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Project Spelling:
A Research Proposal to The U.S. Department of Education
and Universities Who Consider Themselves to be Leaders in the Field of Education

To Help Gather the Essential Statistics so that Researchers, Publishers, School Systems, and Classroom Teachers Can Determine What Is and Isn't Caught and What Needs to be Taught and What Teaching Methods Work Best.


Expected Outcomes

  • A written report in book form similar to the report: Adult Literacy in America: A First Look at the Results of the National Adult Literacy Survey (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, 1993).
  • This report in book form would be made available to:
    • Public, university, and school libraries
      Researchers interested in the relationship of orthography to literacy and in developing a tool to measure and evaluate spelling programs and methods of teaching spelling and reading.
    • Publishers interested in developing better spelling and reading programs.
    • School systems interested in evaluating their current spelling program and/or developing a better spelling program.
  • This report should contain:
    • Baseline expectancies of an adequate spelling program by grades.  See example.
    • Actual percentages of students  correctly spelling basic words and word phrases by grades, socio-economic factors, ethnicity, school size, classroom size, city size, school type (private, parochial, charter, public, home), type of spelling program being used.

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A News Article from The Los Angeles Times

Studints angur at vanduls unvales bigur problum
Schools rethink how they teach--or don't teach--spelling

by Elaine Woo
Los Angeles Times

How do you spell failure? The residents of Middletown, Calif., an agricultural community 60 miles north of San Francisco, feared the answer was on the letters page of their local newspaper.  There they found more than two dozen letters from eighth-graders furious about an outbreak of vandalism at their school.  Departing from its usual practice, the newspaper ran the letters exactly as they had been written.  It didn't take long to figure out why.

For starters, the 25 students spelled "vandal" in nearly as many ways.  "Dear Vandales" went one letter, "I really think that you were tuped to mess our classrooms...Our teachers our upseat and so are the students.  I think you should rote in ____."

Or, "Dear Vanduls, I hope your happy now that you just cost us thousands of dollars and ruind are new computers..."

Others got "vandals" right but not much else.

Du we hav a prbloem hear?  We soitenly do--and not only in Middletown.  Swept up in a wave of new thinking about how to teach reading and writing, ... schools throughout California largely abandoned spelling instruction 10 years ago.  And, as California went whole hog for "whole language"--the theory that language skills should come naturally, by absorbing good literature--so went the nation.

Sales of spelling books began to plummet, and workshops on nurturing creativity in young writers flourished.  Teachers encouraged 5- and 6-year-olds to spell words the way they sounded --"I'm gowing to lern the hulla in Huwyyee"__so as not to impede the flow of ideas.

Mistakes were not instantly circled in red but were praised as examples of "invented," .. spelling -- the idea being that students should not be slaves to dictionaries until about the fourth grade.  Report cards reflected the new emphasis, like the one in Houston's public schools that grades students' use of "spelling that can be understood."  All over, parents perturbed by funny-looking words were being told to chill out.

Now, says spelling researcher J. Richard gentry, autho of "Spel...Is a Four Letter Word," "we have a whole generation of children who are really poor spellers."  Indeed, in a war that waged for weeks in the local papers, some Middletown residents seized on the student letters as proof of the inferiority of public schools.  A few did contend that spelling wasn't so important in this age of computer spell-checks.  (Webmaster's note:  If you believe this, click on Ewe Kin Awl Weighs Spill Chick Yore Let Her) But, for the most part, community members were shocked by the rampant errors.  H.D. Hoover, a University of Iowa professor ... is blunt: "People can be proud of being bad in math and explain it away.  But if you misspell words, people think you're stupid."

Experts say too much TV and too little reading are part of the problem.  But Hoover says the answer might be simpler than that: U.S. schools simply aren't spending enough time teaching the subject.

In California, the culprit was "wholistic teaching," which started coming into vogue in the late 1980's.  Proponents said the reason achievement was low was that learning was chopped up into too many disconnected parts.  You couldn't write until you could spell.  You couldn't spell until you learned the sounds of the alphabet.  You couldn't write a sentence until you knew your verbs from your nouns.  Whole language said you don't need to know the parts first.  Just plunge in.  

Adherents frowned on the random lists of spelling words handed out weekly in elementary schools.  Students would get the words on Monday and a test on Friday.  As critics saw it, the kids then quickly forgot the words.  The solution?  Drop books that encouraged breaking language down into its parts--grammar...readers, spelling books.  Order up textbooks rich in children's literature.  Link the teaching of spelling, reading and grammar through stories and writing, lots of writing.

In many schools, fixating on spelling came to be seen as an impediment to writing, especially during the tender years of kindergarten and first grade...Spelling, the theory went, would be more meaningful and learned more readily in the course of writing a paper about pterodactyls or reading a classic like "The Little Engine That could."

...After the Middletown Times Star published the error-ridden letters, the eighth-graders pelted the paper with more letters, which were angrier than before--but whew, lots better spelled.  They explained that they had been too upset about the vandalism when they wrote the first letters and hadn't had time to check their dictionaries.  But community members showed little sympathy.  Many of them wrote in to say that good spelling was important.  The editors--called "mean," "rude" and "insensitive" by the students stood their ground too.

