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Self-Regulated Learning in Spelling: What, How, and Why

by Karen R. Harris, Ed.D., and Steve Graham, Ed.D.

Dr. Karen R. Harris and Dr. Steve Graham are professors in the College of Education at the University of Maryland. They have coauthored numerous books and articles, including Making the Writing Process Work: Strategies for Composition and Self-Regulation, a textbook used by university Education Departments nationwide, and Spell It-Write! (1998), Zaner-Bloser's innovative spelling program for grades K-6.

What does it mean to be a self-regulated learner?

Students who are self-regulated learners set goals for themselves and then independently plan, manage, and evaluate what it takes to reach their goals. Developing the ability to understand and regulate their own behavior is an important undertaking for children (Harris and Graham, 1996a). Indeed, the call to cultivate self-understanding and self-control has sounded repeatedly throughout the ages.

Benjamin Franklin, for example, was a staunch advocate of self-regulation. He used an assortment of self-regulation procedures in what he described as his struggles for self-improvement. At one point in his life he defined 13 virtues, such as temperance and order, that he wished to develop and established a goal of increasing each virtue during the space of a week. He then monitored his performance, recording each instance of success or failure in a daily journal. If, at the end of a week, no offenses were recorded against the virtue, he extended his goal to include the next virtue on his list (Schunk and Zimmerman, 1994; Zimmerman and Schunk, 1989).

It comes as no surprise that researchers have found self-regulation to be a key ingredient in effective writing and spelling. Many famous authors have told how they manage their environment and the writing process, as well as how they maintain or reenergize their commitment to their work (Cowley, 1958; Graham and Harris, 1996a; Plimpton, 1967). Ernest Hemingway established goals for himself and recorded his daily output of words on a chart. If he did not write as much as planned, he curtailed his fishing. When he reached a particular goal, he rewarded himself.

While self-regulation is a natural part of children's work in the classroom, it is clear that many children need teacher support to develop self-regulated learning (Biemiller and Meichenbaum, 1992; Graham and Harris, 1996b). In this pamphlet, we will discuss how teachers can nurture competence in self-regulation, especially in the area of developing spelling skills within an authentic, process approach to writing. Spelling is an integral part of literacy education (Gentry, 1993; Zutell, 1992). Both spelling and word study are important to many children learning to read, while at the same time reading and writing help students to develop spelling knowledge.

How can we foster children's self-regulation in spelling?

A few children in every classroom are so good at regulating their own behavior that they may reach out to assist in the regulation of their peers. Most children, however, need support and opportunities to develop the cornerstones of self-regulation: goal setting, self-monitoring (this can include self-assessment and self-recording), self-instructions, self-reinforcement, and arranging the environment (Graham and Harris, 1994, 1996b).

The development of self-regulated learning should be an integral part of meaningful and authentic reading and writing practices in the classroom (Harris and Graham, 1996a; Schunk and Zimmerman, 1994). Children can nurture self-regulation abilities as they develop the important skills that are part of being a reader and writer. The development of fluent, strategic spelling abilities within the process approach to writing offers an excellent example.

Some children do develop spelling abilities through frequent and meaningful reading and writing activities, but many children do not develop the level of skill that makes spelling less of a demand on them during the writing process. Without fluent spelling skills, many students continue to struggle with the mechanics of the writing process and cannot focus their attention and energy on what and why they are writing (Graham and Harris, 1994; Harris and Graham, 1996b). The same self-regulation strategies that put them in control of their writing (e.g., goal setting) can help them to take ownership of the process of learning to spell. As we shall see, the benefits of using a self-regulated approach to spelling and word study are not limited to students alone! Teachers relate many positive outcomes for themselves as well, including fewer demands on teacher time as students become more independent and self-directed.

Goal setting

Self-regulation begins with students developing responsibility for their own learning. In spelling, an important goal for students is developing motivation for spelling and spelling consciousness (Harris, 1994). Meaningful reading and writing experiences help students develop a sense of the importance of spelling in communication with others and provide an important source of words for study.

Responsibility and spelling consciousness lead students naturally to the goal-setting process. An important goal for students is to find words in their writing and reading that they want and need to learn to spell. Students become word hunters, selecting words to learn to spell from their writing, reading, school experiences, and the world around them. Students can capture these words in their own word journals, and select from them to build their weekly word lists.

As partners in learning to spell, teachers select weekly words as well. These words come from several sources. Words can be selected from the integrated curriculum and learning activities that students are involved in. Teachers also find it important to select from lists of high-frequency writing words. Mastery of 850 to 1000 basic spelling words during the elementary grades provides students with a spelling vocabulary of up to 89% of the words they commonly use in their writing, including frequently misspelled words and spelling demons. Several high-frequency word lists exist, based on studies of children's writing (Graham, Harris, and Loynachan, 1993, 1994; Hillerich, 1974, 1978; Loomer, Fitzsimmons,and Strege, 1990; Smith and Ingersoll, 1984). It is important that students know that these words have been selected for their weekly list because they are words we use a lot in our writing.

