Writing and spelling as essential components of successful language and literacy—what’s our role, here?

Some school-based SLPs, as soon as they see the words “writing” or “spelling” immediately push the topic aside. “Not my job,” they may say. However, the written modality of language matters. It’s not just about phonemic, phonological, and semantic awareness. Orthographic and morphological awareness (tied to both written and spoken language), are crucial components of good language and literacy skills as well.

Now, before we move on to the newly-published studies, it’s important to set the stage by getting everyone on board with caring about writing and spelling. First, I’d highly recommend this tutorial. It explains the rationale behind morphological awareness instruction and lays out how to do it. Apel & Werfel (2014) state:

“In the 1970s, phonological awareness, the ability to analyze the sound structure of words (Mattingly, 1972), emerged as a major topic in reading research. By the 1980s, studies evaluating the effects of explicit teaching of phonological awareness on reading achievement in the preschool and early elementary school years abounded (e.g., Bus, 1986; Lundberg, Frost, & Petersen, 1988; Olofsson & Lundberg, 1983; Treiman & Baron, 1983; Williams, 1980)... Bus and van Ijzendoorn (1999), however, warned that although it is clear that phonemic awareness training results in increased reading skills, we should not conclude that phonemic awareness is the single most important factor in literacy achievement…”

If you’re looking for more resources on the links between spelling, language, and literacy, this and this are excellent resources, too. Now, onto the recent research:

  • Good et al. provide a tutorial on spelling instruction for children with language impairment. They lay out an explicit 10-week program, with lessons the SLP may provide twice weekly.
  • McNeill et al. provide some early evidence that young children with inconsistent speech sound disorder (“40% or more inconsistent speech errors”, but not apraxia of speech) have particular difficulty with spelling, despite their language and reading skills.
  • McMaster et al. examined the current literature base to determine the impact of early writing intervention, as well as which writing interventions have the best evidence to support them. They found that improvement to handwriting and spelling result in increases in quantity and linguistic quality of student writing. This article, itself, doesn’t describe actions SLPs may take in the therapy room. Instead, it points you toward evidence-based options, such as “Self-Regulated Strategy Development” as a writing intervention for children with low reading and language skills (learn more about SRSD from resources like this and this.)
  • Pavelko et al. demonstrate that the writing skills of four-year-old children with language disorders (with typical cognitive skills and without other neurological disorders) are below what would be expected. They suggest that SLPs work closely with teachers and OTs to support writing as an essential early literacy skill in these children.

Now, all this information can feel really overwhelming, really quickly, for the SLP who isn't already considering writing in therapy. It’s important to recognize that supporting students in written language is the responsibility of several integral professionals—SLPs, OTs, and teachers. SLPs certainly cannot tackle it alone effectively.

So, where should the SLP start?

  1. Recognize that you’re not fully supporting literacy development if you’re not considering written language, in addition to oral language.
  2. Again, I’d go back to the Apel & Werfel (2014) tutorial for examples of instructional techniques that you can start incorporating right away. They state, “By integrating morphological awareness instruction into the services they provide, clinical scientists (aka SLPs) and other educators will be providing their students with a strong tool to aid written language skills.” The other good option would be the Good et al. (2017) article. These two articles have, by far, the most explicit examples of what an SLP may do. 

Apel, K., & Werfel, K. (2014). Using morphological awareness instruction to improve written language skills. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 45, 251–260.

Ehri, L.C., & Rosenthal, J. (2017). Spellings of Words: A Neglected Facilitator of Vocabulary Learning. Journal of Literacy Research, 39(4), 389–409.

Good, J.E., Lance, D.M., & Rainey, J. (2017). The use of direct spelling instruction for children with language impairment. Communication Disorders Quarterly. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/1525740117702455.

McMaster, K.L., Kunkel, A., Shin, J., Jung, P.-G., & Lembke, E. (2017). Early writing intervention: a best evidence synthesis. Journal of Learning Disabilities. Advance online publication: 10.1177/0022219417708169.

McNeill, B.C., Wolter, J., & Gillon, G.T. (2017). A comparison of the metalinguistic performance and spelling development of children with inconsistent speech sound disorder and their age-matched and reading-matched peers. American Journal of Speech­–Language Pathology, 26, 456-468.

Pavelko, S.L., Lieberman, R.J., Schwartz, J., Hahs-Vaughn, D., & Nye, C. (2017). The development of writing skills in 4-year-old children with and without specific language impairment. Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/02699206.2017.1310298.