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Why America Can’t Read

Sixty million Americans once learned to read by spelling. What's wrong today?

Advanced research in cognitive science including brain scan science is demonstrating that explicit spelling instruction may be the missing link to reading success in America where 65 percent of fourth-graders read below proficiency levels.

Almost all of these kids are lousy spellers. Should America go back to Noah Webster’s Blue-backed Speller which sold over 60 million copies in the 1800s? Noah Webster understood the reading-spelling connection. Too few American schools teach spelling for reading today.

Poor reading and poor spelling are directly connected (Adams, 2011; Gentry & Graham, 2010; Moats, 2005; Reed, 2012). A disconnect between the latest spelling research and what’s happening in many schools is that research calls for explicit spelling instruction and many of our nation’s schools are potentially harming children by not teaching kids to spell. When we don’t teach spelling explicitly and well, many children struggle or fail with reading as evidenced by our nation’s fourth-grade reading scores.

Automatic Recognition of Spellings for Reading Is Like “Seeing a Dog!”

There is unequivocal research-proof that spelling matters for reading. Take, for example, advice from renowned cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham in his highly regarded book, Raising Kids Who Read (Willingham, 2015). Willingham agrees with cognitive scientists who say spelling is, in fact, the spark that ignites the reading circuity in our brains. Willingham calls for teaching spelling to raise reading achievement and help solve America’s reading problems.

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
  2. Matching letters on the page with the spelling representations in the brain

It happens in the Occipito-Temporal Region which houses the Visual Word Form System. Spelling representations for word identification match with the spellings on the page and jumpstart the reading circuitry automatically activating sound and meaning.

In Dr. Willingham’s words, “…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.” (Willingham, 2015, page 133)

A plethora of recent spelling research studies agree. Here’s just a sampling:

Abbott, R., Berninger, V., & Fayol, M. (2010). Longitudinal relationships of levels of language in writing and between writing and reading in grades 1 to 7. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 281-298.

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.

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). 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.

Reed, D.K. (2012). Why teach spelling? Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.

So the takeaway is that today, at the beginning of the 21st century, we’ve learned that teaching spelling is a brain-building boon for effective reading and writing, creating a “dictionary in the brain” for every reader and writer. Reading is a process of matching the spellings on the page with the dictionary of spellings in the brain. (Gentry, 2004; Paulesu, 2001, Willingham, 2015). It’s interesting to point out that Noah Webster knew that back in 1798.

What Are We Doing Wrong?

Two ineffective spelling instructional delivery systems that swept across America in the last two decades have serious limitations. One, a program called Words Their Way, has given us an effective learning strategy for building word knowledge but it is flawed as a spelling curriculum. The other widely used delivery system is the spelling component of major Reading Programs. These are tantamount to educational malpractice.

WTW Metamorphosis—From Effective Staff-Development to a Flawed Spelling Curriculum

In 1996, Prentice-Hall published a Whole-Language staff-development book for teachers entitled Words Their Way. WTW was intended to provide “a practical way to study words with students,” (Bear, et al., 1996, Preface, page v) and it made a significant Whole Language contribution to American literacy education.

However, Words Their Way is a guidebook for studying words; it is not a spelling curriculum. The original preface describes its purpose: “…Ordered in this developmental format, Words Their Way complements the use of any existing phonics, spelling, and vocabulary curricula.” To complement the curricula, WTW focuses on a single learning strategy for spelling—word sorting—and it employs hypothesis testing, social interaction, and games.

Over the years, corporate America got greedy. Words Their Way—the now 20-year-old Whole Language staff-development guidebook—went through marketing reiterations like a butterfly’s metamorphosis flitting from one marketing imprint to another. Its development was all about marketing as it morphed from Prentice-Hall, to Allyn & Bacon, to Merrill-Prentice Hall to become “Voila!” an alternative Pearson Education spelling curriculum.

Yet unlike a butterfly, the transformation wasn’t from an immature form to something more complete—the only thing that changed from one stage to each newly added stage was that the thing got more expensive.

The process of transformations included Words Their WayTM Online Course for Teachers; Words Their Way Training for Teachers; Words Their WayTM Virtual Training for Teachers; Words Their WayTM Coaching and Modeling; Words Their WayTM My Online Workshop; Words Their WayTM Companion Volumes; Words Their WayTM with English Learners and the like.

