A renown cognitive psychologist is touting the importance of spelling for reading achievement. In his highly regarded new book, Raising Kids Who Read , cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham says spelling, which continues to develop even into high school, is just as important for high school and college-ready reading fluency as sounding out words in kindergarten. He’s right!
Teaching spelling, along with teaching the cultural knowledge which embraces a broad grasp of literature, history, art, music, and the sciences, will raise reading achievement and help solve America’s reading problems. Proficient reading is all about two things according to Willingham: decoding—which is spelling—and the knowledge needed for comprehension. The spelling plus knowledge for comprehension equation works!
Using clear and straightforward language to describe the central role of spelling in the reading brain, Willingham posits two processes of decoding: 1) sounding out words using phonics which research shows is essential for beginning reading; and 2) matching letters on the page with the spelling representations in the brain. These representations in the visual word form area of the brain are hypothesized to match correct spellings of words or chunks of spelling combinations that represent sounds which a fluent reader recognizes automatically and sees in his or her mind’s eye.
Here’s how Willingham explains it:
The second method [of decoding] uses spelling: you directly match letters on the page [when reading fluently] to your knowledge of how words are spelled. That spelling knowledge is also connected to meaning. -Dan Willingham in Raising Kids Who Read (page 132) [Brackets added by this author.]
Willingham goes on to say, “…using word spellings to read requires very little attention, if any. You see it in the same way you just see and recognize a dog.” He continues:
As your child gains reading experience, there is a larger and larger set of words that he can read using the spelling, and so his reading becomes faster, smoother, and more accurate. That’s called fluency.” (page 133)
It seems to me Willingham’s findings support more attention to the effective teaching of a grade-by-grade spelling curriculum as a safety net for decoding. Effective, research-based, grade-by-grade spelling instruction is easy to administer in elementary school and requires only about fifteen minutes a day in Kindergarten through Grade 8. The goal is to make sure any child can automatically spell the words that children are expected to know and use in their writing at a particular grade level. Research shows us exactly what these words and patterns are at each grade level.
In effect, mastering a spelling curriculum is Willingham’s #2 decoding safety net for reading and writing fluency. This curriculum can be found in any research-based spelling book in America.
From Founding Fathers to the Latest Brain Scan Research: Spelling Matters!
Noah Webster, America’s founding father of literacy, was the author of America’s first homegrown beginning reading series. The first reading book in the series was a spelling book entitled The American Spelling Book popularly known as “the Blue-back Speller." It reportedly sold roughly 24 million copies and was used to teach most Americans of the nineteenth century to read.
Maybe we should pay more attention to the founding father of American literacy!
Is a spelling book in your child’s book bag? Ask about it. If not, are your child’s teachers teaching spelling? It’s important to know that your child is learning to spell as a vehicle for, in Willingham’s words, “faster, smoother, and more accurate” reading. Current research shows that correct spelling is essential for writing proficiency as well.
Spelling matters! America needs to teach children to spell.
 Willingham, Daniel T. (2015). Raising Kids Who Read. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Spelling Connections for grades Kindergarten through Grade 8. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.