Harvard Educational Review
  1. Spelling

    Development, Disability, and Instruction

    By Louisa Cook Moats

    Timonium, MD: York Press, 1995. 137 pp. $21.00

    As a novice first-grade teacher, I remember how uneasy I felt about leading my students through a hand-painting activity for the very first time. I also remember the time and effort I put into preparing a unit on subtraction. Yet I never gave much thought to how to teach my first graders to spell. My own primary school memories of weekly dictation and daily spelling tests — activities that, although tedious, had helped me become an accurate speller — were vivid enough to comfort me into thinking that this was a skill I could teach without prior initiation into the didactic of orthography. In her recent book, Spelling: Development, Disability, and Instruction, Louisa Cook Moats begins by calling upon her personal experience as a teacher to dismantle this dangerous misconception: "I learned most of the content of this book long after my basic teacher training was completed. Knowing how to spell, it turned out, was not sufficient for knowing how to teach spelling or how to interpret the problems many of my students experienced" (p. 1).

    Rather than offering another recipe book on how to teach spelling, Moats leads the reader on an empowering journey through the theoretical and practical aspects of spelling. In the first two chapters, she skillfully introduces key linguistics concepts as well as the two major competing theories on the cognitive processes involved in spelling. This thorough but accessible groundwork sets the stage for chapter three, a detailed, well-illustrated description of the different stages of spelling development. Teachers will have no difficulty connecting this section of the book to their intimate knowledge of children's spelling performances.

    In chapter four, the author continues to develop the reader's capacity to detect spelling disabilities and to characterize children's difficulties with spelling. Traditional classifications of spelling errors give way to finer typologies that distinguish, among other things, errors linked to the phonetic representation of the word. Chapter five explores the use of tests to uncover or to define spelling disabilities, to evaluate students' progress, or to determine their developmental levels in spelling. Moats identifies the features of a "good test" and discusses several existing assessment tools and classification methods. In the final chapter, she proposes alternatives to traditional approaches to spelling, including activities that place the child in autonomous learning situations researching their own errors.

    Spelling: Development, Disability, and Instruction makes an invaluable contribution to the understanding of spelling development and to the teaching of spelling. Rather than imposing solutions on ill-defined problems, Moats strives primarily to equip educators with a set of complementary diagnostic tools, and then offers a series of insights into how to put theory into classroom practice. At a time when "whole language" teaching philosophies enjoy considerable following in U.S. classrooms, this well-researched book should convince teachers that meaningful spelling instruction, meshed with authentic written expression, should be offered to those who do not acquire spelling "naturally."

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