Is a rose, by any other spelling, still a rose?

Posted by Catherine Young Morris on

No. It would become rows, or roes (as in more than one roe deer). Spelling instruction may not always be the most popular, but is gaining increasing attention given our better understanding of how it supports reading development. 

As an author of decodable text, I engage in an awful lot of language analysis (I am not the first, nor will I be the last). There are several factors that need to be considered in order to write a text that is both meaningful and targeted for developing particular reading skills.


- Vocabulary: what vocabulary do we expect readers to have, and to what extent do we want to develop new vocabulary?
- Story: What kind of textual variety do we provide to broaden learners’ mental models of diverse written language forms?
- Curricular relevance: To what extent do we want texts to support or reinforce other learning happening in the classroom?



    - What skills will be targeted when, and how can we help ease and accelerate learner’s access to written language?
    - What skills is a learner expected to have been taught by a given point in a series?
    - To what degree is it OK to allow for irregular or out of sequence word choice?
    - How valuable are different forms of reading skill practice compared to others?  
    - What levels (note the plural) of text complexity are most appropriate?

      The trickiest dimension of this, of course, is that there are not perfect answers to all these questions. Different educators and authors have and will answer them in different ways depending on their goals and situation. Our human minds are primed to love easy answers, and that can be a trap of its own. For example, we may get so caught up in a particular detail or details that we inadvertently limit opportunities for learning.

      For my own part, I have generally taken a naturalistic approach that aims to control text while providing as authentic a reading experience as possible. It's a balancing act. As you slice and dice texts for different purposes, you discover things like:

      + Certain phonics skills lend themselves toward developing certain vocabulary and knowledge.
      + The sequence in which content knowledge is typically taught and prioritized does not align well with how children’s reading skills typically progress.
      + The most efficient skill progression to access written language, may not fully align with the most efficient cognitive framework for developing those skills (e.g. grouping skills that share common principles or features for instructional efficiency).

        All this to say long live human creativity and diversity in those areas where there is, and likely always will be, room for flexibility!

        There are a couple of lessons from spelling frequency analysis in particular that can also help us keep perspective on instructional goals at different stages of reading development.

        + Very few spellings (graphemes) represent more than two sounds (phonemes) with any level of frequency, so it makes sense to teach reading and spelling first from a spelling to sound correspondence perspective (as most programs do).
        + The most common sound-spelling correspondences are surprising in some cases, and worth attending to.
        +How frequently certain spellings occur can vary significantly based on the corpus (words) used to do the analysis. 
        + There are many spellings that students can access almost for free with knowledge of other sound-symbol correspondences, or a basic guideline (students do not need to know that the letter M is doubled in a word to know that it makes the same /m/ sound as a single letter M).
        + Due to the much broader range of spellings that can represent a given sound in words, there is a need for a secondary level of instruction that builds on the first level of instruction focused more on the sound to spelling perspective. This will help children master and become more aware of the range of spellings for a given sound and related conventions.

          This last point is perhaps the most critical to bear in mind as spelling instruction becomes increasingly embraced as a means of more effective reading instruction. The type of spelling instruction and activities needed to achieve proficient reading will not automatically result in full spelling proficiency, nor is it reasonable to expect the same level of proficiency to be achieved in both word level reading and spelling simultaneously (more on the phases of reading and spelling development here). There is simply more to written language than that.

          It does make sense to shift the instructional emphasis progressively from a focus on reading and invented spelling to a focus on formal spelling convention. We just don't want to forget about spelling once children learn to read. 

          If you’d like to learn more about high frequency spellings in the English Language, I put together a summary reference table with the most common spellings for download based on Fry, E. (2004). Phonics: A large phoneme-grapheme frequency count revisited. Journal of Literacy Research, 36, 85-98.

          And for the big-time fans out there, you can always flaunt it with a totally totable tote. 😊