The words that teachers select can be grouped and explored in ways that help students learn. Word families that demonstrate meaningful spelling principles, patterns, or strategies can be used as the basis for guided discussion and discovery of meaningful principles of English orthography. Researchers have been of great help here, as they have created high-frequency word lists based on students' writing and grouped these words into families that will be of use to teachers and their students (Graham, Harris, and Loynachan, 1996; Zutell, 1993).

Directed Spelling Thinking Activity

(DSTA) procedures can be used to help students actively compare and contrast words that fit different, but related, patterns. Words selected from basic spelling vocabulary lists and grouped into DSTA families are available to teachers for students across the elementary and middle grades (Graham, Harris, and Loynachan, 1996; Zutell, 1992, 1993). Today, some good spelling basals are based on both high-frequency word lists and groupings of word families for DSTA activities and meaningful word study. This is one reason good basals can provide an excellent resource for teaching spelling.

Another important part of the goal-setting process for students is determining the number of words to be learned each week. Each student sets a goal, at first typically with teacher feedback or guidance, appropriate to his or her development as a speller. Thus, weekly spelling goals are individualized, based on students' needs and spelling abilities, as is the difficulty level of the words to be learned. Unlike in older, traditional product approaches to spelling, the child now has learning goals that are personally meaningful and motivational, and thus lead to the child's active, willing participation in the learning process.

Independent practice

In order to meet their goals, students must make a plan and then monitor their own progress and learning. In the self-regulated approach to spelling, students make their own learning plans, selecting from meaningful, research supported word study techniques they can use alone or with a peer, at school or at home (Graham and Miller, 1979; Henderson, 1985; Loomer, Fitzsimmons, and Strege, 1990). Again, teacher guidance plays an important role in helping students make the right learning plans. While older, traditional approaches emphasized drill and practice on lengthy, often irrelevant word lists, the self-regulated approach incorporates student choice of word study activities that really make a difference in learning to spell words that matter to students (Harris, in press).

A good spelling basal can be an excellent resource for teachers because good basals incorporate meaningful word study procedures. A basal can also be beneficial if it includes information that helps teachers guide students in the discovery and use of powerful strategies for generating and checking words' spellings. Use of such strategies is another important self-monitoring ability for students.


Implementing and managing their learning plans allows students to monitor their progress as they learn the words they need in their writing. A self-test at the beginning of the week helps students focus their efforts. Peer-testing can be used at the end of the week to allow efficient management of individualized word lists.

Self-evaluation is a natural part of self-monitoring. Students can evaluate both their goals and study plans, based on their weekly spelling achievement. With the self-regulated approach to spelling, they come to understand not only the spelling process but themselves as spellers.

Arranging the environment, self-instruction, and self-reinforcement

Self-regulation processes work together quite naturally (Harris, 1990) although we have discussed them separately here. In order to meet their learning goals and implement their learning plans, students must actively arrange the conditions they need for learning. Students use self-instructions as they direct their own word study efforts or use of spelling strategies. Self-reinforcement is a natural outcome as students meet their goals and manage their own learning. Self-reinforcement can be enhanced if students keep records of their learning or word journals where they write the words they want to learn to spell.

How does self-regulated learning benefit students and teachers?

Like Benjamin Franklin, students find self-regulation empowering. Acting as partners in learning through self-regulation fosters student independence. Having a plan for learning and monitoring their own progress increases student engagement in spelling and the writing process.

Teachers play an important role in this empowerment because they act as models of and provide scaffolding for the development of self-regulation. Discussion of not only what it means to be self-regulated and how we can get there, but also of why self-regulation is an important part of learning and human development, can help students to recognize the value of self-regulation.

Frequent, meaningful reading and writing, self-regulated learning of high-frequency writing words and self-selected spelling words, active involvement in comparing and contrasting words that fit different, but related, spelling patterns, and self-regulated use of powerful spelling strategies are all components of an effective, self-regulated spelling program. Such a program has benefits not only for students, but for their teachers as well.

Teachers not only enjoy facilitating the development of self-regulation and fluent spelling within the writing process, but find that their students are more engaged in their own learning. The independence that students realize through self-regulation frees teachers to spend time with individuals or groups of students who need assistance with a spelling concept or a component of the self-regulation process.

While starting students on the road to self-regulated learning in spelling requires an initial investment in time and energy, once students know the ropes they achieve a level of independence that actually lessens the demands on teachers' time! The teachers we have worked with also tell us that the self-regulated approach to spelling provides them with an important learning opportunity as well-they learn new things about their students and their abilities.


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