Can Phonics Help Improve a Student’s Spelling Ability?

Most teachers know that despite the whole word wave, explicit phonics instruction and decoding strategies are essential for effectively teaching struggling readers how to read as part of a structured literacy approach. However, some teachers are unsure about how phonics and phonemic awareness plays into a student’s spelling ability. Here is Reading Horizons Teacher Trainer and Dyslexia Specialist, Shantell Berrett, spelling it out (pun intended) for us:

 Here are some key points from Shantell, highlighting what goes into spelling ability and how phonics can influence this skill:

  • Phonology and orthography are used in both reading and spelling, making these two skills more connected than many teachers realize. Thus, phonics is a crucial step in improving a student’s spelling ability.
  • If a student can read a word, that doesn’t necessarily mean they can spell it. Spelling is a higher level process than reading. There are more options to spell a certain sound than there is when you see it written out and are pronouncing the word. Meaning (as concluded by my understanding of what Shantell said), phonology and an understanding of letter relationships could be even more essential for strong spelling skills than reading skills (not to say it’s not important for readingit’s crucial, especially for struggling students).
  • Spelling is often more problematic for students than reading because there are so many options for spelling a word. Conversely, if a student can spell a word, it is almost guaranteed that they can read it.
  • If a student lacks the ability to auditorily recognize that words are made up of parts, he will not make that connection when he spells. This will lead a student to spell using whole word strategies of memorization, instead of actually understanding the fundamentals that create spelling patterns. If a student is relying on memorization, he will have to memorize every new word he encounters, whereas, if he is relying on an understanding of phonology he will be able to spell new words more readily and automatically.

Here are two red flags that Shantell pointed out can be used to know if a student is relying on memorization for spelling rather than relying on a thorough understanding of phonology and letter sounds and relationships:

  1. The student will perform well on a spelling test one week, but as soon as a day or two later, you will see him spell the same words he passed on the spelling test spelled incorrectly in his writing.
  2. The student will perform better on a spelling test when you quiz him in the same order as the list you originally gave him, but if you juggle the order: performance lowers. This happens when phonemic awareness is lacking because recall is based on a situation or a sequence and when that situation is changed – he can’t remember as well.

What should you do if your students exhibit these red flags? Provide the student with instruction in phonemic awareness. Be sure the student understands and can manipulate sounds auditorily and verbally FIRST… and then have the student work on the written form of those sounds. This will provide your students with the foundational skills they need for the higher level processes that are required for proper spelling.


Help your students become strong spellers by taking advantage of the following teacher resources:

The Development of a Student’s Spelling Ability [WEBINAR] ›

Reading Horizons Online Reading Workshop

What is Decoding? ›