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Lousy Spelling—Why Americans Can’t Read or Think Well

Spelling is for reading. Teach spelling for better reading test scores!

Many Americans can’t read or think well because they have incomplete representations in memory of... guess what? Spelling words! In recent groundbreaking scientific studies of beginning reading, along with staggering new evidence from college students, an impressive complement of empirical, peer-reviewed, research studies have incontrovertibly proven that the reading brain requires spelling knowledge. So why aren’t we teaching spelling in our schools?

Maybe it’s because Common Core and alternative state standards failed to address spelling adequately. Today, too many reading researchers and even basal reading programs with 2018 copyrights don’t see lack of spelling as a major problem in reading instruction. They have missed the spelling-reading connection by either treating decoding and encoding as one and the same or by leaving out spelling completely. This misunderstanding of the spelling-reading connection flies in the face of two decades of research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience leaving us with a problem: there is a serious gap between the existing research in spelling and its application in the classroom.

Both the National Reading Panel, which was used to craft federal literacy policy beginning in 2001, and the National Early Literacy Panel’s 2010 report were to look specifically at what impacted reading. Both studies omitted spelling. Spelling knowledge—called encoding—is now the missing piece of the literacy puzzle that plagues America.

Perhaps the fact that spelling was omitted from both Panel reports is the reason that spelling is likely not on your child’s state achievement test. It used to be tested nationally. And even though spelling is now proven to increase reading scores, it’s not uncommon for principals to tell teachers to skip teaching spelling because they need the time for test prep. It seems as if we continue to weigh the cow over and over without feeding it. Just as cows need feedstuffs to grow, a dictionary of academic words in children’s brains are the feedstuffs for growing higher test scores, college and career readiness, and deeper levels of thinking.

While schools persists in shortchanging the teaching of spelling, common sense dictates that one can read, write, and generally make meaning with any word for which he or she can retrieve the correct spelling by using the brain, not just a digital tool. Research-wise spelling is considered to be a “deeper level” of vocabulary knowledge. You can test that against your own experience. It doesn’t matter if one is a first grader, fifth grader, high schooler, or adult reader like yourself, one can likely read and speak many more words correctly than one can spell correctly due to the deep level of vocabulary knowledge required for correct spelling. Correct spelling in the brain’s “dictionary” is a terrific asset. A deep level of spelling knowledge makes words available for lifelong retrieval and application and for building upon and expanding academic and general knowledge. If you can spell it you can read it. How could anything so simple be so misunderstood?

Spelling Research 2008 – present

Compelling new research proves that teaching kids to spell in kindergarten and first grade, using techniques that support the use of invented spelling, not only increased end-of-first grade reading scores but also resulted in better conventional spellers (Ouellette & Sénéchal, 2017; 2013, 2008). This research is getting noticed. When I highlighted the study in a recent post entitled “Landmark Study Finds Better Path to Reading Success” it attracted 60,000 readers in just two months (see the link below if you missed it). The most surprising finding is that this practice is more effective than two primary techniques supported by the National Reading Panel and the National Early Literacy Panel because both phonemic awareness and alphabet knowledge—which certainly are important—are brought about by appropriate teacher-scaffolding of invented spelling as children pass through the beginning developmental phases of breaking the English code (Ouellette & Sénéchal, 2017).

In 2015 Dan Willingham (2015) wrote about the importance of spelling-to-read for high school students. A meta-analysis (Graham & Herbert, 2011), highlights connections between orthographic representations in the brain, spelling accuracy, and reading, all supporting the notion that spelling instruction is a way to improve reading.

In a spelling-to-read study with university students, researchers Ouellette, Martin-Chang, and Rossi (2017) directly tested the theory that inaccurate spelling reflects incomplete word representations in memory. They found that teaching spelling of difficult vocabulary words misspelled by college students improved their reading speed showing that improving spelling was important for reading even in college.