There was good reason to have all this added “training” because the program takes a lot of time and is highly work-intensive for teachers. That being said, teachers who do have this training can use it to advantage with any existing phonics, spelling, and vocabulary curricula as was originally intended; however, as a curricula, the program is seriously flawed.

Two Flaws in Words Their Way

Two flaws in the 2016 editions of Words Their Way are a theoretical flaw and a CCSS compatibility flaw. Let’s look first at the theory.

In Chapter 1 of Words Their Way, we learn the theoretical basis for this method of word study: “Developmental spelling researchers have examined the three layers of English orthography in relation to developmental progressions from alphabet to pattern to meaning.” (Bear, et al, 2000, p.5.) As a developmental spelling researcher, I beg to disagree. There is no developmental progression in the child’s brain when constructing word knowledge that proceeds over time from alphabet to pattern to meaning. Word knowledge of alphabet, pattern, and meaning are being constructed at every stage of spelling development (Gentry, 2000).

More importantly, spelling development does not continue to develop in phases or stages beyond a ceiling which usually happens near the end of first grade, if kids are developmentally on track. I pointed this out in The Reading Teacher in a refereed journal article about sixteen years ago (Gentry, 2000).

Let me be specific. There is no developmental stage for Ages 10+ in Grades 5 to 12 called “The Derivational Relations Stage” as claimed in all editions of WTW. In fact, as spelling researcher Louisa Moats points out, Derivational Relations begins in first grade: Words in a first-grade spelling curriculum are Anglo-Saxon regular consonant and vowel phone-grapheme correspondences along with words such as goat, wife, mother, love, and house. They all have an alphabet layer, an Anglo-Saxon pattern, and a meaning layer. In fact, derivational constancy is so dominant in English at early levels that the 100 most frequently used words in English—the ones that teachers should teach in first grade—can all be traced back to Anglo-Saxon origins. This debunks Word’s Their Way’s “alphabet, pattern, and meaning” stage theory which suggests that clusters of error types develop later in brain development.

On a practical level, Words Their Way doesn’t work well because it takes too much time and it’s too work-intensive for teachers. A large percentage of teachers do not implement it with fidelity. It’s pitched toward the upper-level kids in affluent districts who have lots of educational advantages, but in those same districts, the lower-level kids who struggle may get the same word-sort patterns year after year because there is no grade by grade continuity. That’s not very congenial to children who struggle (Gentry, 2011).

We see clusters of error types at the beginnings of spelling, but that’s it. Anyone who has watched fifth-graders at the Scripps National Spelling Bee knows what WTW calls Derivational Relations Stage isn’t a demonstration of kids who have moved into a new stage of spelling, but a demonstration of the extraordinary volume of learned word histories, learned spelling patterns, and learned word meanings of words derived from other languages that these spelling champions have mastered through intensive study. Those spelling champions don’t have more highly developed brains; they simply have studied hard and packed more words, more patterns, and more word etymologies into the dictionaries in their brains. They can see these words in their mind’s eye and retrieve them.

The second crippling flaw in Words Their Way in America today is that Words Their Way is not compatible with Common Core State Standard expectations. Regardless of your feelings about Common Core, you have to admit that CCSS currently drives much of what is happening in our schools. The problem is that CCSS expectations are grade-by-grade, and Words Their Way is stage-by-stage, with huge grade ranges for each stage. For example, the Derivational Relations Stage ranges from Grade 5 to Grade 12. How are teachers supposed to extrapolate a Grade 5 to Grade 12 range into CCSS grade-by-grade expectations? I’m a 30-year developmental spelling researcher and I haven’t been able to do it.

Spelling Lessons in Reading Programs Are Potentially Harmful to American Children

Here’s a first-grade lesson from one of the most widely used reading programs in America, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Journeys: Common Core (2014, Unit 14, Lesson 17, T103) [Spelling Lesson Words—Long e (ea, e, e_e, ee): me, be, read, feet, tree, keep, eat, mean, sea, these.]

