Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners

Writing Instruction and Assessment for English Language Learners K-8

In this excerpt from Writing Instruction and Assessment for English Language Learners K-8, authors Susan Lenski and Frances Verbruggen offer strategies focused on how to teach and assess spelling with ELLs, including discussion on error correction. The authors have created a hypothetical school setting based on their extensive research and observations in classrooms around the country, presenting educators' questions and challenges, as well as their collaborative conversations with colleagues.

In this example, Ms. Bowden and Ms. Brennan are mainstream teachers interested in designing more effective writing lessons and activities for their ELLs, and Ms. Ramos is the school's literacy coach.

Spelling and native language influence

Spelling, like handwriting, is a transcription skill that helps students to write with fluency. During writing workshop in her classroom, Ms. Bowden found that when students stopped writing in order to ask for help with spelling or to look up a word in the dictionary, the flow of the students' thinking was interrupted and they would often have difficulty picking up their train of thought. For ELLs, who need to use the bulk of their cognitive resources to organize and express their ideas, fluent spelling is an important part of fluent writing.

For ELLs, the transfer of linguistic knowledge from the home language to English can have both benefits and drawbacks. For the Spanish speakers in Ms. Bowden's class, phonological and orthographic transfer from Spanish to English accounted for many spelling errors in words containing /k/, /b/, and /h/ allophones, /sk/ blends, all clusters, and phonemes, such as /e/, /pr/, and /u/ (Fashola, Drum, Mayer, & Kang, 1996). Her Spanish-speaking students tended to make more errors than native English-speaking students in words containing these phonemes. There appears to be a significant amount of Spanish influence in the spelling of words that Spanish-speaking students spell incorrectly. Much of Spanish-speaking students' spelling errors can be accounted for by interference from the transfer of phonological knowledge from Spanish (Dressler, 2002). Spanish-speaking students are not the only ones for whom spelling can be challenging. Example 1 shows the work of a fifth-grade Dutch-speaking student who had been in the United States for 1 year, which illustrates that point. This student, like many ELLs, spells words the way she hears them.

Because of the challenges for teaching ELLs to spell, Ms. Ramos suggested that a phonetically organized spelling program would provide Ms. Bowden's students with explicit practice in the organizational patterns of the English language, and could improve their writing and other English language skills (Wright, 2001).

Correcting spelling and usage errors

Teachers used to correct every error with a red pen to indicate mistakes in writing. Mina Shaughnessy (1977) questioned this practice in her classic Errors and Expectations. One of Shaughnessy's maxims was that errors count but not as much as most teachers think. Research supports this viewpoint. Teachers who mark every error may feel like they're doing the right thing, but research suggests that marking errors does not make a difference in student writing (Rob, Ross, & Shortreed, 1986). Most errors tend to distract readers rather than distort meaning. Although the goal of writing is to communicate meaning without distractions, errors are actually a natural part of language development and are a window into a writer's development (Schleppegrell & Go, 2007). According to Díaz-Rico (2008), "persistent errors, rather than random mistakes, provide insight into the learner's rule set" (p. 246).

Understanding the kinds of errors that ELLs make in writing is critical. According to Parker and Riley (2010), spelling errors tend to be a direct result of the phonology of English. For example, words that have unstressed syllables, such as the second syllable in the word interest, are often deleted. In this case, the word is spelled intrest by novice spellers. This example and many others cause ELLs to have difficulty spelling correctly. Furthermore, ELLs do not unlearn their first language when they learn English. ELLs develop an interlanguage (Selinker, 1972) as they move from their first language to English. This interlanguage reflects the English rules they are learning as they intersect with the rules governing the first language. The way ELLs apply the rules of English is revealed by the errors they make when they write. Analyzing errors can help teachers identify patterns that ELLs are using while learning English.

Ms. Brennan decided to try an error analysis of some of her ELLs' writings. She was especially concerned about Rosi, who was a fairly recent immigrant from Mexico. Rosi was learning English rapidly and was beginning to apply several of the grammatical and usage rules that she had been taught. Ms. Brennan used Rosi's sample writing of a biography (see Example 2) to decide how to best scaffold her writing.

After carefully reading Rosi's paper, Ms. Brennan decided that Rosi was making sufficient progress in writing considering the time she had spent in the country. She developed a chart that detailed what she learned from Rosi's writing (see Chart 1) and concluded that she would have Rosi concentrate on some of the areas in which Rosi had demonstrated learning. She decided to remind Rosi to capitalize proper nouns, especially names. She also gave Rosi extra assistance in writing simple sentences. Finally, Ms. Brennan reviewed when to use me and when to use my. Ms. Brennan recognized that Rosi had additional errors in her writing, but she knew that overwhelming Rosi with too many areas to learn all at once would not be beneficial. Instead, Ms. Brennan tried to help Rosi focus on just three areas for her next piece of writing.

Spelling assessments

Spelling tests are another type of assessment that most of us know from school. The teacher assigned a set of words, and at the end of the week the words were dictated, usually in sentences for context. We would write the words, hopefully with the correct spelling. This kind of assessment is still useful for checking students' mastery of spelling words. Mrs. Ramos told the teachers that there are a few variations on the traditional spelling test that teachers could try. First, instead of dictating the words, show the students a picture that illustrates the meaning of the word and have them write the word. A second variation would be to give the students a multiple-choice test, with various options for spelling the word, to see whether they can recognize the correct spelling (Brown, 2004). This alternative might be especially useful when a word has several different spellings, each with a different meaning, such as there, their, and they're, or two, to, and too, in which case the teacher could assess word meaning as well as spelling.


Reprinted with permission. Lenski, S. and Verbruggen, F. Writing Instruction and Assessment for English Language Learners K-8. 12, 126-7, 147-8. New York: Guilford Press. 2010.


Brown, H.D. (2004). Language assessment: Principles and classroom practice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson: ESL.

Dressler, C.A. (2002). Inter- and intra-language influences on the English spelling development of fifth-grade, Spanish-speaking English language learners. Unpublished dissertation, Harvard University.

Fashola, O., Drum, P., Mayer, R., & Kang, S. (1996). A cognitive theory of orthographic transitioning: Predictable errors in how Spanish-speaking children spell English words. American Educational Research Journal, 33(4), 825-843.

Parker, F., & Riley, K. (2010). Linguistics for non-linguists: A primer with exercises (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Rob, T., Ross, S., & Shortreed, I. (1986). Salience of feedback on error and its effect on EFL writing quality. TESOL Quarterly, 20(1), 83-93.

Schleppegrell, M. J., & Go, A. L. (2007). Analyzing the writing of English learners: A functional approach. Language Arts, 84, 529-538.

Selinker, L. (1972). International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 10(3), 210-231.

Shaughnessy, M. P. (1977). Errors and expectations: A guide for the teacher of basic writing. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wright, D. (2001). Phonetically organized spelling because-. The Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, 67(4), 30-33.


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Great Ideas for my next spelling Test. Specially for my leve 1's

Here's an idea I came up years ago for spelling tests: give students a limited amount of time (one or two minutes, depending on the students' level and the number of words on the test) to use a dictionary. Do NOT give enough time to check too many words. It will also simulate real world conditions where good writers know which words are their demons and know to look those up.

I've been teaching ELD students for twenty-nine years. Each year I learn more from my students about how to better teach the learning domains to new language learners. This year I've pursued the National Boards Certificate in English as A New Language, for fun! It's a lot of work but very inspirational.

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