How Should Spelling Be Taught to Kids?


Educators have been debating the merits of “whole language,” a theory that language skills should come naturally.

The theory led the California Board of Education to call for schools to drop spelling tests and drills and focus instead on teaching through stories and writing. “Invented spelling,” in which words were spelled as they sounded, was acceptable.

Some parents and educators have been critical of the theory, saying that it promoted laziness among students. Supporters argued that the method was a useful tool for understanding how students are learning, that they know how to put sounds together into words using letters.


Should the way that California schoolchildren learn to spell be changed?

Yvonne Chan, principal of the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima:

“You have to have your sentences correct, your grammar correct and spelling. But meanwhile, the children in the primary grades, when they are really trying to express an idea using invented spelling, it should be accepted. However, it should be corrected by the second grade. They have to be taught how the rules apply.”

David Tokofsky, Los Angeles Unified School District board member:

“My belief is that over the last 15 years, the district has allowed the question of cultural relativism to permeate what is a disciplined and systematic approach to reading. And so, what you have is a spelling relativism instead of cultural relativism . . . [that] has hurt the disadvantaged in the system . . . The effect on our poor, lower-income and minority groups has been more devastating than it would be on those who come from a community where they could get the learning at home . . . My hope is that we would . . . return to a systematic ordered presentation each and every day on the tools of writing and reading . . . Creative spelling is an excuse for not teaching.”

Andrea Canady, director of elementary education for the Burbank Unified School District:

“Invented spelling, or what we’re calling temporary spelling, is a really important indicator for your children on how they’re getting the language code. You can tell a lot about how they spell, and whether they understand the language. It’s a very legitimate technique for young students to use. But there is a real need to make sure that temporary spelling does not become permanent spelling. [But older children] need to master the words they use all the time, priority spelling words. . . . They need to know to use these words correctly every time they use them . . . Once they learn the priority words, over 90% of what they write will be correct.”

Douglas Lasken of Woodland Hills, teacher at Ramona Elementary in Hollywood:

“I was subjected to whole language and the prohibition of spelling tests . . . Like many teachers, I resisted whole language and we taught spelling covertly . . . In my opinion, whole language was a waste of everyone’s time for about five years and set back the kids. . . . I would agree a child’s self-esteem should not be destroyed over one misspelling. But spelling helps us understand each other, so it’s important to spell.”