A major reason Americans can’t read well is because school-aged children can’t spell. Twenty-first-century research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, as well as technology such as brain imaging, provide the best evidence ever that spelling knowledge is at the core of the reading brain. If students don’t have deep knowledge of spelling (encoding) they can’t read proficiently. It’s really that simple. What is remarkable to me is why that message isn’t being heeded in many of America’s schools.
In this 2-part post, I’ll explain why your child’s school needs spelling books. In Part 1, I’ll show you what spelling books can do that isn’t being done in many of today’s schools. In Part 2, I’ll describe how well-intentioned administrators, influenced by a drive for rigorous standards, are implementing policies that are harmful to children’s learning success. I’ll also provide solutions for how parents can help.
For full disclosure, I am the author of one of America’s most popular spelling programs and proud to be considered a respected researcher and writer on spelling. I have been a champion of spelling books for more than 30 years. And as a dyslexic who struggled with learning to read and write, I also know the connection of spelling to dyslexia, the nation’s number one learning disability. Children learn what we teach. The current distaste for spelling books among many well-intentioned curricular decision makers is contributing to the decline in reading test scores, increasing the numbers of children struggling with dyslexia, and impairing students who are challenged to read and write in a language that is different from the one they learned at birth. If we don’t teach children to spell in English, their reading brain will not work proficiently. They won’t do well in an era of rigorous standards, dyslexia diagnoses and the high costs of remediation will increase, and English language learners will struggle academically.
The Texas State Board of Education is currently debating whether to adopt spelling textbooks for their classrooms. Their decision will impact school children all across the United States. Two decades of experiments with spelling instruction in Texas and other states have contributed to stagnant or declining reading scores and other literacy problems. The Texas State Board of Education and concerned parents and educators should invest in research-based spelling books, as should the administrators in your child’s district. This investment will cut the costs of remediation and special education and help students become successful readers and writers.
Spelling Books: A Safety Net for Your Child
Spelling books are a safety net. They catch the students most likely to fail to grasp decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling), which are the “trapeze bars” for literacy. Children who can’t read and spell don’t catch the bars that enable them to soar in reading comprehension and written composition. Because they can’t read or write proficiently, they fall to the ground and get crushed under academics. You can talk about background knowledge, academic vocabulary, rigorous standards, and the like, but if students don’t have decoding and encoding capacity, none of these can be accomplished, in grade school as well as in high school (Willingham, 2015)
An easy solution—an investment in every child’s future academic success—is to put a spelling book in every child’s backpack. A spelling book ensures that your child has a grade-by-grade spelling curriculum of essential words that his or her brain needs to read and write proficiently at the appropriate grade level. The most efficient and effective way to ensure mastery of these appropriate words is a formal list-based program that is taught explicitly and systematically. Lessons from a research-based spelling book take only 15 minutes a day in elementary school (Moats, 2005/2006, p. 42-43). Research also proves that spelling lessons are best taught as a standalone subject (Gentry & Graham, 2010). This allows teachers to implement a pretest-study-posttest weekly program of spelling study and helps them monitor individual students’ progress week by week and year by year, spiraling up through the grades.
Today’s spelling books aren’t like the assign-and-test boring, rote memory workbook-type monsters of the past. They include the five essential techniques that twenty-first century psychologists and cognitive scientists have found most effective for learning: self-testing, self-explanation, elaborative interrogation, and distributed and interleaved practice (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, and Willingham, 2013) all in the service of planting deep knowledge of words in the child’s brain. On an important practical level, a spelling book in the child’s backpack gives parents confidence that the school recognizes the research findings that spelling drives reading proficiency (Willingham, 2015). It also lets parents know that the school values correct spelling in children’s writing. If a school has a spelling book, it is not engaging in the failed experimental spelling pedagogy of the past two decades (Gentry, 2015), namely word study or burying spelling in a reading series. If you hear that your child’s school uses word study or that the spelling program is integrated in the reading program that’s code for “We don’t have a grade-by-grade spelling curriculum.”
Word study often means that your child is supposed to use the “discovery method” to learn spelling by word sorting alone or playing games. The discovery method is not explicit instruction, rather “explicit instruction is explained and demonstrated by the teacher one language and print concept at a time” (Moats & Dakin, 2008, p. 58). A spelling program that is part of a reading program generally means that there’s a watered-down worksheet that teachers rarely use because it’s competing with phonics pages for decoding, grammar pages, vocabulary pages, comprehension pages, and numerous other concepts that not only put spelling on the back burner but teach the wrong words for a particular grade level. Worse yet, they treat decoding and encoding as if they are the same thing and don’t give kids the practice they need to achieve automaticity. As a prominent spelling researcher I can assure you, spelling in the reading program is NOT supported by research.
To summarize Part 1, here are Five Reasons Your Child’s School Needs Spelling Books. Share these with school administrators.
1. Spelling books are a safety net.
Your child needs 15 minutes of explicit and systematic grade-level spelling instruction each day, each year in elementary school (Moats, 2005/20/06). Regardless of which reading or writing curriculum is being used, brain science shows that spelling is foundational for reading (Willingham, 2015).