"We could have edited and corrected the letters prior to publication, but by doing so," they wrote in an editorial, "a number of us felt we would be guilty of covering up a crime far greater than vandalism.

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  • We need to establish a baseline of spelling abilities by grades K-12 so that other studies of spelling techniques and materials can be properly measured.
  • We cannot (at least should not) use the only baseline study ever completed (The New Iowa Spelling Scale) because it was done over sixty years ago, covers only grades 1-8, and has a number of serious flaws that should be corrected.
  • We need to establish minimum standards of spelling proficiency.  For example, what percentage of students in the fifth grade should be expected to spell the word battery?  What percentage of students in the fifth grade who can spell battery should be expected to spell the word batteries?
  • Please help AVKO provide current data as to how many 3rd grade students should be able to spell the following phonically regular words: grab, make, warm, march. Also as to how many of those students who can correctly spell those words should be able to properly add the -ed to grab,  -ing to make, -er to warm, and -ed to march. This survey should take no more than two minutes of your time, if that.
If you want to know how what percentage of 3rd graders in 1953  who could spell grab, make, warm, and march, could also spell grabbed, making, warmer, and marched, you can find them at the bottom of this web page.

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Need for Government Funding

  1. No university can afford to fund such a project of the scope and magnitude required.
  2. No publisher would attempt it.
  3. Without federal funding, there will be no new spelling scale and hence no way to scientifically determine if any improvement in students' spelling takes place as a result of any new spelling programs.
  4. If we are " make sure our children master the basics" (A Call to Action for American Education in the 21st Century. U.S. Dept. of Education, 1997. p.1) we need to be able to accurately determine whether or not specific teaching methods such as teaching phonic patterns increases students' abilities to spell and/or read.

The Need for Cooperation between Universities and Educational Organizations
to Get Government or Private Funding of a New Spelling Study

  1. Most funding sources, including the federal government, prefer to have cooperation between organizations.
  2. Usually no single organization has the ability to do everything by itself.
  3. The findings of a study are more likely to be accepted by the academic world, schools systems, and publishers if the analysis of the study is done by a group of independent statisticians from a university not directly connected with those from the universities or organizations designing and administrating the study.
  4. Suggested universities and organizations to participate in the study and creation of a new spelling scale: 
    1. Saginaw Valley State University
    2. The Family Literacy Center at Indiana University
    3. The AVKO Educational Research Foundation
    4. The International Dyslexia Association
    5. The Learning Disabilities Association of America
    6. The University of Michigan
    7. The U.S. Department of Education
    8. Any other university or organization interested in participating.

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Steps to be Taken

  1. Analyze the strengths and weaknesses of word selection used in the very "latest" comprehensive study of spelling, The New Iowa Spelling Scale (NISS) which was done in 1953.
    1. Preliminary analysis reveals the following strengths:
      1. Most of the commonly used words were tested.
      2. Most spelling patterns were in the corpus.
      3. Structural endings of base words were sometimes given, e.g.: see, seeing, seen; season, seasons; ship, shipment, shipped, shipping, ships.
      4. All words were given in grades 5-8.
      5. All essential words were given in grades 2-4.
      6. Alphabetical presentation allows researchers as well as teachers to know the percentage of students who can spell a particular word in any specific grade from 5 through 8, and frequently grades 2-4.
    2. Preliminary analysis reveals the following weaknesses:
      1. NISS lacks many commonly used words which have come into regular usage since 1953, e.g., jet, pilot, marine, robot, computer, etc.
      2. Some spelling patterns were entirely omitted and many others had only one or two words with the specific pattern given.  For example, not one -dity word was included not even heredity, absurdity, or oddity.   Only three out of the 39  -city words (capacity, electricity, and publicity) were included.
      3. Many structural endings were omitted.  For example, although the word quarrel was included, quarrels, quarreled, quarreling, quarrelsome were not.  Although the word space was given, spaces, spaced, spacing were not.  Although battery was given, batter, batters, battered, battering, batterer, batterers, and batteries were not.  Heteronyms such as use ("YOOZ") and use ("YOO-ss), object ("AH'b jekt”) and object ("uh'b JEK't”) were not identified.  Mama was misspelled as mamma (which means breasts!) and Chatauqua has little or no meaning to today's students (and teachers!).
      4. Although we know how well students did or did not learn to spell specific words up to the beginning of grade 8 in 1953, we don't know if any more incidental learning took place in high school.  We don't know if there was a relationship between the inability to spell and the dropout rate in 1953.   
      5. A few extremely difficult words were unnecessarily given to 2nd graders such as the word satisfactorily.  Would you believe the word satisfactory was not given until the 3rd?!  Also, inquiries was given to 2nd graders but the base word inquiry was not given until the 3rd grade.
      6. The New Iowa Spelling Scale (NISS) lists the words only in alphabetical order.  For those curriculum designers or teachers who feel that they should teach words and patterns in the order of difficulty (from easy to difficult) there is no separate listing by difficulty.  This, however, has been done successfully by AVKO
        (The Reading Teacher's List of Over 5,000 Basic Spelling Words, McCabe, 1988).
  2. Prepare new list drawing upon the strengths of NISS while eliminating its weaknesses.

