Reading & Literacy

Studies Back Lessons In Writing, Spelling

By Debra Viadero — November 20, 2002 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
Research Page

Adults may wince at painful childhood memories of penmanship lessons and spelling tests. A small but growing number of studies, though, suggest that systematically teaching handwriting and spelling might actually help some students write more and do it better.

“Most kids who are developing as writers are planning their writing as their pen hits the paper,” said Steve Graham, a special education professor at the University of Maryland College Park. “If you have to switch your attention to figuring out how to spell a word, for example, that disrupts your planning process.”

The new research, which comes out of work by Mr. Graham and others, follows recent decades that saw a de-emphasis on formal spelling and handwriting instruction in the classroom. A major thrust of the approaches of the past 30 years has been to save such instruction for “teachable moments” and embed it in real writing and reading activities.

But the newer findings suggest that teachers might want to rethink those ideas—at least for the worst spellers and writers in their classes.

The latest study in this body of research is a report slated to be published this year in the Journal of Educational Psychology by Mr. Graham and two colleagues, Karen R. Harris and Barbara Fink Chorzempa.

Researcher Steve Graham has found that instruction in handwriting and spelling helps students write better prose.
—James W. Prichard/Education Week

As part of that experiment, the researchers culled 60 2nd graders with spelling problems from four schools in the Washington area. Half the children got extra lessons in mathematics, and half got the same amount of added instruction in spelling.

At the end of 48 lessons, the children in the second group had improved more than their spelling. They also wrote more fluent, better-constructed sentences and texts than the children who had only gotten extra math lessons.

A caveat here, however: The spelling—but not the writing—benefits held up when the children were tested again six months later.

Building on the Best

The study built on earlier work that Mr. Graham did with Virginia W. Berninger, an educational psychology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. As part of that 1998 study, researchers also focused on the poorest spellers from 2nd grade classrooms. The 128 children were divided into seven treatment groups and taught each one different spelling- improvement strategies.

While students in several groups became better spellers at the end of 24 lessons, one group also became more fluent writers. That group used an approach that combined several different strategies.

Both Ms. Berninger and Mr. Graham, in similar kinds of studies involving handwriting, have documented the same phenomenon: Students with poor penmanship who are given handwriting lessons produce better, more fluent writing than counterparts who get no such instruction.

Ms. Berninger emphasized that the kind of handwriting and spelling lessons she has been testing are far different from the traditional drills that adults remember from childhood.

“Whenever we teach handwriting, we teach composing in the same lesson, and the same with spelling and reading,” she said. “We’ve really tried to build on the best contributions of all of this research in brain research, process writing, and cognitive process.”

Both experts believe that early and explicit instruction in spelling and penmanship can stave off many problems later on in 3rd and 4th grade, when children tackle more complex writing tasks.

What’s more, they add, educators shouldn’t expect computers to solve all of their students’ “text transcription” problems. Keyboards can be slow going for beginning writers, they note. Studies also show that computerized spell-checkers fail to catch about half of students’ misspellings.

Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the November 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Studies Back Lessons In Writing, Spelling

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Leadership in Education: Building Collaborative Teams and Driving Innovation
Learn strategies to build strong teams, foster innovation, & drive student success.
Content provided by Follett Learning
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Privacy & Security Webinar
Navigating Modern Data Protection & Privacy in Education
Explore the modern landscape of data loss prevention in education and learn actionable strategies to protect sensitive data.
Content provided by  Symantec & Carahsoft

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Reading & Literacy Q&A Can Taylor Swift Get Students to Love Poetry?
A college professor will train middle and high school teachers on how to use Swift's lyrics in their curriculum.
8 min read
Singer Taylor Swift performs on stage during her Eras Tour at the Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh on June 7, 2024.
Taylor Swift performs on stage during her Eras Tour at the Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh on June 7, 2024.
Jane Barlow/PA via AP
Reading & Literacy Photos Drama and Delight: The Faces of the National Spelling Bee
The 2024 Scripps National Spelling Bee came down to a high-stakes spell-off. Here's a look at the faces behind the event.
1 min read
Shrey Parikh, 12, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., reacts to a fellow competitor's word during the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, in Oxon Hill, Md., on May 30, 2024.
Shrey Parikh, 12, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., reacts to a fellow competitor's word during the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, in Oxon Hill, Md., on May 30, 2024.
Nathan Howard/AP
Reading & Literacy Q&A A New Plan to Raise the Lowest Literacy Rates in the Nation
Daily summer reading instruction for thousands of students is part of a bigger plan to improve literacy in New Mexico.
5 min read
Arsenio Romero, secretary of New Mexico’s Public Education Department, addresses the audience at the Albuquerque Earth Day Festival on April 21, 2024.
Arsenio Romero, the New Mexico secretary of education, speaks at the Albuquerque Earth Day Festival on April 21, 2024. Romero is leading a statewide effort to improve literacy.
Courtesy of New Mexico Public Education Department