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Two Powerful Evidence-Based Strategies for Beginning Reading

All beginning reading teachers should use these science-based strategies.

The evidence base behind two strategies for beginning reading is part of an explosion of the new knowledge erupting from cognitive psychology and neuroscience on the reading brain. To keep moving forward in our practice, it’s important that beginning reading teachers, along with academic teacher training institutions, keep up with the latest science of reading. Research in cognitive psychology and neuroimaging is now providing a confirming and powerful research base for specific practices exemplary teachers have used effectively for decades. The following two evidence-based practices now supported by 21st century science are essential for all beginning reading teachers. Even Reading Recovery teachers, often touted to be among the best-trained beginning reading teachers in our profession (Allington, 2013), will want to update their practices by adding these proven science-based tools to their craft.

Encourage and Support Children’s Use of Invented Spelling

It’s gratifying when theory and science align with best classroom practices. A remarkable example of the efficacious melding of science and practice may be found in early Reading Recovery theory. (Reading Recovery is short-term intervention for first graders who are struggling with literacy.) In 1982, Marie Clay, the late world-renowned child psychologist and founder of Reading Recovery, prognosticated the role of early writing and invented spelling in the development of the reading brain. She encouraged pencil and paper activity from the very beginning to capitalize on invented spelling as a tool for learning to read. “It is probable,” she wrote, “that early writing serves to organize the visual analysis for print, and to strengthen important memoric strategies. The child’s written work also provides us with objective evidence of what the child has learned.” (Clay, 1982, p. 210) Today, Clay’s hopeful prognosis about the importance of monitoring children’s early developmental spelling, a technique called phase observation, is powerfully supported by cognitive psychology and neuroimaging. Moreover, teacher scaffolding of invented spelling sets beginning readers on a pathway to conventional spelling and better end-of-first-grade reading scores. Monitoring the progression of invented spelling in phases and supporting this progression with teacher scaffolding are often two underused powerful tools for teaching beginning reading successfully.

In a landmark 2017 study, Canadian cognitive psychologists Gene Ouellette and Monique Sénéchal explicitly demonstrated the beginning reading-writing connection undergirding their research study with two independent lines of research: (1) research in tracking developmental phases of word reading (Ehri 1997, 2000) and (2) research in developmental phases of spelling (Gentry 1978, 1981, 2000, 2006). Ouellette and Sénéchal’s carefully crafted longitudinal study found invented spelling to be “a unique predictor of growth in early reading skills.” Far from being nonacademic, harmful to traditional values, or a deterrent to conventional spelling they found use of invented spelling to be a boon to learning to read as Marie Clay had predicted. The methodically sound and meticulously designed study involving over 170 children found “a direct path from kindergarten invented spelling to Grade 1 conventional spelling” accompanied by increased scores for end-of-first-grade reading (Ouellette and Sénéchal, 2017).

Today, exemplary kindergarten teachers across the nation and cutting edge staff development resources such as the newly released New York City Department of Education Framework for Early Literacy: Grades Pre-Kindergarten—2 (NYCDOE, 2018) tout phase observation and use of the Gentry developmental spelling phases and Ehri’s word reading phases as a priority for early literacy development and formative assessment.

The Gentry phases and Ehri phases are essentially one and the same—or two sides of the same coin—representing observable outcomes of the developing architecture of the reading brain’s word form area. Neuroscientific imaging demonstrates the development of this critical part of the proficient reader’s brain from non-existence in Phase 0 nonreaders and writers to its presence in the brains of proficient end-of-first-grade readers and writers. In normal and expected development a giant cognitive leap may be observed between the middle and end of first grade as children often move from Phase 3 full phonetic alphabetic use to Phase 4 consolidated/automatic alphabetic use (Gentry & Ouellette, in press). Importantly what renowned cognitive psychologist David Share has termed “self-teaching” seems to kick in at this critical point in development. In addition to automatic word reading advanced through explicit spelling instruction and word study, the move from Phase 3 to Phase 4 is when researchers often observe children begin to teach themselves whole words and spelling patterns through what Share describes as orthographic learning. Orthographic learning strengthens mental representations of spelling words and patterns in the brain’s word form area. The resulting automatic use of spelling and phonics pattern representations frees the brain for more fluent and accurate reading and meaning making (Gentry & Ouellette, in press; Share, 1995, 2004). The word form area connects the reading brain to the child’s already existent and growing spoken language system. Toward the end of first grade and indeed throughout elementary school, children who are motivated to read and write independently strengthen and grow all of the reading brain’s complex neural systems including those supporting concept and vocabulary development. The more they read and write independently the better the reading brain gets. Spelling representations in the word form area (recently dubbed “brain words”) and automatic word reading open the flood gates to literacy.

Strategy #1: Put Phase Observation to Good Use

So what do the phases look like? It’s perhaps easiest to observe the phase development outcomes in writing:

Phase 0—Non-alphabetic Writing (No alphabetic letters are present—only scribbling or letter-like forms.)

Phase 1—Pre-alphabetic Writing (Letters are represented but they don’t match sounds. Eagle is written with random letters with no sound-to-letter correspondences. The alphabetic principle is not in evidence thus “pre-” alphabetic.)

Phase 2—Partial Alphabetic Writing (Eagle may be written as E with partial sound-to-letter representation.)

