If the aim of writing is to communicate with a reader, then any barriers that come between writer and reader make it less likely that the communication will be successful.
Spelling is important because the reader needs to be able to work out what the writer is saying at the word level, as well as at the wider text level. If incorrect spelling prevents or slows this process, the communication may be misunderstood or may fail altogether. Poor spelling can often (incorrectly) be seen as a sign of carelessness or lack of intelligence and the writer may be wrongly judged by the reader.
Technically, spelling comes after vocabulary in the writing process: a person formulates the words they want to write before actually putting them down on paper.
Many adults know the words they want to use, but they may have great difficulty in actually encoding or spelling some of those words. In this resource, spelling is placed before vocabulary to acknowledge its place in relation to decoding in reading.
Just as readers decode marks on paper, turning them into words, so writers use a reverse process as they encode (spell) the words they want to use in their writing. Encoding and decoding are very closely related and the skills used for encoding are usually developed alongside and as a mirror of decoding.
In order to become good spellers, learners need to first develop some basic understandings about print and how it relates to spoken English. In particular, learners must have developed phonological awareness and phonemic awareness (see the decoding section for a discussion of the prerequisite understandings and skills required for decoding and encoding).
Writers draw on a variety of strategies to spell unfamiliar words, often using more than one strategy.70 These include:
- recalling words from memory
- working out words by using sound-letter relationships
- spelling rules and conventions
- using knowledge of root words and affixes
- writing the word then checking to see if it looks right, and
- making analogies to known words or parts of words.
Expert spellers draw on these strategies automatically, using them flexibly to solve particular spelling problems. Adult learners who are poor spellers benefit from systematic instruction in the use of spelling strategies, using words that the learners already have in their oral vocabulary and that they want or need to use in their writing.71 As an example of systematic instruction, effective spelling instruction can be based on words that learners misspell.
Learners need to develop expertise in the use of dictionaries and other tools to check their spelling, including knowing how to select the correct spelling when there are choices. As they develop their expertise, adult learners need access to suitably-levelled dictionaries and spelling aids, including electronic tools. Learners may require explicit instruction and guided practice in the use of these aids to avoid frustration and to help make appropriate choices.
Fluent writers are able to encode words quickly and accurately, using their increasing knowledge to write more complex and less familiar words.