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Connecting Spelling Books to Reading Scores

New research explains how spelling books increase reading scores.

Imagine you’re a school administrator. You’ve heard for two decades that spelling books are antique and wasteful spending. You believe that they are the same rote memorization workbook pages of the past and that the Friday spelling test is outdated. Perhaps you feel comfortable moving spelling to the back burner because it doesn’t appear specifically on your state’s reading test. The district next door isn’t using spelling books, and it seems that they have no place in a modern, digital classroom where the budget is used for iPads rather than books or dictionaries. Besides, conventional wisdom says that spelling is a by-product of proficient reading because good spelling is automatic for excellent readers. But here’s the problem. Accepting this conventional wisdom goes against the latest research; it’s also why American students can’t read. Spelling isn’t the by-product of proficient reading; counterintuitively, proficient reading is a by-product of spelling knowledge for elementary school readers. Can you really trust that your students will learn to read without learning to spell?

Spelling jump-starts reading!

The fact is, spelling knowledge jump-starts the reading circuitry in every reader of English—even you. First, you match the letters on the page to the neurological spelling representations in the word form area in your brain’s left hemisphere. Then, in 250 milliseconds … voila, your brain gets the sound and meaning. Conventional wisdom says that you spell a word like it sounds, but you don’t. You spell a word like it looks! If you can spell carrot, carat, karat, and caret, the spelling center (i.e. word form area) in your brain has already activated each word’s meaning. You had to put the spellings and meanings of these words into the dictionary in your brain—you had to learn them—before you could read and comprehend them. If you don’t know these spellings you aren’t comprehending carrot, carat, karat, and caret. Look up the ones you don’t know and learn the spellings!

Here’s another example. You see FLOREDA and you instantly know the sound and meaning, but your brain tells you this word is misspelled. That’s because it’s not a perfect match to a visual spelling representation in the brain’s occipito-temporal visual word form system. FLOREDA doesn’t match the spelling you see in your mind. It’s clear that spelling is needed for reading. So why is America making such a mess of teaching spelling?

Is there a marketing conspiracy against spelling books?

For more than 20 years there has been a sort of conspiracy against teaching spelling. You’ll hear that using standalone spelling books “is not what the market wants” or that spelling books are “primitive tools.” The big, bold truth is that the education research community has given spelling short shrift. None of the popular trends, such as “integrating” spelling with reading, teaching spelling in the writing workshop, passing off spelling as vocabulary and “word study,” or relegating spelling instruction to a computer, have been vetted by research. These spelling delivery systems are actually harmful to children’s academic success in reading and writing. Even Whole Language (which erroneously has morphed into “constructivism”) and some of the big publishing companies have captured the spelling market by criticizing spelling books or downplaying the necessity of teaching spelling in isolation. Explicit, systematic spelling instruction—recommended for 15 minutes a day in elementary school to build spelling knowledge and based on a spiraling grade-by-grade curriculum—has been vetted by research.

More marketing myths about spelling.

If elementary students in your school or district are learning to spell by word sorting alone you have a problem. You aren’t compliant with science-based state standards if your word sorting program doesn’t have a grade-by-grade curriculum. That is to say, students should be taught an explicit corpus of words at each grade level that they can automatically spell correctly and use in both reading and writing. Likewise, if your school or district is using the spelling component in some large publisher’s reading program. The spelling component of reading programs is detrimental to children because the curriculum presents words from stories or informational texts, which are the wrong words at the wrong time for encoding. The notion that it’s best to integrate spelling with reading stories is an unfounded myth—again, a marketing scam.

I’ve heard administrators state that their school district teaches “developmental stages” beyond second grade. Uh-oh! There is no derivational constancy “stage” beyond first grade. Certainly there are derivational patterns to be taught, but they have nothing to do with brain-based developmental phases, which have a ceiling effect by the end of grade one. The amazing spellers who won the national spelling bee have stored an enormous deep-level of spelling and phonics knowledge in their brains—but they aren’t in some super “derivational” developmental brain stage. Some likely do have gifts for photographic memory—they can “see” spellings in their brain’s visual word form area—but all the champions learned to spell through hours and hours of explicit and systematic study of English spelling. It’s not brain science; it’s common sense: Why are we not using the same strategy in our schools? Provide your students a research-based curriculum and motivate them to become champion spellers. That will make them better readers too.

