School board members, superintendents, curriculum supervisors, and principals don’t seem to understand twenty-first century revelations from cognitive psychology and neuroscience on the importance of spelling instruction for literacy. Ironically, parents often do get it. Just this week I heard from parents in a Midwestern state who recognize that their third-grade son, Michael, is not learning to spell because it isn’t being taught in his district. The parents are distressed that the district doesn’t focus on spelling so they asked two administrators why. See how Michael’s school principal and the district school superintendent responded and what needs to happen to address the problem.
In Part 1 of “5 Reasons Your Child’s School Needs Spelling Books,” I provided the research base supporting these five principles:
1. Spelling books are a safety net.
2. A spelling curriculum makes early detection and intervention of dyslexia more likely.
3. Spelling books enable your child’s teacher to monitor your child’s spelling growth.
4. Spelling is as important for reading proficiency as it is for writing
5. Spelling, or encoding, requires deeper learning than simply using phonics for decoding.
Michael appears to be in a good school district. I don’t doubt that the administrators in this district have the best of intentions. But their response to Michael’s parents on this critical literacy issue shows they have little understanding regarding the importance of teaching spelling in elementary school. The policies reflected in their responses are downright harmful to children’s learning success.
From the school principal after consultations with the district curriculum supervisor:
“I’ve spoken with (the district supervisor, name withheld) and also our Third Grade team regarding your question of spelling.
“Spelling is not as much of a focus because of the depth of Common Core Standards that are required to be covered. However, we should still be integrating spelling in the curriculum, such as through writing.
“In third grade, there are no phonemic awareness skills and few phonics skills in the current state standards. Students are expected to learn and master the skills of short and long vowels, blends, and digraphs in grades K-2.”
This statement is incorrect. While spelling may not be on the state test, spelling is explicitly addressed in the Common Core, as I will explain below. Phonemic awareness skills are expected in third grade. For example, Michael should see the word sandwich and be aware that the letters are a “picture” of the sounds in the word 'san(d), wiCH. Recognizing the seven sounds in the word sandwich is known as phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is what enables Michael to know that the second syllable of sandwich doesn’t have a /t/ sound as in witch.
If Michael had been taught the spelling of sandwich, in 250 milliseconds the word form area of his brain in the occipital-temporal region of his left hemisphere would activate and recognize the sound, meaning, and correct spelling of this word, indicating a deep level of phonics knowledge. In fact, the reading brain stores and retrieves words as spellings. Without being conscious of it, Michael would be able to use this information automatically to read or write this word if he needs it on the venerable Ohio State Test (OST).
The principal is also wrong about when children should learn to spell short vowels, blends, and digraphs. A third-grade spelling curriculum is where students learn to spell short-e words such as spend (not spind), and blends and digraphs such as str- and tch-, respectively, in the third-grade level word stretch. Many kids have not learned to spell spend and stretch correctly in K-2 because they aren’t high-frequency words at those grade levels. It’s a problem that Michael’s district is not teaching third-grade words with short vowels, blends, and digraphs. The proof? Today, there are high school students in this district who likely are writing about SPINDING money and eating SANDWITCHES. Deep knowledge of spelling would give these children a deep understanding of how spend and sandwiches work as words—both in isolation and in context.
A Response to the District Superintendent and an Appeal
Here is the district superintendent’s response to Michael’s parents when they asked why the district wasn’t teaching spelling. It was sent on April 16, 2016:
“Using weekly spelling tests for all students does not increase word acquisition or reading comprehension. It does eat up time and give parents something to practice. The Common Core is a rigorous, challenging attempt to move away from things like rote memorization into true understanding of how words work, as well as how language works in context.
“The passages on the Ohio State Tests are challenging passages with difficult words, unlike the word families in a traditional spelling program. Knowing those word families and memorizing spelling words will not increase a student’s ability to read the complex texts on the OST.”
I’m sorry to say that the district superintendent is dead wrong on all accounts. Explicit teaching of words from a research-based spelling curriculum will increase word acquisition and reading comprehension (see research citations on this point in Part 1 of this post). The latest research supports weekly spelling tests in a test-study-test format from a grade by grade curriculum. For example, the pretest or self-testing as described in Part 1 of “5 Reasons Your Child’s School Needs Spelling Books” is one of the most powerful learning techniques according to psychologists. To ignore spelling, which is what is happening in this superintendent’s district, is not supported by research. The Common Core expectations are being misinterpreted in this district and in other districts that don’t recognize that all students are expected to meet grade level spelling standards:
What the Common Core Says about Spelling
The Common Core State Standards establish specific benchmarks for spellers at each grade level beginning at Grade 3. In the earlier grades—Kindergarten, Grade 1, and Grade 2—students are expected to have mastered “previously studied words,” such as the grade level words in a spelling book. By Grade 8, the Common Core specifically says that students are expected to “Spell Correctly.” This will not happen if spelling isn’t being taught from an appropriate grade-by-grade curriculum.
