The Reading Brain’s Food Chain and Failing Schools

Schools fail when they don't teach spelling as food for the reading brain.

Posted Feb 05, 2018

In the beginning weeks of 2018, I conducted staff development sessions with teachers and administrators from eighteen school districts in Northeastern and Midwestern states with most districts reporting problems with reading scores or writing. Virtually all of them have one thing in common: They aren’t teaching spelling in a developmentally appropriate grade-by-grade spelling curriculum. Yet cognitive psychology and neuroscience have shown spelling to be at the very core of the reading brain and essential for reading comprehension; a lack of effective spelling instruction starves the reading brain. If one can spell a word, one can read it. On the other hand, if one’s brain doesn’t have a store of words that can be matched with spellings on the page for reading, then one can’t read with fluency or comprehension. 

Districts are using various methodologies for teaching reading. That’s OK. Some, however, have complex, unwieldy, so-called “integrated” reading programs stuffed with big bites of Language Arts along with everything else—comprehension, close reading, genre study, writing, grammar, vocabulary, phonics, and spelling. And it’s all jammed into gigantic expensive binders that teachers complain to me have too much to cover with inadequate time for teaching foundational skills. Beyond that, teachers say the spelling words plucked from the reading stories are too hard and developmentally inappropriate for the specific grade level. 

Having heard that over and over and being an expert on spelling instruction, I looked to see for myself. What I found was mind-boggling. In one of the new series, first graders are expected to master third grade level complicated r-controlled vowel spelling-to-sound correspondences with three r-controlled patterns in a single lesson: air, are, and ear. (You might have read the second word as are but in this lesson, it’s the sound chunk for care, and what you might have read as ear [a body part] is being taught in this first grade lesson as the sound chunk for bear.) In this lesson, first graders are expected to learn to spell patterns for chair, care, and bear and to master “Did that bear stare at Claire?” 

When I worked with first graders in January—some in these same schools—many of the students hadn’t mastered more common spelling patterns for words such as bit, bite, feet, and eat. So while first graders should decode the r-controlled patterns above in context, encoding (correctly spelling) all the complex patterns (including single-syllable homophones with different spellings for the same sound) and presenting too many patterns in one lesson simply is developmentally inappropriate for first graders. These types of lessons are harmfully being shoved down students’ throats in the reading programs and children—and teachers—are struggling.

I worry when the first graders I worked with haven’t mastered frequent first grade-level patterns, such as short vowel patterns, high frequency long vowel patterns, and a few high frequency vowel team patterns that should be presented initially in a single lesson presenting words such as sheep, jeep, keep, beep, tree, and wee, as in “wee, wee, wee all the way home.” But look what’s being assigned in the reading programs! In a second competing series, I found the ee spelling pattern which, by itself, is developmentally appropriate. But this reading series stuck ee into a Long-e lesson with four additional Long-e patterns and recklessly left out the high frequency CVCe/CCVCe pattern for the word these while incorrectly presenting “e_e” as its Long e spelling pattern. (The words eve, Pete, and these all share the same e-marker VCe, CVCe, and CCVCe patterns respectively.) 

J. Richard Gentry
Source: J. Richard Gentry

First graders should be able to read (decode) the words above in context, but it’s much harder to spell all of them correctly (encode) because many of the patterns are too complex for first grade spelling. For example, should read in the list be pronounced like reed or like red (past tense)? Why are feet and tree not spelled ea as in mean? Mastering these complex patterns comes later. First grade lessons in reading programs shouldn’t require kids to encode all these complex patterns because spelling is a much deeper level of phonics and word knowledge and, just like you, first graders can read many more words correctly than they can spell correctly. Mastering the spelling of fairly infrequent complex single-syllable homophone spelling patterns comes later. The reading series lesson is developmentally inappropriate. Teachers using either of the reading series that this post’s spelling lessons were pulled from aren’t giving kids enough self-testing, interleaved practice, or distributed practice in spelling lessons to build what scientists call word permanency in the brain—correct spelling images to automatically match with the word on the page when reading or automatically retrieve for writing.