Spelling books are a simple cost-effective solution.

The truth is that most schools—especially those that serve children who likely entered school with an achievement gap—are better off with a research-based spelling book. Here’s why.

Today, spelling books are the best research-based curriculum for building spelling knowledge that is necessary for proficient reading. If the word list in the spelling book is research based, it presents the right words at the right time as a safety net for learners. Failing to provide a grade-by-grade spelling curriculum and explicit spelling instruction with a standalone program in Grades 1-3—especially in high poverty, low performing schools, or schools with many English language learners—is a major reason America has failing reading scores in grade 4. These kids are poor readers because they can’t spell, but proficient readers can. It’s about reading circuitry activation.

Poor readers don’t have academic vocabularies or background knowledge for comprehension. But guess what? They would have these essentials if they had learned to read independently by the end of first grade and were motivated to read in elementary school. Independent reading builds background information and academic vocabulary. It’s not a chicken or egg thing. Proficient reading starts with spelling.

Spelling books are a fail-safe in the event that your students haven’t learned the deepest level of phonics knowledge, encoding. Encoding (spelling) makes decoding (reading) automatic. The fail-safe spelling book ensures that reading circuitry is ignited with deep phonics knowledge necessary for reading fluency. Spelling books bring continuity to the curriculum in struggling schools where there is high teacher turnover—as many as three teachers per year in some classrooms. Teaching English spelling minimizes the harm caused to the reading brain that cannot function without spelling knowledge. You may not be able to manage teacher and/or student turnover, but you can provide a consistent, grade-by-grade spelling curriculum purchasing research-based spelling books beginning in first grade.

Abandoning spelling books isn’t right just because the neighboring district is doing it.

Too many administrators copycat what the district next door is doing. If they banned spelling books, why should you use them? The truth is that the district next door is wrong about spelling, dyslexia, and reading if they aren’t teaching from research-based spelling books.

Let me assure you that I am not the only one who knows that explicit spelling instruction is necessary for proficient reading. Just like twenty-first century neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists who have studied the reading brain place spelling at the reading brain’s core, experienced and exemplary teachers know that spelling is important for reading, and many of them are begging for the continuity of a grade-by-grade curriculum. They know that if they aren’t teaching and monitoring spelling growth they aren’t seeing children at risk for dyslexia.

Remarkably, the founding father of American education and author of America’s first reading program jump-started reading with spelling! More than 200 years before neuroscientists proved that spelling was at the core of the reading brain, Noah Webster’s reading program started out with … a spelling book! It’s estimated that 60 million American children learned to read in the 1800s with Webster’s blue-backed speller. Yes, Webster’s spelling book taught America to read! I have the copy of Webster’s spelling book that my great grandfather, my grandmother, and their children used. Remarkably, it’s not far off from a research-based curriculum today. My ancestors were poor folks on tobacco road in rural North Carolina. All of their children went to college and had successful careers.

If you want students to prove their competence on reading tests, teach spelling. If you want early identification of children who are at risk of dyslexia, teach spelling and pay attention to the students who continue to struggle and can’t seem to spell the words that were taught. Then help them overcome dyslexia. If you want to spend less money on special education, test prep, and remediation, buy spelling books and motivate kids to read more. Reclaim these students who are failing as readers. Your test scores will soar and the spelling books will pay for themselves because you reduce unnecessary spending on remediation by empowering students as readers. If you want America’s students to be college- and career-ready in the digital age, teach spelling.

I’ll end on an eye-opening note for principals, administrators, and superintendents. We have to put explicit teaching of spelling back in the curriculum. It has to be systematic building knowledge of words grade by grade. The reading brain demands it. Not providing spelling books is the mistake you are making without knowing it.

Follow Dr. J. Richard Gentry on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.