructional strategies for teaching spelling, most of which are interactive, engaging, and multi-sensory. The intended audience for this book is teachers of adolescent and adult English Language Learners as well as teachers of struggling readers and writers who are native speakers of the language.

I chose this book because it appears to be the only comprehensive text on the subject of spelling for English Language Learners. There are only a limited number of scholarly articles that address this topic specifically, so it did not surprise me that there were only two books available through on the subject.


Personally, Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners provided me with a deeper perspective on the emotionality that poor spellers experience with writing. Chapter 15,  titled “Tackling Psychological Barriers to Writing”, provided me with a better insight and empathy towards the frustrated learner of English spelling. I myself have always been a good speller and reader, but I know that in my practice it is important to be able to view literacy tasks through the eyes of my students.

Indeed, this year especially, working with a group of middle school students whose struggles with literacy have previously been ignored, I have personally witnessed their reactions to their low self-esteem around language learning. My students absolutely employ all of the “face-saving strategies” detailed in the chapter: “avoiding writing altogether (so they can’t fail), blaming others for their weaknesses, denying that there’s a problem, or just making out that they don’t care”.

This descriptor helped me contextualize my students’ behaviors and I have been deliberate and strategic about addressing the emotionality by using the strategies Stirling lays out in my lesson planning and instruction: assessing students’ spelling abilities, conveying enthusiasm and providing positive encouragement, connecting spelling to authentic texts, and explicit teaching about English spelling patterns.

I very much enjoyed Chapter 3, “A Brief History of English Spelling”. Although I have read bits and pieces about this subject, Stirling provides a very clear and concise overview of English’s evolution from Old English to Modern English, which includes information on how pronunciation and handwriting over time has affected our spelling system. Stirling clearly demonstrates that there are “historical explanations for many of the apparently irrational and complex forms of English spelling”, and, indeed, it is empowering to know how English evolved and came to its complex orthography.

A very clear pie chart at the end of the chapter shows the origins of current English words: 26% Germanic, 29% French, 29% Latin, 6% Greek, and 10% Other. Reading this chapter and viewing this data prompted me to not only check out Wheelock’s Latin from the local library but also to revisit the Duolingo app’s French language program in an effort to increase my understanding of English.

Language is a tool that we use so much, we do not often analyze it or think of it as simply another, albeit highly complex, technology. In a historical context, however, one realizes that language is indeed a human invention, and is therefore ever-evolving and subject to political and sociological influences. This is a powerful realization as a language teacher because it makes it clear that what we should truly focus on are the mechanisms of the language system and engaging our students in analyzing and manipulating them. Regarding language as a tool with a history and sense of flexibility makes it far less daunting than simply accepting and memorizing abstract rules and facts without understanding their origins.

Professionally, I appreciated Stirling’s “polysystemic” framework of English Orthography. She organizes her discussions of language and spelling around 5 separate systems: phonological, graphemic, etymological, lexical, and morphological. Stirling dedicates one chapter to each system, and she provides concrete examples of spelling patterns based in each.

Stirling also provides clear insights about the interconnections of these systems, and she is definitive about how these systems interact with one another. For example, she states: “Etymological factors often take precedence over all the other systems of English orthography”. She then goes on to detail orthographic patterns from Old English (wh-, kn-, -gh, aw, ow), Latin, and French. Stirling also challenges the ever-popular yet non-sensical “sound it out” strategy by evidencing that only about 50% of English words are phonetically spelled.

I especially appreciated Stirling’s attention to the lexical or “purely visual” system of English, which emphasizes “similar spellings of words with related meanings”. This system is frequently and shamefully overlooked, even in post-graduate courses for reading specialists and speech language therapists.  Yet, the lexical system provides a bounty of connections among words in our language. For example, the word “sign”, which comes from the Latin signum (mark, token, indication, signal), forms lexical connections to at least twenty words, including signature, design, signify, resign, and assign.

One weakness I found in the text was Stirling’s lack of knowledge around assessment of existing developmental spelling tools. Although Stirling offers some self-created assessments, I was disappointed and surprised that she failed to mention the widely-used Words Their Way Spelling Inventories as an assessment of developmental spelling (note: For FREE access, simply register with the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project).

Additionally, while Stirling does indicate short vowels, vowel digraphs, and silent-e syllables as common trouble spots for ELLs, she makes no mention of the six syllable types: closed, open, silent-e, r-controlled, vowel team, consonant-le. Since Stirling advocates that we maximize awareness of the language systems of English, not mentioning the six syllable types feels like a glaring omission.

Conclusions and Evaluation

Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners is an essential read for anyone who teaches writing to struggling learners in grades 3 and up. It is clear, concise, and well-organized, and the strategies in the book can be easily implemented without any special materials or programmatic structures. I think that this book is impressive because it provides such a wide-ranging overview as well as very practical, multi-sensory, and engaging strategies that can be used right away in the classroom.