There are numerous problems with this lesson. Some of the words such as mean are developmentally inappropriate as spelling words unless the kids are above-grade-level readers. As Noah Webster would say, it’s a “promiscuous arrangement of words in the same table.” (Webster, 1798) The lesson included the word theme in a dictation pretest for Whole Group instruction on Day 1 but none of the dictation words on the Day 1 pretest are in the spelling list! Who on earth thinks this is appropriate spelling instruction for First Grade? Why waste the whole group’s time with a dictation pretest with upper-grade level words that aren’t seen again in the lesson? Theme as a first-grade spelling word? Seriously? Can you imagine how this impacts children’s motivation to spell and write? This is educational malpractice!

The lesson presents five patterns for the Long e sound even though there should generally only be one pattern or two contrasting patterns at this level. Children should not be expected to handle all five of these long e patterns in a single lesson until grades 3 or 4.

The lesson fails to teach the most basic first-grade level vowel patterns such as CV (hop) versus CVCe (hope). Most egregiously, this lesson teaches a pattern that does not exist in English, e_e for Long e. The intended word is perhaps these—but these follows the common CVCe pattern just like Pete (or theme) with the consonant digraph th functioning as the first consonant in CVCe followed by a vowel-consonant-silent e. The only e_e first-grade word I can think of is eye which is Long I, not Long e. Imagine a struggling first-grade reader trying to make sense of this lesson—it’s mind bogging! Noah Webster, who understood spelling patterns and how to order spelling lessons for beginning readers would roll over in his grave!

Enigmatically, the same publishing company published WTW and Journeys even though the two programs are contradictory in practice and incompatible theoretically. Pearson Education apparently cares more about making money than about children learning to spell.

Should America Return to the Noah Webster’s Blue-Backed Spellers?

The Blue-backed Speller became the backbone of literacy and a spine of American democracy because real democracy cannot exist without literacy. I would say the Blue-backed Speller is a better choice than spelling in your child’s Reading Program, and it may be a better choice than Words Their Way given how that guidebook has been misused.

The best choice today is a research-based, comprehensive, stand-alone, multi-system, grade by grade spelling series based on differentiated word lists that include the advantages of word sorting as one option for building word knowledge along with many other options.

Today’s research-based spelling program may be implemented in about 15 minutes a day of explicit spelling instruction. It has a grade by grade curriculum and it aligns with Common Core State Standards. It is not a one-size-fits-all assign-and-test workbook program as detractors sometimes claim but offers differentiated spelling lists and a strategic approach to teaching spelling in every weekly unit: It incorporates all five strategies psychologists in this decade have found to be the best learning strategies for students: self-testing, self-explanation, elaborative interrogation, distributed practice, and interleaved practice (Dunlosky et. al, 2013).

I am proud to be the author of a modern research-based spelling program. It’s the only program adopted by the Texas State Board of Education which is not a Common Core state. And while I may not be Noah Webster for the twenty-first century, I will continue to work hard to live up to the moniker some teachers have given me, the “Spelling Guru of America”—the one who is dyslexic and learned a lot about spelling because my brain can’t spell. If that doesn’t work, maybe I’ll stick with the other moniker my editors have given me, “Spelvis, the Elvis of spelling!”

In America, spelling is the missing link to reading success along with background knowledge and vocabulary for comprehension, and motivation for literacy. There’s some urgency in this message: America, if you want kids who can read and write, you will have to do a better job teaching spelling.


Abbott, R., Berninger, V., & Fayol, M. (2010). Longitudinal relationships of levels of language in writing and between writing and reading in grades 1 to 7. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 281-298.

Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Baumann, J., Chard, J., Cooks, J., Cooper, j., Gersten, R. Lipson, M., Morrow, L., Pikulski, J., Templeton, S., Valencia, S., Valentino, C., & Vogt, M., (2014). Journeys common core. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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: OI:10.1177/1529100612453266.…% 20Hdbook/3_Improving%20Students%20Learning%20with%20Effective%20Learning%20Techniques%20%20Promising%20Directions%20from%20Cognitive%2 0Educational%20 Psychology.pdf

Gentry, J. R. (2011) A fad that fails our children: No more spelling tests! Psychology Today. Mar 11, 2011 in Raising Readers, Writers, and Spellers.

Gentry, J. R. (2000). A retrospective on invented spelling and a look forward. The Reading Teacher, 54(3), 318–332.

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.

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). 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.

Reed, D. K. (2012). Why teach spelling? Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.

Webster, N. (1789). The American Spelling Book. Boston: Isaiah Thomas and Ebenezer Andrews.

Willingham, D.T. (2015). Raising Kids Who Read. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.