    1. Establish a word selection committee which could be composed of at least one linguist, one teacher from each grade level, one college reading instructor, one college instructor of elementary and secondary curriculum instruction, one representative from business/industry, one representative from the NEA and AFT, and one representative from the International Dyslexia Association and the International Reading Association.
    2. Establish parameters for word selection and select words and word phrases (e.g., shouldn't have, going to, used to, etc.). 
    3. Prepare script using word, a sentence using each word, and the word repeated.
    4. Have committee review the words and sentences.
    5. Have committee determine base line proficiency by grade level for each word or word phrase.  That is, if a school's teachers are doing passing work at teaching spelling (Grade of "D"), what percentage of their students (by grades) should be able to correctly spell each word.
  3. Analyze strengths and weakness of NISS protocol for each word list.
    1. Preliminary analysis reveals the following strengths:
      1. Words are given in sentences.
      2. Each student was tested on 100 different words.
      3. Over 23,000,000 spellings comprised the data.
      4. At least one school system from each state participated. 
      5. Random selection was used within each population classification.    
      6. 645 different school systems and 230,000 pupils were involved.
    2. Preliminary analysis reveals the following weaknesses.
      1. No control over the vocal delivery of the words and sentences.  Today, videos could be used.

      2. No effort was made in the selection process of tabulating the frequency of patterns and arranging for a representative sampling from all patterns.  For example, while the word expectancy is not a high frequency word, the -ancy pattern occurs in 42 different words.  Only one of those, the word vacancy occurs in the NISS.  Of the CVC pattern not one of the eight -ab words (such as cab) is represented while there are 6 of the 11 -ad words (such as sad) are represented.

    3. Prepare New Protocol
      1. Establish committee to draft protocol and list all types of statistics and correlations desired.
      2. Establish committee (not necessarily the same as above) to establish baseline expectancies for specific words and patterns.  E.g., X% of 4th graders, Y% of 8th graders, and Z% of 12th graders must be able to spell.

      if a school system is to receive a passing grade of D, a satisfactory grade of C, a good grade of B, or an exceptional grade of A.  

      Word Grade of D Grade of C Grade of B Grade of A
         4th 8th 12th 4th 8th 12th 4th 8th 12th 4th 8th 12th
      bush 75 80 85 80 85 90 90 95 99 95 98 99
      candle 70 75 80 75 80 85 80 85 90 90 95 99
      canceled 35 65 75 50 70 80 70 80 85 80 85 90
      carefully 40 70 85 55 75 90 75 90 95 90 95 99
      domestic 25 75 85 35 85 90 50 90 95 60 92 97
  4. Design of data entry system.
    1. Find experts on educational statistics willing to design the overall computer data entry system to give the most accurate representation of overall average spelling abilities.
    2. Consult with other members of the committee so that the most important data required will be on the forms which could include but not be limited to:

      1. ages
      2. reading levels
      3. IQ
      4. sex
      5. grade levels
      6. ethnic groups
      7. primary language (ESL by languages)
      8. economic status
      9. school size
      10. classroom size
      11. metropolitan size
      12. geographical area including states
      13. school type (private, parochial, charter, home)
      14. system and/or books used for teaching spelling
      15. scope, sequence, number of and choice of words used in system or books
  5. Find celebrities willing to be videotaped for the tests for a nominal fee.
  6. Find schools willing to administer and score the tests.  Get their input.
      1. Mass mailings to superintendents.
      2. Follow-up phone calls and e-mails.
      3. Posting of notices on websites and electronic bulletin boards.
  7. Find graduate students willing to administer and score the tests.  Get their input.
    1. Mass mailings to colleges of education near schools participating in the study.
    2. Follow-up phone calls and e-mails.
    3. Posting of notices on websites and electronic bulletin boards.
  8. Find video producer.
  9. Make cost estimate for all steps before and after this step.  Prepare budget.
  10. Make grant proposal.
  11. Produce video tests and data collection papers.
  12. Distribute the tests and collect data.
  13. Analyze data.
  14. Disseminate data and its implications for improvement of instruction and instructional materials.  This should be in book format as well as in a website.   

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See also:

Answers to 3rd grade spelling quick survey:

  1. 6% of all 3rd graders in 1953 could spell grab but only 1% could spell grabbed!
    In other words, 87% those who could spell grab could not correctly make the past ending -ed correctly.
  2. 52% could spell make but only 36% could spell making.
    Or 69% of those who could spell make could not add the -ing ending correctly.
  3. 55% could spell warm but only 22% could spell warmer.
    Or 60% of those who could spell warm could not correctly add an -er.
  4. 38% could spell march but only 12% could spell marched.
    Or 68% of those who could spell march could not correctly add the -ed.

If you think these statistics from 1953 are appalling, how much "better" do you think today's 3rd graders would do?

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