A Nation of Poor Spellers Begets a Nation of Poor Readers and Sloppy Thinkers

Many schools haven’t been teaching spelling effectively since Whole Language theory, which abandoned the importance of spelling and phonics and placed spelling instruction on the back burner more than two decades ago. For example, Elaine Woo reported a connection between poor reading scores in California and not teaching spelling (1997). In the mid-1970s through 1980s, spelling and reading scores on the then widely used Iowa Test of Basic Skills standardized test had been on the rise. But according to Woo abandoning the systematic and explicit teaching of spelling and the Whole Language theory that “language skills should come naturally” resulted in 1.7 million second through 10th grade California students producing spelling scores that were even lower than reading scores in the 1995-96. That was after California’s 1994 ranking at the bottom of the nation in the federal survey on reading—again, which Woo blamed on abandoning the teaching of spelling. We didn’t learn much from history. We need to bring back national testing of spelling skills.

Scores of researchers as well as renowned twenty-first century neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists, ranging from Stanislas Dehaene (2009) to Dan Willingham (2015), have put to rest the Whole Language views which abandoned the importance of spelling and phonics. Yet the gap between what we do in school with spelling and what the research says persists. For example, if your child’s school is doing the popular misunderstood but supposedly progressive practice called “Word Study,” which has students engaged in word sorting but no Friday spelling test, not enough practice, and no monitoring for mastery and retention, then your school is stuck in two-decades-old Whole Language spelling practice that has not one iota of independent research to back it up as a curriculum. Relabeling the teaching of spelling as “Word Study” and saying it is “constructivist” or “integrated” doesn’t make it best practice.

If I’m stepping on some toes, I’m sorry. I realize that some of my readers spent 10 years bringing “Word Study” into the district to replace research-based spelling books. But by now you should know that it’s not working.

Open Your Eyes America! Teach Spelling!

There is, however, hope. Many principals and administrators are beginning to wake up to the fact that instructional practices for teaching spelling in our schools are lagging behind the research. They are looking beyond the spelling component in the reading program that gives students the wrong words at the wrong time for the wrong reasons (i.e., choosing words from a reading lesson that aren’t developmentally appropriate). There is no research base for giving kids the wrong words even if it’s labeled “integrated.” In a recent conference presentation that I did for principals and administrators on this topic the administrators’ evaluations give me hope that things can change:

“The notion that spelling supports reading is an eye opener!” and “This blew my mind! Not sure where to go now. This is all new research to me,” and “This challenged my thinking,” were typical responses. This new research on the importance of spelling should open our eyes and challenge our thinking. It blows my mind that schools don’t teach spelling in spite of the proven fact that spelling is at the very core of the reading brain. It’s most critical for schools with struggling readers and English language learners or schools where state legislators are demanding that the school be graded from A to F because schools that have kids who can’t spell are going to get very low grades.

If we want to improve reading scores and student achievement it’s not going to happen unless children have spelling knowledge in the brain. The way to ensure this dictionary in the brain is to teach spelling systematically and explicitly—beginning in Grade 1 and continuing with academic vocabulary throughout the highest levels of academia with words such as nanoengineering, demurrer, gastroenterologist, eschatology, suffrage, sacrilegious, sufferance, and the like. Spelling matters for reading and clear thinking. It even matters for tweeting. Some of the highest officials in government have proven it.

Link to “Landmark Study Finds Better Path to Reading Success…

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Spelling Connections (Zaner-Bloser, 2016). Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.


Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the brain. New York: Viking.

Graham, S., & Herbert, M. (2011). Writing to read: A meta-analysis of the impact of writing and writing instruction on reading. Harvard Educational Review, 81, 710–744. doi:10.17763/haer.81.4.t2k0m13756113566

Ouellette, G., Martin-Chang, S., & Rossi, M. (2017): Learning from our mistakes: Improvements in spelling lead to gains in reading speed. Scientific Studies of Reading, 21(4). doi: 10.1080/10888438.2017.1306064

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.

Ouellette, G., & Sénéchal, M. (2013). Guiding children’s invented spellings: A gateway into literacy learning. The Journal of Experimental Education, 81, 261-272.

Ouellette, G., & Sénéchal, M., (2008). Pathways to literacy: A study of invented spelling and its role in learning to read. Child Development, 79(4), 899-913.

Willingham, D. (2015). Raising kids who read: What parents and teachers can do. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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