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Messing Up Literacy in Texas

Why have reading scores flatlined in Texas?

The Texas State Board of Education is about to choke on a new set of language arts and reading standards. Since many states’ textbooks will likely be influenced by their decision, pay attention if you have children in school. Will Texas choose a layer cake or a marble cake model? Will it be Whole Language repackaged and mislabeled as constructivist or California’s version of the Common Core? Will the Texas State Board of Education pay attention to the latest research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology?

The Call for New Standards

Look at what’s happening in Texas:

  • Reading scores have flatlined.
  • The State Board of Education called for new standards.
  • The committee submitting new standards bungled foundational reading skills.

If this half-baked new set of foundational reading skills is approved, expect Texas reading scores to plummet even further, reaching out for bottom in the nation. Only nine states to go!

It’s all about chickens that mate, layer cakes, and the Texas State Board of Education.

A panel of experts called the TEKS Review Committees just rewrote the new Texas state standards for language arts and reading. The writers were charged to “streamline” the old Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), a document that dictates textbook and curriculum adoption and guides teachers and parents in what children are expected to learn at each grade level.

In this case, these innovative and progressive writers made up of seemingly random educators say they attempted to be “rigorous.” The problem is that they appear to be obsessed with “integrated.” They want “integrated strands,” “integrated and progressive,” “integrated for instructional purposes,” and “integrated throughout the year.” In fact, the word integrated appears in the new introductory document more than a dozen times. Texas Board Members beware: Integrated curriculum is not new. Some good aspects of integrated curriculum harken back to John Dewey’s theory from 100 years ago. However, the phrase integrated curriculum in today’s world is sometimes code for Whole Language, California’s version of Common Core, and watered-down standards. For foundational skills, integrated curriculum may not be progressive; it may, instead, be destructive by omitting essential skills.

Spelling (encoding) is best taught systematically and explicitly along with an integrated curriculum.

An integrated curriculum is described as one that connects different areas of study by cutting across subject-matter lines and emphasizing unifying concepts. In some instances, such as project-based learning, an integrated curriculum can be very effective. First graders, for example, can learn about life cycles by watching eggs hatching into baby chicks. They can do the math and record what is happening day by day. They can draw and write about what they are observing and learn to read difficult academic words such as life cycle of chickens: The males will be roosters, the females will be hens. First graders may even learn that roosters and hens mate, although I hope that they don’t get into the specifics of it.

This is an example of project-based learning in an integrated reading and writing curriculum. In this case, integration focuses on making connections for students in math, science, reading, and using their spelling knowledge by allowing them to engage in relevant, meaningful activities that can be connected to real life.

According to the new TEKS document, integration may include foundational language skills; comprehension; response; collaboration; multiple genres; author’s purpose and craft; composition and presentation, and inquiry and research. Integrating the last seven strands (comprehension through inquiry and research) may be good for learners. But an integrated curriculum for foundational language skills such as spelling can be a problem because integrated curriculum is sometimes a pejorative for explicit, direct, systematic instruction. When integration is interpreted as a rejection of systematic and explicit spelling instruction and abandons a research-based, grade-by-grade spelling curriculum, it’s harmful to children’s academic success.

Student decoding abilities naturally outpace encoding abilities.

The new TEKS document uses “decoding and encoding” throughout Grades K–5, treating decoding and encoding as if they are the same brain function. As a reader, you are probably aware that your brain can read (decode) many more words correctly than you can spell (encode) correctly. (Can you spell sacrilegious, inoculate, and obfuscate? Many adult readers cannot.) Children at every grade level decode many more words than they encode. The new TEKS document has inappropriate spelling (encoding) standards because the writers simply inserted the 2009–2010 decoding (reading) standards for spelling. It wasn’t streamlining; it was cutting corners–the lazy way to do standards.

Here's an example of why teachers shouldn't use decoding standards for spelling. Learning to read and decode words such as life cycle, chickens, males, roosters, females, hens, and mate in an integrated curriculum is appropriate in first grade if these children are studying life cycles. But putting these eight words on the weekly first grade spelling list is just as detrimental as not having a weekly spelling list at all. There are too many complex spelling patterns in the “integrated” list above. A first grader might be thinking, “Is it m-a-l-e or m-a-i-l? Is it mate spelled like the word ate or is mate spelled like the number eight? Why does the oo in rooster make one sound and oo in look make another? Doesn’t f-e-m-a-l-e-s spell families as in fem-a-les?” My work as a highly respected spelling researcher has shown that f-e-m-a-l-e-s is logical and expected encoding for families for first graders. Family might appear in a first grade list due to its frequency of use. Knowing how to change the y to i and add -es to form the plural comes later.

