America has moved to a toxic system for delivering spelling instruction in spite of an extensive and evolving body of research showing that direct and explicit spelling instruction is required for students to master the mechanics of reading and writing. Poor students in urban districts suffer most from inadequate spelling instruction--with poor spelling instruction, they can't read and they can't write words automatically. But it's not just urban schools. Poor spelling instruction is really an epidemic: The mother of a suburban, A-student, fourth grader emailed this week when she discovered that her son and his friends couldn't spell the word place! She's worried, and she should be. Only after spelling skills become automatic can students progress to the higher-order thinking and communication skills they require to succeed in school and life.

Here are some scary facts about English spelling:

  • English has a larger vocabulary and is more difficult to spell than almost any other language.
  • An easily spelled language such as Italian has 25 sounds and 35 letter combinations for spelling--English has 44 sounds and over 1000 letter combinations. Every elementary school should have a curriculum for teaching English spelling.
  • Poor spelling is the telltale sign of dyslexia.
  • Teaching spelling is especially important for ELLs (English Language Learners).
  • Proficient readers and writers have a "spelling dictionary in the brain" and recognize or retrieve words in about 250 milliseconds.
  • America threw out the baby with the bath water and stopped teaching spelling explicitly with the rise of whole language.
  • Many American schools have no spelling curriculum or grade level standards for spelling. So we end up with smart fourth graders who can't spell place.
  • When schools and teachers do their own thing--spelling instruction is chaotic or nonexistent.

What does the research say?

An extensive body of research in education, psychology and neurology--including brain-scanning studies--supports the central role that spelling plays in learning to read and write proficiently. One recent example is the 2010 report from the Carnegie Foundation, Writing to Read, which put spelling back where it should be--on a pedestal--by stating the research base that proves that spelling instruction improves reading fluency and increases word reading skills. Yet too many elementary schools continue to make excuses for not providing fifteen minutes a day of direct, systematic spelling instruction. There is absolutely no independent research to support a watered down approach that many American schools are taking with spelling.

What does your child's toxic spelling program look like? Here are the warning signs:

  • She's getting no spelling instruction. The school has no grade-level curriculum so teachers do their own thing or nothing at all. (It's not the teacher's fault that the school provides no spelling curriculum, so don't blame the teacher.)
  • He's getting a quick fix. The teacher is using spelling worksheets that come with the reading program. This is a watered down curriculum. The teacher will not be able to show you what was studied last year or the standards for your child's current grade level.
  • In desperation the teacher pulls words from lists on the Internet, makes up a list, or uses boring memorize-and-test workbooks with badly designed exercises--she's likely not teaching the right words at the right time.
  • The curriculum is supposedly "integrated" or children are receiving "words their way" by "constructing their own knowledge" through hypothesis testing and guesswork. They sort words a lot but do not follow a weekly pretest/posttest format. If this sounds familiar ask to see a weekly record of your child's progress. Ask to see what words and patterns were studied last year and compare it with this year's curriculum. Suggest that your child's school needs a comprehensive curriculum with continuity and consistency from grade level to grade level.

No dunce

Dumbing Down Spelling Is Dumbing Down your Child!

Perhaps the worst warning sign of all is when your child's teacher tells you that the spelling is in the reading program. (That means it's not being well taught.) Ask to see the grade level teacher's reading manual and it's likely that spelling is not even in the table of contents--so insignificant that it's hidden. Many teachers who recognize how poorly designed these spelling components are refuse to use them. In one of America's most popular 2012 editions (which is already published) the fourth grade teacher's manual has 70 pages a week for the teacher to peruse for teaching the weekly reading unit but only two pages devoted to spelling. Tucked in with the 2 spelling pages are 2 pages for targeted vocabulary; 1 page for decoding; 2 pages for Greek and Latin parts; and 4 pages of grammar. The spelling lesson, which is more important than all those other add-in's, is completely hidden and often skipped. The reading manual shows no evidence of a spiraling spelling curriculum connected with last year's or next year's reading program. Spelling components of reading programs aren't research-based curricula; they are a marketing strategy to help reading companies make big bucks. They don't save money; they dumb-down your child.

Tell your school board: a small investment in standalone spelling books yields significant and lasting results--with positive impact on student performance across the entire curriculum. Your child needs a spelling book!

What does a 21st century spelling book look like?

Twenty-first century educators use a variety of technology platforms to increase the effectiveness of spelling instruction. For example, a 21st century spelling program should provide digital resources for engaging, interactive spelling games and activities including word sorting, crossword puzzles, sentence completion, spelling bees, and proofreading exercises with exciting graphics and animation. Twenty-first century innovations include eBook format and classroom management, digital dictionaries, progress report capabilities, school-to-home resources, and activities for use on interactive whiteboards and on computers with classroom projectors. When you pull the spelling book out of your child's book bag, look for weekly units that are often based on a pattern or spelling principle. Your child should be having a pretest on Monday (before looking at the unit) and a posttest on Friday. By the way, children who can spell are not among the four out of ten eight-year-olds in America who read below grade level.

I've written three books on spelling including The Science of Spelling and synthesized spelling research for thirty years. I'm the author of Spelling Connections (2012)-a 21st century research-based spelling series for Grades K-6. I will not give up until spelling is put back in American schools--creating speed and fluency and making your child a confident reader and writer. Email this post to the principal at your child's school and to all the members of your local school board. Tell your local parent teacher group that parents need to campaign to put spelling books back in the schools.

 (Dr. Richard Gentry is the author of over 10 books  dealing with childhood literacy and spelling education. HIs latest book, Raising Confident Readers is available on, both in print and ebook (Kindle) versions.)

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