Raising Readers, Writers, and Spellers

An expert guide for parents

The Big Lie: We teach Spelling in our reading program

All-inclusive reading programs may prove toxic to your child's literacy health.

Where is spelling
Spawned by the marketing divisions of big corporations, reading book companies have convinced some state school boards, superintendents, supervisors, principals, and other decision makers that they need not buy spelling books because "your child gets spelling in the reading program." What the reading program provides may cripple your child as a speller and put her at risk as a proficient reader and writer. 

Currently three major toxic delivery systems for spelling instruction are infecting American schools. Each of them fails to provide a spiraling spelling curriculum and none is research-based or proven. It's ludicrous given the evolving and expanding research base for the importance of spelling knowledge for developing readers and writers in elementary school. One toxic system purports to give children "spelling words their way" with games and word sorting as a replacement for spelling books. Another forces teachers to do their own thing which too often results in no spelling books and no instruction. Probably the most egregious is the pretense that spelling is taught in the reading program.

"We teach spelling in our reading program." The Big Lie.

A new trend is to add a spelling component to the already cumbersome reading basal which is purchased by many districts to provide a curriculum for teaching reading at each grade level. This spelling component in reading trend began a few years ago as a marketing technique: "Buy our reading program and we'll give you spelling for free!" That sounds appealing in our struggling economy, but buyer, beware. What you get is busy-work worksheets, no curriculum, the wrong words to memorize at a particular grade level, badly designed exercises that were developed by product-development companies with no expertise in spelling education, or a watered-down version of the kind of instruction that creates a powerful speller. At best teachers who are forced to use these programs don't teach spelling, they assign it.

Don't Mess with Texas!

This year, the Texas State Board of Education is making a move to combat this egregious move backward in literacy education by calling for a state-wide standalone spelling book adoption. Kudos to the board and the state for not allowing reading companies to pull the wool over the eyes of parents and educators. In the big scheme of things, spelling books are a small investment and deliver a big bang for the buck. Simply having a spelling book means that the teacher is much more likely to spend fifteen minutes each day teaching your child English spelling. If you see a spelling book coming home it means your child has a spelling curriculum in school. A tradition of having the parent involved with the complexities of teaching and practicing English spelling is a boon to your child's education. Yes, your child should have spelling homework. Spelling knowledge increases reading and writing proficiency which impacts student performance across the entire school curriculum. We all should applaud this call for a spelling textbook adoption in Texas.

One example of the need for new books is the introduction of new technologies including eBook format and technologies that allow teachers to incorporate practice activities at home on the computer and practice with interactive white board applications for teaching word patterns in class. The 21st century spelling book has come a long way from rote memorization of a word list. But back to the big lie. What do you get if you allow your child to be taught spelling in the reading program?

Spelling in the Reading Program? Here's What You Get!

To answer this question, I analyzed the "spelling program" in the best-selling reading program currently in use in Texas. This program has a 2011 copyright and it's the very same program one of the nation's largest textbook publishers sells to schools nationwide--possibly in your child's district. Here's what I found in the Unit 3, Grade 4 teacher's edition:


• Where's Spelling?

The obvious place to find the spelling component in the reading program is the table of contents. But in Unit 3, a mammoth, 487-page, 11 inch x 12 inch teacher's guide that only covers five weeks of the reading curriculum, there is absolutely no mention of spelling in the table of contents.

• Where's Spelling?

This huge, unwieldy teacher's guide provides 70+ pages each week to guide the teacher in teaching the reading lesson. The seventy pages for each week begin with a two-page "Suggested Weekly Plan." There one finds spelling competing with grammar and writing for the teacher's and student's attention. Only two pages in the 70-page guide for the week are devoted to spelling!

• Where's Spelling?

The two pitiful pages for spelling must compete with one page for decoding and recognizing common word parts; two pages of vocabulary strategies on Greek and Latin word parts that aren't the same content as the spelling lesson; four pages of grammar focusing on regular verbs but again, totally unrelated to the spelling lesson. In other words, there is so much unrelated superficial stuff going on with word study in a particular week that many teachers either may not find the spelling lesson or will not have time to teach it.

• Where's Spelling?

There is no place in the manual that I could find a spiraling curriculum that would show the parent what words and patterns are taught at a particular grade level--no way to find out what your child learned last year or how this year's curriculum relates to what will be taught at the next grade. Every child gets the same wordlist as opposed to on-, above- and below-grade-level offerings for differentiation. All children get the same three work sheets for practice. The lesson that is taught in fourth grade, "more words with -ed or -ing," should have been taught in third grade.

This post may be more arcanum than you want to know about reading programs, but you are the taxpayer and we are all stakeholders in our children's education. Good parents pay attention to what goes in children's bellies, we should pay attention to what we feed their minds!

See What These Spelling Components Look Like for Yourself:

If you would like to have a look, click on this 3-minute YouTube video, Where is Spelling? and I'll walk you through this manual so you can see what it looks like for yourself.


Here's what a 21st century standalone spelling program looks like. Spelling Connections 2012.

Note: Dr. Richard Gentry is the author of The Science of Spelling and a new book for parents, Raising Confident Readers. Both available on Amazon.com. Follow Dr. Gentry on Facebook and on Twitter.

J. Richard Gentry, Ph.D., an expert on childhood literacy, reading, and spelling, is the author of Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write—Baby to Age 7. more...

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