Reading Bus

A standing–room–only crowd packed the aisles, and people sat sprawled on the carpet in front of room W208b of the Orlando Convention Center, hungry for an alternative to twenty years of dumbed–down spelling instruction. This was the scene at last week's 56th Annual Convention of the International Reading Association, where over eleven thousand educators convened to ponder "Fresh Ideas–The Power of Literacy." I threw out fresh steak–Bring back spelling!–to a ravenous audience. Here's the meat of what I had to say:

We Will Not Succeed in the Teaching of Reading and Writing Unless We Teach Spelling.

At a convention where slogans such as "Read Every Day, Lead a Better Life" abound, my message was that no students read or write well without automatically seeing spelling patterns in their brain. I asked the educators: If we want proficient readers and writers, why have we stopped teaching spelling? The question resonated.

For instance, I met one Director of Language Arts of the largest district in a progressive Southern state that was once committed to getting rid of the Friday spelling test. She spent the rest of the afternoon in the Exhibit Hall poring over every grade level of 21st century, technology-driven spelling books. She watched digital word sorts on smart boards. She scrutinized every table of contents, grade level by grade level, looking for specific phonics patterns based on frequency of use in children's writing. (She knew which patterns to look for because her dissertation was on phonics.) Despite worries about drastic cuts in funding, this educator gets it: The bus won't run without tires–readers can't read without spelling knowledge; writers can't write without spelling. If this Director of Language Arts wants her language arts curriculum to work in a district of 161,000 ethnically and economically diverse students, she has to do something to bring in a comprehensive, coherent, consistent spelling curriculum. She's got to put the spelling tires back on the reading/writing bus.

Keeping that reading/writing bus going in her district is no small task. Her district recently won $1 million in college scholarships for its high school students. It was named the best large urban school district in the country for demonstrating strong student achievement and narrowing the achievement gaps between income and ethnic groups. Yet this supervisor knows that spelling education is crucial if her district is to keep moving forward. Why? Because huge numbers of ESL students in her district who can't spell in English are going to have trouble as readers and writers unless they are taught English spelling. Without spelling skill, many native English speakers will also struggle to read.

The Stuff We Have Been Doing with Spelling for the Last Two Decades Isn't Working.

Ever since California's Board of Education banned spelling books in 1989, spelling education has been pooh-poohed in American public schools even as reading scores have plummeted. Interestingly, the Texas State Board of Education is trying to bring spelling books back in 2011. Books have been adopted by most Texas schools. Now the legislature needs to fund them with money from the healthy billion-dollar children's permanent textbook fund.

As I reported to the principals in the audience, as I travel across America teachers tell me that their principals say: "You don't have to teach spelling!" Why? "It's not on the state test." State tests attempt to assess where the reading bus is going or how far it went, yet too many educators still don't get the reading/writing/spelling connection. Some principals are telling teachers to pull the spelling tires off the bus and wondering why the bus is going nowhere.

Instead of a fifteen-minute per day spelling lesson with a research-based, explicit grade-by-grade curriculum-the only spelling tire that works-schools have spent decades trying out other conveyances to transport spelling:

  • Focus on writing and teach spelling during the writing workshop in mini-lessons. (Results: a total wreck.)
  • Let teachers do their own thing with spelling. (Results: no spelling resources-no comprehensive or consistent curriculum. Another wreck.)
  • Use the pitiful spelling lessons in the Reading Series-those are free. (Results: The wrong words at the wrong time presented in a watered-down worksheet approach with no grade-by-grade curriculum, buried in tons of other stuff. A pile-up with casualties.)
  • Let children learn spelling their own way by "discovering" the patterns through sorting words and playing games. (Results: more work for teachers; no independent research base; no grade-by-grade curriculum; too time consuming. This single-strategy discovery spelling program is great staff development for teachers who don't know the spelling patterns but not an effective delivery system for students. Crash! Crash! Crash! With this wreck of a word-study program, the administrators often don't see what's coming. In fact, I've heard some literacy specialists gloat about the top third of their students propelled forward in this wreck while the bottom third bleeds.)

[For the history of one district that tried the discovery method over the last ten years, see my following postsBring Weekly Spelling Tests Back! Have a look at the follow-up letters from parents and teachersA Fad that Fails Children-No More Spelling Tests ]

There are a few other fad-type methods that purport to deliver spelling without a grade-by-grade, research-based word list, such as single-strategy systems that teach the 1,000 most frequently used words. As in the cases above, these systems are short sighted. More wrecks.

What Are Spelling Tires Made Of?

The tires on the reading/writing bus are made of research-based weekly spelling lessons administered in a pretest-study-posttest format. The curriculum is implemented through stand-alone spelling books or eBooks that make teaching spelling efficient and easy to manage. Appealing game-like animated exercises are available for practice in technology-savvy districts. Weekly lessons are differentiated for on-, above-, and below-level students. Features include virtual hands-on touch screen word sorts for whole-class instruction. Enhanced support is offered for English language learners. (It should be, because English is the hardest language to learn to spell.) All of this can be delivered in about fifteen minutes per day during the language arts block.

Why Fit the Reading/Writing Bus with Spelling Tires?

Every time you read a word you activate a word trace in your brain that represents the word's spelling. The word form or occipito-temporal area of your brain lights up in 250 milliseconds with the meaning, sound, and expert spelling of Florida and it tells you that that Floreda is an incorrect match.

You likely can't read, SEIKOOCDNAMAERCECI, but reverse the letter order and you can read, ICECREAMANDCOOKIES. Both sequences have the same letters in the same order but in the latter, your brain automatically matches the spelling patterns with neural traces of English spellings already in your brain for the appropriate words.

Even though it amazes you that you can read this scrambled spelling statement--I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg-the only reason you can read it is that you already have the correct spelling stored in your brain and your remarkable brain matches it with a correctly spelled word trace and triggers the correct word in spite of the scrambled spelling. Here's the bottom line: The brain requires spelling knowledge for proficient reading and writing. Put a spelling book or spelling eBook in every school child's backpack in America and we would more likely become a nation of readers.

Remember this fresh idea for the power of literacy: Put the tires back on the reading/writing bus-teach spelling! 

(Dr. Gentry is the author of The Science of Spelling and his new book Raising Confident Readers. Available on Follow Dr. Gentry on Facebook and on Twitter.)




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