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.
When schools and teachers do their own thing--spelling instruction is chaotic or nonexistent.
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.
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.
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!
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.
(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 Amazon.com, both in print and ebook (Kindle) versions.)