Still other teachers I met with this month are in “balanced” reading programs with leveled texts. While some good things are happening with reading, they report struggles with writing and total confusion about what to do with spelling because they have no grade-by-grade research-based curriculum. Many aren’t teaching spelling (or are teaching the wrong words) because spelling isn’t on the state achievement test. Teachers concerned about how to get everything in a tight schedule are sometimes being told by principals “Don’t worry about spelling. It’s not on the test.” Yet cognitive scientists and neuroscientists tell us that mastering spelling is at the very core of the reading brain (Dehaene, 2009; Willingham, 2015) and causally related to improved reading test scores (Ouelette & Sénéchal, 2017). Appropriate spelling instruction is essential for academic achievement.

Why all this confusion about spelling? Most reading instructional programs focus on the “five big ideas” (phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) that grew almost a couple of decades ago out of the National Reading Panel (NRP) and later the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). But NRP, CCCS, and alternative state standards virtually left out spelling and writing, which are now missing pieces of primary and elementary literacy instruction (Moats, 2005). Some companies are now adding costly kits called Word Study Systems but these present the same problems as outlined above and are to be squeezed in as mini-lessons.

So what we are dealing with is a giant gap between what the research says and how spelling instruction occurs in classrooms. Schools delegitimize explicit spelling instruction while research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience report that spelling knowledge literally drives the reading brain circuitry, not only for beginners in kindergarten and grade 1 who are breaking the code (Ouelette & Sénéchal, 2017), but also for elementary and middle school readers (Graham & Herbert, 2011), for high school readers (Willingham, 2015) and even for poor readers in college (Ouellette, Martin-Chang, & Rossi, 2017).

Reading proficiency is dependent upon spelling knowledge. It’s dependent upon what I call “a dictionary in the brain” of correct spelling images that cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists refer to as “the word form area” where visual images of spellings are stored and retrieved when needed. So if one can’t literally see these visual images of correctly spelled words in one’s brain and match them to the words on the page, one can’t connect to the language system or comprehend. This serious gap between what we now know from science regarding the role spelling plays in building reading circuitry and what schools do with spelling in the classroom is serious. This gap results in plummeting reading scores and failing schools with lack of spelling knowledge at the bottom of the academic food chain and failing schools at the top. 

In my home state, state-wide education just earned a C on its first “report card” this January. In my home school district, the largest in the state, nine local schools are listed on the state education agency list as “failing.” I’ve worked in some of these schools, and across the board they aren’t teaching spelling in an appropriate grade-by-grade curriculum. Further, spelling development isn’t being monitored. Spelling is not on the state assessments. Our statewide report card grade of C is based on a grading system of five broad areas:

• Academic achievement as measured by scores on standardized tests from spring of 2017—but with lousy spelling students can’t do well on reading tests.
• Improvement on test scores from one year to the next—but without adding spelling words to the dictionary in their reading brains, students can’t improve.
• Graduation rates—but poor spellers who can’t read aren’t graduating.
• The level of college- and career-readiness—but lousy spellers aren’t college and career ready.
• The level of chronic absenteeism—but poor spellers who aren’t able to read well are more likely to stay home and eventually drop out.

This is not a joke; spelling, according to science, is essential for reading. Anyone who can read but who is not a good speller would be a BETTER reader if he or she could spell—including those who are dyslexic

Historical Fact: During the 70s and 80s when teachers were providing explicit, systematic spelling instruction in a grade-by-grade curriculum with standalone spelling books, both spelling and reading scores were improving according to the widely used Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which included spelling. The first states to go extreme with Whole Language by pulling spelling books off the shelves literally ended up on the bottom in the nation in READING scores (Woo, 1997).

I can’t explain why the National Reading Panel didn’t include spelling among the “big five” ideas for reading instruction, subsequently causing spelling to be essentially left out of Common Core and alternative state standards. All students should be assessed for spelling growth in primary and elementary school, and we should teach spelling explicitly, systematically, in a grade-by-grade curriculum with the right words at the right time. That’s what’s supported by research. But it’s not what we are doing in schools that are failing.

J. Richard Gentry PhD is the author of The Science of Spelling, Spel…Is a Four-Letter Word, Teaching Kids to Spell, My Kid Can’t Spell!, Spelling Connections and recently co-author of Kid Writing in the 21st Century. 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

Moats, Louisa C. (2005). How spelling supports reading. American Educator, Winter 2005/06, 12-43.

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.

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.