The Grade 3 Common Core Language Arts standard basically follows a research-based Grade 3 spelling book’s table of contents. That is to say, if one wants to be assured that these expectations are being taught, the school should be using a Grade 3 spelling curriculum. That’s what a spelling book is—a curriculum for teachers to follow. I suspect that many teachers in this district are frustrated because they know they need to teach spelling but the district doesn’t provide them with the support, encouragement, or resources they need.
Here’s exactly what the Common Core says for the Grade 3 “Conventions of Standard English Language” (Standard 2):
Demonstrate command of the conventions of Standard English capitalization, punctuation, and [3rd Grade Level] spelling when writing.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.3.2.e. Use conventional spelling for high-frequency and other studied words and for adding suffixes to base words (e.g., sitting, smiled, cries, happiness).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.3.2.f. Use spelling patterns and generalizations (e.g., word families, position-based spellings, syllable patterns, ending rules, meaningful word parts) in writing words.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.3.2.g. Consult reference materials, including beginning dictionaries, as needed to check and correct spelling.
The Common Core is a list of expectations for what students should learn at each grade level; it doesn’t stipulate how the district teaches it. However, if the district is not focusing on spelling as Michael’s parents have discovered, students aren’t learning what the Common Core expects them to learn.
After checking Michael’s spelling on a Spelling Grade Level Placement Test (Gentry, 1997), I found that this bright, diligent student is already almost one grade level behind in spelling. This will impede Michael’s reading and writing development and will likely hurt him on the OST. As a soon-to-be-entering fourth grader, Michael can’t spell other, seven, roof, learn, wrong, worry, twenty, doesn’t, wasn’t, November, and likely hundreds of other words that he could have spelled correctly if he had a spelling book. His brain is far behind in regards to the deepest level of phonics knowledge expected by the Common Core and rigorous standards simply because his district isn’t teaching spelling.
The superintendent is also mistaken to imply that a good spelling curriculum is simply rote memorization and not rigorous. English is the hardest language to learn to spell. Ignoring English spelling does not comport with being rigorous.
The district superintendent writes to Michael’s parents “Knowing those word families and memorizing spelling words will not increase a student’s ability to read the complex texts on the OST.” He is completely in error. As pointed out in Part 1, spelling (encoding) is the deepest level of phonics knowledge. Twenty-first century research shows that spelling is directly related to reading comprehension, thus, it would certainly help any student to have spelling knowledge in his or her head when taking the rigorous OST.
When Michael takes the OST, word sorting would have enabled him to retrieve single-syllable homophones such as heal/heel, foul/fowl, and yoke/yolk to comprehend difficult passages. Of course, decoding and encoding aren’t everything. Michael does need vocabulary, background knowledge that comes from wide and deep reading, and knowledge of genres and text structures. But dear superintendent, don’t think any of that comes without decoding and encoding knowledge of words. Give your district a research-based spelling book and fill your students’ brains with deep knowledge of words. This type of spelling will “eat up” about 15 minutes a day with spelling lessons during the reading and language arts block in elementary school. It’s time better spent than all that practice-test taking that isn’t teaching students anything worthwhile. Poor Michael has already had to endure three standardized tests in Grade 3 and he’s sick of them. He and the rest of the third graders in your district are tired of taking these tests and the only thing they are learning from them is to dread school. It would be prudent to give parents spelling as something to practice at home so that their children’s brains are filled with words they can automatically retrieve for reading and writing. In doing so, you open a world of possibilities for the students in your district.
If you are an administrator please know that I am not attacking you, I’m trying to help you by shining new light on a very big issue that is a problem on a national level. If a parent sends you this post or brings this issue to light in your community, don’t get angry. Don’t shoot the messenger. Do take action to make sure your students are being taught how to spell in English.
Parents, if the administrators in your child’s school continue to ignore your child’s spelling and literacy growth, band together and do something about it. Noah Webster, author of The Original Blue Back Speller and the founding father of American education, knew that spelling knowledge in English was essential for reading and a basic right for all Americans. Our children deserve the right to be taught English spelling.
If you missed Part 1 of this post, here’s the link:
Gentry, J.R. (1997). My kid can’t spell. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
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.