According to spelling research, life, as well as hens with its consonant-vowel-consonant short vowel pattern and -s added to make it plural, are the only appropriate words in the list for a first grade spelling curriculum. Yet the rewritten TEKS fail to make this apparent. Further, they recommend teaching far too many spelling patterns in first grade and the wrong spelling words at every other grade level.

Decoding and encoding are reciprocal, yes, but they are not identical. One is reading and the other is spelling, and spelling is a deeper level of phonics knowledge and harder in practice. Spelling knowledge requires explicit instruction for many students, with much practice and self-testing to enable automatic retrieval. Even first graders know that they can decode and read many more words than they can spell correctly. Why would the TEKS expect decoding and encoding to be the same?

Choose the Layer Cake for Essential Foundational Skills—Not the “Integrated” Marble Cake Model.

We now know from twenty-first century research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology that spelling is an essential foundational skill for reading (Willingham, 2015). As such, spelling should be taught in a layer cake model with systematic, explicit, and direct instruction in a grade-by-grade curriculum (Gentry, 2004). The Texas State Board of Education (TSBE) agreed to this approach in the 2009-2010 TEKS and when it wisely approved The Dyslexia Handbook (Texas Education Agency, 2014), which calls for systematic, explicit, and direct instruction for teaching spelling. Psychological research supports weekly self-testing, distributed practice, elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, and interleaved practice, all of which work well with weekly explicit spelling instruction. Research supports teaching spelling as a separate subject grade by grade in elementary school for roughly 15 minutes per day (Moats, 2005/2006, p. 42-43). In a position paper submitted to the Ohio State Legislature in 2015, renowned researcher Virginia Berninger who has more than 20 years of NICHD funded research gives this practical implication of the research, “In an era of limited financial resources, it is important to keep in mind that systematic handwriting AND spelling instruction can reduce the number of children needing special education services.” (2015) All of these facts lead to one conclusion: Because spelling is essential for reading proficiency, explicit spelling instruction should be called out specifically as part of essential state standards.

The newly revised TEKS not only ignore the research for spelling instruction, they are in direct contradiction to The Dyslexia Handbook, which the Texas state board previously approved. The revised TEKS reject the layer cake model for spelling in favor of a fluffy marble cake model, where spelling is swirled together with decoding but, regrettably, where important necessary ingredients (or essential knowledge and skills) for spelling acquisition are either left out or mixed up in the wrong amounts. In contrast, the 2009–2010 TEKS were based on a layer cake model in which spelling maintained its identity as “spelling” versus the currently proposed “decoding and encoding” debacle. The 2009–2010 TEKS supported the expectation of building knowledge of appropriate spelling words for the dictionary within the child’s brain by teaching spelling explicitly, spiraling upward in a grade-by-grade curriculum, building layer upon layer.

J. Richard Gentry
Source: J. Richard Gentry

Have Texas reading scores flatlined due to poor spelling instruction?

Even after the 2009–2010 TEKS there was a problem, however. Many Texas schools did not follow the TEKS layer cake model. Even though the TSBE adopted research-based spelling books, many schools did not purchase them or use them with fidelity. Over the last decade, many Texas schools were already integrating, which helps to explain why reading scores in Texas have plummeted. In 2016, Texas ranked 42nd—near the bottom—in Education Week’s 2016 report. Only nine states are worse. It’s reminiscent of what happened in California in 1989 when the State Board of Education went with integrated and banned spelling books from the list of required texts. Education writer Elaine Woo reported on the front page of the Los Angeles Times that abandoning spelling instruction “hit home when a 1994 federal survey on reading ranked California’s students at the bottom nationally.” (May 27, 1997, page A1)

It’s interesting to note that Houston purchased research-based spelling books in 2010 and their 2015 Grade 4 reading scores are up. Dallas didn’t purchase spelling books and their 2015 reading scores are down, below Houston’s scores, and below the national average.

