Teachers often report the dilemma of children scoring 100 percent correct on a Friday spelling test but misspelling the same words the following week in their writing. Cognitive psychology has given us an answer for overcoming this age-old problem.
To begin with, we know that cramming doesn’t work. Students can cram for a spelling test on Thursday night, get 100 percent correct on Friday, and guess what? It doesn’t stick. Cramming is not the way to develop long-term transfer or word permanency in the brain.
In 2013 John Dolosky and his colleagues published “Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology” (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, & Willingham, 2013), which highlighted five research-based techniques to improve memory: (1) self-testing, (2) self-explanation, (3) elaborative interrogation, (4) distributed practice, and (5) interleaved practice. Each of these effective learning techniques can be applied to weekly spelling lessons promising better results for moving beyond rote memorization and toward long-term retention.
Here’s how it looks in practice:
Generally it’s reported that seven to ten memory re-engagements in the brain help build word permanency. For full-alphabetic word reading, Ehri and McCormick (1998) report “…students must possess working knowledge of the alphabetic system to be able to look at words in text and perform the matching operations linking graphemes to phonemes. Students who have practiced reading new words in this way, perhaps as few as four times (Reitsma, 1983), retain the new words in memory and can read them by sight.” (Ehri & McCormick, p. 352) Encoding or spelling the word is an even deeper level of word knowledge because the amount of information to be drawn from memory is greater for spellers (Ehri, 2000).
5 Time-Honored, Research-Based Practices
As effective as these five best learning techniques may be, they can’t be presented in a vacuum. Decades of time-honored research-based spelling practices now newly supported by 21st century research provide strong support for five traditional best practices that have been abandoned in many classrooms:
For decades, too many schools put spelling on the back burner, creating a gap between what 21st century research supports and what is practiced in many classrooms (Graham, 2000; Reed, 2012). Importantly, we know that spelling is for reading—not just for writing (Graham & Santangelo, 2014; Ouelette & Sénéchal 2017). We need to bring explicit, standalone, grade-by-grade spelling instruction back into 21st century classrooms to increase reading scores and give students a gift for a lifetime—a dictionary of words in their brains for reading and writing. As we embrace the new digital age sometimes it important to close those laptops or not just rely on spell check. It’s critical to remember this: If you want successful readers and writers, there’s no substitute for the human brain to do the thinking.
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. In Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58.
Ehri, L. & McCormick, S. (1998). Phases of word learning: Implications for instruction with delayed and disabled readers. In D. Alvermann, N. Unran, & R. Ruddell (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (6th edition) (pp. 339–361). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Ehri, L.C. (2000). Learning to read and learning to spell: Two sides of a coin. Topics in Language Disorder, 20(3), 19–36.
Gentry, J.R. (2004). The science of spelling: The explicit specifics that make great readers and writers (and spellers!). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Graham, S. (2000). Should the natural learning approach replace spelling instruction? Journal of Educational Psychology, 92 (2), 235-247. DOI: 10.1037/0022-06184.108.40.206
Graham, S., & Santangelo, T. (2014). Does spelling instruction make students better spellers, readers, and writers? A meta-analytic review. Reading and Writing, 27(9), 1703–1743.
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.
Ouelette, G., & Sénéchal, M. (2017). Invented spelling in kindergarten as a predictor of reading and spelling in grade 1: A new pathway to literacy, or just the same road, less known? Developmental Psychology, 53(1) 77– 88. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000179
Reed, D.K. (2012). Why teach spelling? Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.
Reitsma, P. (1983). Printed word learning in beginning readers. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 75, 321–339.
Wallace, R.R. (2006). Characteristics of effective spelling instruction. Reading Horizons, 46(4), 267-278.
Weakland, M. (2017). Super spellers. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.