2. A spelling curriculum makes early detection and intervention of dyslexia more likely.
A well-trained eye can “see” the characteristics of dyslexia in children’s spelling (Texas Education Agency, 2014). Noticing an abnormality in a child’s spelling development is one of the best indicators for early intervention, which is a key for overcoming dyslexia (Gentry, 2006; Texas Education Agency, 2014). If spelling is not deemed important, teachers will not notice these abnormalities. States such as Texas and Alabama have recently required dyslexia screening and intervention; research-based spelling books are dyslexic-specific interventions.
3. Spelling books enable your child’s teacher to monitor your child’s spelling growth.
There should be yearly growth in each child’s ability to spell words while in elementary school. Too many schools aren’t tracking individual spelling growth, and many don’t have a grade-by-grade spelling curriculum even though rigorous state standards and Common Core call for them (as will be demonstrated in Part 2 of this post). Ask your child’s teacher what grade level your child is spelling on and whether he or she is improving. If the teacher can’t give you a clear answer with data-based outcomes (evidence of your child’s mastery of grade-level appropriate spelling words and proof that these words are being spelled correctly in meaningful writing, not just in a weekly spelling test), then the school’s spelling instruction is inadequate. Use of a research-based spelling book would provide the answers you seek.
4. Spelling is as important for reading proficiency as it is for writing.
Poor reading and poor spelling are directly connected (Adams, 2011; Gentry & Graham, 2010; Moats, 2005; Reed, 2012). The two go hand in hand. A growing body of current research shows that the skills that promote spelling also promote reading and vice versa (Graham & Santangelo, 2014). Researchers describe the explicit teaching of reading and spelling as “two sides of the same coin” (Ehri, 2000).
5. Spelling, or encoding, requires deeper learning than simply using phonics for decoding.
There is growing evidence that spelling, or encoding, requires a deeper level of phonics knowledge and more precision than using phonics for reading (Carreker, 2011; Forman & Francis, 1994). You can prove this to be true from your own evidence base by answering this question: Can you personally spell more words correctly or read more words correctly? Of course, you read more words correctly. For example, you can read dumbbell, sacrilegious, and inoculate with ease. But if I call them out and ask you to write them down, research shows that almost 98% of you will misspell one or more of these words. That same type of research allows spelling researchers to know which particular words and patterns children need to learn in third grade, in fifth grade, and in eighth grade.
Unfortunately, too many decision makers—superintendents, curriculum supervisors, and principals, to mention a few—don’t understand twenty-first century revelations of the importance of spelling instruction. Ironically, parents often do get it. Just this week I heard from parents in a midwestern state who recognize that their third grade son 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. They asked two administrators why. In Part 2 of this post, I’ll reveal how their son’s school principal and the district school superintendent responded. It’s eye-opening. (5 Reasons Your Child’s School Needs Spelling Books—Part 2)
Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Carreker, S. (2011). Teaching spelling, In J.R. Birsh (Ed.) Multisensory teaching of basic language skills, (pp. 251-291). Baltimore, MD: Paul Brookes Publishing Co.
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J.,Willingham. D. T., (2013) Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14(1) 4–58 © The Author(s) 2013 Reprints and permission: sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav OI:10.1177/1529100612453266 http://pspi.sagepub.com http://www.millersville.edu/millersville/academics/gened/files/PDFs%20Fa... 20Hdbook/3_Improving%20Students%20Learning%20with%20Effective%20Learning%20Techniques%20%20Promising%20Directions%20from%20Cognitive%2 0Educational%20 Psychology.pdf
Ehri, L. C. (2000). Learning to read and learning to spell: Two sides of a coin. Topics in Language Disorder, 20, 19-36.
Foorman, B. & Francis, D. J. (1994). Exploring connections among reading, spelling, and phonemic segmentation during first grade. Reading and Writing, 6, 65-91.
Gentry, J.R. (2006). Breaking the code: The new science of beginning reading and writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Gentry, J.R. (2015). Why America can’t read. Post published in Psychology Today. August 25, 2015 in Raising Readers, Writers, and Spellers. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/raising-readers-writers-and-speller...
Gentry, J. R., & Graham, S. (2010). Creating better readers and writers: The importance of direct, systematic spelling and handwriting instruction in improving academic performance. Columbus, OH: Saperstein.
Graham, S., & Santangelo, T. (2014). Does spelling instruction make students better spellers, readers, and writers? A meta-analytic review. Reading and Writing, 27, 1703–1743.
Jones, C., & Reutzel, R. (2015). Write to read: Investigating the reading-writing relationship of code-level early literacy skills. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 31: 279-315. DOI: 10.1080/10753569.2013.850461
Moats, L.D. (2005/2006). How spelling supports reading: And why it is more regular and predictable than you may think. American Educator, 29(4), 12,14-22, 42-43.
Moats, L. C., & Dakin, K. E. (2012). Just the facts: Dyslexia basics. Baltimore, MD: The International Dyslexia Association
Reed, D. K. (2012). Why teach spelling? Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.
Texas Education Agency (2014). Dyslexia Handbook. Austin, Texas: http://www.region10.org/r10website/assets/File/DHBwithtabs10214.pdf
Willingham, D.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.