There is little or no large-scale research that supports teaching spelling solely in an integrated curriculum. Two decades of failed Whole Language experiments with spelling curricula—letting students learn to spell by hypothesis testing and games, for example, or choosing words their way proved that the bottom 30% of students did not learn to spell or read proficiently with that marble cake method. Teachers either took too much time to get in all the needed ingredients or the standards didn’t tell them what ingredients to use. They tried to include spelling instruction in everyday writing, but essential words and patterns were never taught. Even today, California’s so-called Common Core reading programs from major reading basal publishers try to swirl in the spelling words based on the stories. The spelling lessons in these integrated reading programs provide the wrong words for students’ grade level. This approach often leaves children confused with too many patterns and not enough practice for automatic retrieval. They don’t offer opportunities for repetition and rehearsal that enables English spelling mastery.

English spelling knowledge in the brain is needed for reading proficiency. Reading proficiency is needed to build academic vocabulary and background information, which are necessary for comprehension. Comprehension is needed for better test scores. Note that spelling knowledge in the reading brain is the foundation of this cycle. Without spelling knowledge, Texas students will not read proficiently or do well on tests. It’s that simple.

Systematic and explicit spelling instruction should be required.

Knowing that spelling requires deeper levels of phonics knowledge than simply recognizing or decoding words for reading, I am vexed every time I see “spelling and encoding” streamlined in this new TEKS document touting “integration.” It appears 23 times! It’s like attempting to make a marble cake where essential ingredients have been left out. It’s a recipe for failure and it’s a disaster from the start. Once this mess is baked it’s too late. This new recipe for integrated learning of foundational skills is terrible food for English Language Learners—and there are many ELLs in Texas. This marble cake is indigestible for the lower 30% (students who are at the bottom third in their class), and harmful for struggling readers or those who are at risk for dyslexia. These kids really need a palatable spelling curriculum with explicit spelling study of the right words at the right time. The spelling curriculum should be relevant with a word list based on research and with standards based on grade-by-grade expectations. The skills should be meaningful for students. The recipe for spelling should never be optional; it should be required. The Texas State Board of Education should keep the 2009–2010 layer cake recipe for essential skills like spelling. It’s what’s best for children.

For full disclosure, I am certainly not opposed to integrated curriculum. I’m opposed to interpretations of integrated curriculum that obfuscate scientifically based spelling research and best teaching practices, water down state standards, and defy common sense, such as stating that first graders should be able to spell correctly words with ai, ay, ee, ea, oa, oe, ie, ow as in snow and cow, oo as in moon and foot, ou, aw, oi and oy. This list comes directly from the new TEKS document! Of course first graders might spell a few words with these patterns correctly from memorizing them as sight words, but they aren’t using deep levels of phonics knowledge to correctly encode these patterns that are typically taught in later elementary grades.

It is a challenge to put theory such as “integrated curriculum” into practice. The committee that revised the TEKS has failed to give the State Board a document that works for the foundational skills of language arts—especially spelling. The TEKS Review Committees messed up in Texas and I suspect many on the State Board of Education know this. Reject this flawed document for foundational skills. Stick with what you recommend in The Dyslexia Handbook. Mandate the explicit and systematic teaching of English spelling in a research-based grade-by-grade curriculum. It’s necessary for better test scores and proficient reading.

I hope this post helps disabuse the State Board of Education from the flawed work of the TEKS Review Committees and the fanciful notion that a half-baked, “integrated,” marble cake is what’s best for essential knowledge and skills for teaching English spelling in Texas.


Allal, L. (1997). Learning to spell in the classroom. In C.A. Perfetti, L. Rieben, & M. Fayol (Eds.), Learning to Spell. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Berninger, V.W. (2015) Position paper submitted June 20, 2015 to Ohio State Legislature entitled Research Report in Support of OH 146.

Gentry, J.R. (2004). The Science of Spelling: The Explicit Specifics That Make Great Readers and Writers (and Spellers!). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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.

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.

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

Woo, E. (1997). “How our kids spel: What the big deel?” Los Angeles Times, 29 May, A1.

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Spelling Connections for Grade 1 through Grade 8. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.