This book makes a wonderful pairing with the scope and sequence laid out in Marcia Henry’s Words. In my own classroom, I have been using Words as a resource for generating word lists from a class novel. I then use the instructional techniques from Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners to create my lesson plans. The pairing of these two books makes for a dynamic duo that allows my students to make progress with their spelling in an enjoyable way that is connected to the texts we are reading in class. Since the beginning of January, my students have demonstrated mastery of consonant blends and consonant digraphs and trigraphs, and I can see their confidence growing as they discuss and apply their metalinguistic knowledge.

I highly recommend this book to educators seeking to enhance word-level writing instruction in their classrooms. It is a quick read, and it will become a go-to reference for engaging spelling instruction. Stirling’s offers supplemental resources for the book, and her website English Language Garden provides additional articles and materials for ELL teachers.


But How Long Can YOU Write For?

In the most recent publication of the American Educator, Daniel T. Willingham’s article “For the Love of Reading” explores several methods for engaging students not only in moments of reading, but in a life-long love of it. I was struck particularly by a section of the article called “I’m Bored. Fix it.” in which Willingham offers:

“The consequence of long-term experience with digital technologies is not an inability to sustain attention. It’s impatience with boredom. It’s an expectation that I should always have something interesting to watch, read, and listen to, and that creating an interesting experience should require little effort….we just have a very low threshold for boredom.”

As an English/language arts teacher, I see my students struggle to sustain focus while reading. Each day, we chart the amount of time we read on a line graph, one color per class. The hope is that if students are aware of good reading habits and have the incentive of seeing the line graph trend upward (perhaps faster than the other classes), they will build stamina and a love of reading will follow. The graph does not motivate students for the entire school year, but at the beginning of the year especially, it incentivizes focus and sustained reading. After the habits are solidified, the graph becomes less important.

I began to ponder how to support my students as they built that same stamina as writers – how could I structure an activity varied enough to hold interest and generate content, but consistent enough that students can recognize progress over time?

My conversations with mentor teachers about that question landed me in the pages of Rain, Steam, and Speed (Gerald Fleming and Meredith Pike-Baky), which offered many ideas about how to build writing stamina in a middle school classroom. I read them, as teachers do, with my own students in mind, and took off running.

The premise was to give students a consistent atmosphere for writing, a clear expectation for what the writing should look like and how it would be graded, and engaging prompts to hold student attention and inspire thoughtful responses. The set-up also includes incremental increases in the time limit as students get more accustomed to the task.

To generate interest, I started off, as suggested, by having students personalize their journals. They spent a class period collaging, sketching, and markering their identities onto manila folders. The next day, I gave them a long spiel about the procedures for writing—the “how it works” talk—and then we gave it a go.

Scooby Journal      Carl B Journal

The consistent atmosphere for writing mirrors the consistent atmosphere that I build in my classroom for reading. The routine that Rain, Steam, and Speed suggests is that when students arrive, the prompt is written on the board. The same student passes out the journals each day. Before writing, one student reads the prompt aloud. The teacher, after thanking the student for his/her bravery, rephrases the prompt and checks for understanding. Then the music starts, and students write. I followed that routine, though I found it was easiest to project the prompt rather than write it long-hand because students had an easier time deciphering it.

As the year went on, I watched my students compete with and best themselves. Several students who started the year with only a few sentences per entry ended the year writing several pages on a single topic. This effect, which Fleming and Pike-Baky call “Writing Fluency,” normalizes the development of ideas while writing. A student does not have to be sure that an idea is “right” before adding it to an essay, nor does the student need to check in with a teacher about grammar and spelling before putting a sentence on the page.

As a result of this practice, students develop a confidence in their own work, and especially an ease to getting started that I had not seen before. This is not to say, however, that we did not hit road bumps. It took a lot of convincing for some of my students to pick up their pencils, and some of my prompts fell flat. But one of the most frustrating parts of this experiment for me was that the positive results that, though students were becoming more fluent writers in my E/la classroom, they were not applying that fluency in their other content classes.

As any teaching team begins to see students as writers in all contents, it seems that conditions, expectations, and engagement can be handled similarly across content classes to trigger that same confidence and stamina. Normalizing writing as a method of thinking and giving students practice helped them through boredom and exhibit their thought processes through writing. For example, I can see students writing in the same conditions that I used in my classroom on the many possible outcomes of an experiment before trying it out in a science class or explaining the best way to approach a thought problem in math. Once students find value in thinking through writing, they can use it as a tool to deepen their understanding of content and concepts.

Near the end of that school year, I overheard one of my students talking with an eighth grader (one year older) about high school. The conversation got a little competitive, and after the eighth grader elaborated on all the high schools where she had been accepted and the grades she had gotten that year, my student looked at her and asked, “But how long can you write for?”