Phase 3—Full Alphabetic Writing (All sounds in eagle are represented usually with one letter for each sound as in EGL where sonorant L carries the vowel sound.)

Phase 4—Consolidated/Automatic Alphabetic Writing (Eagle is spelled as EGUL where the first syllable is spelled with E for /ē/ and the second syllable is spelled as a consolidated phonics chunk such as GUL for /gəl/. This move from Phase 3 to Phase 4 is when self-teaching in independent reading and faster more independent and fluent writing kicks in as a result of a growing store of brain words.

Examples of kid writing in these phases looks like this (Adapted from Gentry, 2017; Gentry & Ouellette, in press):

J. Richard Gentry
Phase 0--Letter-like Forms
Source: J. Richard Gentry

J. Richard Gentry
Phase 2--Child writes "A flock of butterflies."
Source: J. Richard Gentry

J. Richard Gentry
Phase 2--Humpty Dumpty
Source: J. Richard Gentry

J. Richard Gentry
Phase 3--Tooth Fairy Story
Source: J. Richard Gentry

J. Richard Gentry
Phase 4--My Foot
Source: J. Richard Gentry

Strategy #2: Use the “Stretching Through a Word with a Moving Target” Technique

Both the Ouellette and Sénéchal study and staff development resources such as Kid Writing in the 21st Century (Feldgus, Cardonick, & Gentry, 2017) support phase observation and spotlight the “Stretching Through a Word with a Moving Target” technique, both essential techniques for reading recovery and exemplary teaching. The technique is a slowing down process with attention to sound-symbol association in correct sequence followed by a teacher-led discussion allowing the child to analyze his or her spelling.

Prompting students to “Watch my mouth,” the teacher slightly slows down the pronunciation of the full word while elongating, slightly dragging out, and speaking the target sound louder.

For example, here’s how to help a developing Phase 2 kid writer attempt to go beyond the beginning letter and get at least four sound-to-letter correspondences using the concept of word and left to right directionality to spell lightning as LTNG.

Step 1: Teacher says lightning targeting /l/ sound—Child may write L.

Step 2: Teacher says lightning targeting /t/ sound—Child may write T.

Step 3: Teacher says lightning targeting /n/ sound—Child may write N.

Step 4: Teacher says lightning targeting /g/ sound—Child may write G.

All attempts are praised. The teacher shows the conventional English spelling and leads a metacognitive analysis and discussion showing how the child listens for the sound in words and writes the letter (or in Phase 4 consolidated chunks of letters) to create “a picture of the sounds” in the word. (Spelling representations in the brain’s word form area are like pictures of sounds.) This empowers the child to move to higher phases and later internalize the adult spelling as an automatic brain word.

Stretching though a word with a moving target is highlighted in the Ouellette and Sénéchal research study (2017) as an engaging and analytical technique for facilitating literacy growth. It integrates phonological and orthographic growth and falls naturally within a child’s zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1962). Rather than having children “… memorize or reproduce a spelling that may be beyond their current level of development “they are creating a spelling that reflects, and potentially increases, their current knowledge” (2017, p. 86). This makes writing their own stories or information motivational and easy for kids because they can write whatever they want to express. Teacher publishing at the bottom of a piece can enable kids to read back their own stories in conventional English. This supports powerful learning because all the words and the story’s meaning are re-presented (presented again) stimulating the neural connections in the brain’s reading architecture and strengthening these connections. In Marie Clay’s words, these techniques “organize the visual analysis for print…strengthen important memoric strategies”…and “provide us with objective evidence of what the child has learned.” What a great boon to literacy learning!


Allington, R.L. (2013). What really matters when working with struggling readers.” The Reading Teacher, 66(7), 520-530.

Clay, M.M. (1982). Observing young readers. London: Heinemann Educational Books.

Ehri, L.C. (1997). Learning to read and learning to spell are one and the same, almost.” In C. Perfetti, L. Rieben and M. Fayol (Eds.), Learning to spell: Research, theory and practice across languages, 237-269. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Ehri, L.C. (2000). Learning to read and learning to spell: Two sides of a coin. Topics in Language Disorder, 20, 19-36.

Feldgus, E., Cardonick, I. & Gentry, R. (2017). Kid writing in the 21st century. Los Angeles, CA: Hameray Publishing Group.

Gentry, J.R. (1978). Early spelling strategies. The Elementary School Journal, 79, 88-92.

Gentry, J.R. (1981). Learning to spell developmentally. The Reading Teacher, 34, 378-381.

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

Gentry, J.R. (2006). Breaking the code: The new science of beginning reading and writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gentry, J.R. (2017). Landmark study finds better path to reading success. Post published in Psychology Today blogs. March 30, 2017 in Raising Readers, Writers, and Spellers.

Gentry, J.R. & Ouellette, G. (in press). Brain words: How the science of reading informs teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

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.

New York City Department of Education. (2018). Pre-K-2 Framework for early literacy. New York City: NYCDOE Publication.

Share, D. (1995). Phonological recoding and self-teaching: Sine qua non of reading acquisition. Cognition, 55(2), 151-218. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(94)00645-2

Share, D. (2004). Orthographic learning at a glance: On the time course and developmental onset of self-teaching, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 87, 267-298.

Vygotsky, L. (1962). Thought and language (E. Hanf-mann & G. Vakar, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.