Abe Reading to Todd

For the first two centuries of American education, spelling was the backbone of reading instruction. At a time when teachers had relatively little formal training and few tools besides a blackboard and a few standard textbooks, Americans became increasingly literate. Remember Webster's Blue Back Speller? Abraham Lincoln learned to read with the ABC spelling method. And between 1870 and 1979, the nation's literacy rate increased dramatically. But then things changed.

Is Spelling Caught or Taught?

By the 1980s, a trend away from direct, explicit spelling instruction began with the theory that teachers didn't have to teach spelling directly, because this knowledge would ultimately be "caught" as children immersed themselves in reading and writing.

There is considerable evidence that this approach failed to instill literacy in millions of children (now adults). Notably, in school districts in which teachers stopped paying attention to spelling, test scores dropped and schools began to experience failure with literacy education. For example, California led the country in 1987 in adopting a literature-based elementary curriculum. The state went so far as to ban spelling books from the required textbook list. But by 1994 California's fourth grade proficiency scores had slid almost to the bottom of the 41 states and territories that participated in the 1994 National Assessment of Education Progress.

Back to the Basics!

As a result, an increasing number of parents advocate a "back to basics" approach to literacy and strongly desire spelling instruction for their children. Back-to-the-basics spelling instruction makes sense.

The recent turnaround at Brockton High School in Massachusetts, one of the largest high schools in the nation serving 4,100 students was configured around back to the basics. Formerly a case study in failure with one in three students dropping out and only 25 percent passing statewide exams, the turnaround was effected when the high school refined it's literacy curriculum. "The first big step was to go back to the basics, and deem that reading, writing, speaking and reasoning were the most important skills to teach."

The school now receives academic awards and accolades for doing "a better job than 90 percent of the state's 350 high schools helping its students to improve their language arts scores." Kudos to the faculty--but too bad the high school teachers had to teach curriculum that should have been taught in elementary school.

Teach Spelling! Avoid Academic Chaos!

A huge part of any back to the basics formula includes explicit spelling instruction. An extensive and evolving body of research shows that direct and explicit spelling instruction is required if all students are to master the mechanics of reading and writing--which is not only a requirement of federal and state legislation, but also a critical goal for a nation whose economy has transitioned from a manufacturing to a knowledge base. As these skills--including spelling--become automatic, students are freer to concentrate on the higher-level thinking and communication skills needed for success in school and life.

Spelling is not being taught well in many schools and districts in America.(See my blog post: No Spelling In Your Child's Book Bag Spells Trouble Ahead) Parents and concerned citizens should demand that we go back to spelling instruction as a foundation for literacy success. Teach spelling! Avoid Academic Chaos!

Note: Part of this post including references and endnotes was just released in a report by Saperstein Associates, "Creating Better Readers and Writers: The Importance of Direct, Systematic, Spelling and Handwriting Instruction in Improving Academic Performance" by J. Richard Gentry, Ph.D., and Steve Graham, Ed. D.

Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write--from Baby to Age 7, a book for parents who want to raise a child who loves to read. For more information about Dr. Gentry's work and his books visit his website, www.jrichardgentry.com. Follow him on Facebook at : http://www.facebook.com/J.Richard.Gentry and Twitter at http://twitter.com/RaiseReaders.

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