Spelling Instruction: A Diagnostic-Prescriptive Approach

by Paul Howard

April 23, 2023

If you are around my age, you might remember spelling in elementary school as something akin to the following: Your well-intentioned teacher gave you a list of words on Monday, and on Friday she (usually she) gave you a dictated test of those (usually 10 or so) words. I was not a good speller, but I was a superb memorizer. Many of those words sat long enough in my short-term memory to get me through the week and promptly vanished the next. I’m sure there was pattern-based instruction, some light phonics, but spelling for me was that 10 word make-or-break test each week.

Today, as an early literacy specialist, I know that spelling requires far more than memorization, and students’ spelling performance reveals much about their word recognition and reading ability (Conrad, 2008). Spelling is a valuable diagnostic tool that can show teachers how students process speech sounds and how they make the connection between those sounds and the letter symbols representing them (Seidenberg, 2018). Spelling requires students to connect the speech code to the print code, so their spelling ability also demonstrates their reading ability. As Dr. Louisa Moats affirms, 

“…anything that is going to cause trouble with a child’s reading will show up even more dramatically in the child’s spelling and writing. So, it’s a wonderful diagnostic tool. It provides very detailed insight into what children need to know and it can also tell us when children are gaining insight and what improvements they are making in their understanding of language” (Reading Rockets, ‘Meet the Experts: Dr Louisa Moats – Spelling’, 2008).

 How do we as teachers best use spelling as a diagnostic tool? One of the most helpful resources is a high-quality spelling inventory. Before we explore spelling inventories, it is important to highlight what not to use. A formal norm-referenced spelling assessment, such as the spelling subtest of the Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement 3 (KTEA-3), is designed to measure progress against age or grade expectations. While these tests can yield valuable insights, their primary purpose is monitoring achievement rather than pinpointing areas of instructional need. 

A diagnostic spelling inventory is designed to contain a representation of common spelling features–a more deliberate but not exhaustive sampling of patterns (Invernizzi, Hayes, 2018). Word patterns increase in difficulty and length across layers of English orthography. For example, words early in the list will be single, closed-syllable Anglo Saxon words like ‘hit’ or ‘ship,’ words with other common syllable types like vowel teams ‘sail’ or ‘sea,’ and vowel-consonant-e patterns like ‘place’ or ‘drive’. The inventory typically progresses to 1-2 syllable words with inflections like -ed, -ing, -er, and more challenging syllable types like vowel-r (power) and consonant-le (bottle). Finally, the latter words in the inventory may include multisyllabic latinate words containing roots, prefixes and suffixes, otherwise known as derivational. These may include a word like detection, which has the prefix de-, suffix -(t)ion, root tect, and the related verb ‘detect.’ Words are dictated to the student with short sample sentences provided. Although a basal and ceiling (starting point and stopping point) may not be as formalized, the teacher typically starts at the first word and may opt to stop if the student makes several errors in a row.

Since a spelling inventory is a representation of spelling features, scoring it involves more than all-or-nothing, right-or-wrong annotation. A good inventory pinpoints the individual features of a word. For example, a student who spelled ‘train’ as ‘trane’ accurately spelled the consonant blend feature ‘tr’ and the final /n/ sound; however, the feature error was the ‘ai’ vowel team spelled as a vce syllable (a_e). The focus on spelling features helps the teacher to determine what appropriate spelling instruction or remediation to provide. Attention to the correctly spelled features also gives the teacher a skills-based jumping-off point.

While a good diagnostic spelling inventory will be designed to progress from more basic spelling expectations to advanced, a research-based, reliable reading and spelling scope and sequence is a valuable companion to the spelling inventory. The scope and sequence helps teachers to prioritize instruction and to weigh performance against grade level expectations. Let’s say a student spelled the consonant-le feature (bottel for bottle) and the doubling rule feature (begining for beginning) incorrectly. A scope and sequence for those patterns might place accurate spelling of -cle syllables as a grade 3 expectation and accurate spelling of consonant doubling for suffix addition at grade 2-3. Instructional priority or attention would be different if the student were in 4th grade as opposed to 2nd grade.

A spelling diagnostic inventory is best administered at the start of the school year and can be helpful in grouping students for appropriate instruction. It should be paired with a reliable, valid formal assessment that can act as a benchmark for progress monitoring. With informed, pattern-based instruction, students can improve their spelling proficiency and strengthen their overall word recognition reading ability.

Works Cited

Conrad, Nicole. (2008). From Reading to Spelling and Spelling to Reading: Transfer Goes Both Ways. Journal of Educational Psychology. 100. 869-878. 10.1037/a0012544

Invernizzi, M., & Hayes, L. (2004). Developmental-spelling research : A systematic imperative. Reading Research Quarterly, 39(2), 216–228

Moats, L. (2008, May 19). Meet the experts: Dr. Louisa Moats (spelling). YouTube. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from 

Seidenberg, M. S. (2018). In Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it (p. 119). essay, Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books.


Paul Howard has served as the Assistant Early Literacy Department Head at Landmark High School since 2015. He is trained in the Lindamood Phoneme Sequencing (LiPS), Seeing Stars, and Visualizing and Verbalizing Programs by Patricia and Phyllis Lindamood and Nancy Bell, and the LETRS approach to reading instruction by Louisa Moats and Carol Tolman. Paul has taught English Language Arts classes and one-to-one Early Literacy tutorials at Landmark since 2007. He graduated from Gordon College with a bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature. Paul holds a master’s of science in Moderate Special Education from Simmons College and is a professionally licensed special education teacher. He has taught courses on the Foundations of Reading and on Integrated Word Study both online and in person for Landmark Outreach. When not teaching, Paul enjoys gardening, playing music, and snorkeling or scuba diving. He lives in Gloucester, MA with his wife, Kelly, and daughters, Esmé and Ophelia.


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