Brain Words: A Solution for America’s Reading Problem
Teaching Brain Words will improve America’s reading scores and help children.
Posted February 18, 2019
Brain words are neural representations of spelling in the reading brain’s word form area. Metaphorically, the word form area is the dictionary in the brain critical for proficient reading and writing. In layman’s terms, when you read, you match the word on the page to a neurological spelling representation in your brain’s word form area and then connect to your brain’s already existing spoken language system which includes what you know about the word-you-just-read’s sound, pronunciation, and meaning. It’s kind of like the old-fashioned telephone switchboard operator. If the switchboard operator (word form area) is not there, the connection cannot be made.
You likely just activated 103 brain words in your word form area and made connections with your brain’s spoken language system enabling you to decipher the meaning of the paragraph above. That’s called comprehension. You made the connections using the spelling.
But too many American school children don’t comprehend well on reading tests because they don’t have brain words. Many schools stopped teaching brain words—that is to say, spelling—about three decades ago. Here’s a key point to remember: brain words—correct spellings—are essential for reading comprehension and we aren’t teaching spelling in America.
Try this brain word experiment with your own reading brain to see how brain words deliver comprehension. Here are three words you likely can decode based on your decoding skills and knowledge of phonics.
dosseret caret elixir
Take each word separately. Is the word in your spoken language system (i.e., can you pronounce it correctly and do you know its precise meaning)? Now ask yourself the essential question. Would your knowledge of each word above have enabled you to retrieve the correct spelling before you saw it on this page? If you could already spell the word as well as hear it, say it, read it, write it, and use it correctly (and automatically) it’s a brain word! (I’m hoping at least one of the words tripped you up.)
The quintessence of brain word power is (1) if you can spell the word and (2) if you already have its meaning in your spoken language system, then (3) you will be able to read and comprehend the word even when you see it in isolation and also retrieve the spelling to create meaning in writing.
In a nutshell that’s how the reading/writing brain circuitry works. And although you were born with spoken language circuitry and learned to speak naturally, no one is born with reading circuitry. No one is born with a word from area for reading. Reading and spelling—and in particular brain words and spelling—have to be taught!
Why doesn’t America teach spelling?
One cause of almost three decades of abominable reading scores in America can be traced to systemic bad policy with the teaching of spelling. Good spelling policy begins with monitoring and supporting a move through five developmental phases of invented spelling in kindergarten and first grade—a period when the word form area is being developed. The word from area is expected to be operating at the end of first grade or beginning second grade. At that time one should see evidence of the child using consolidated/automatic alphabetic invented spelling which includes frequently used syllable patterns and logical consolidated letter chunks of English phonics. For example MONSTUR, YOUNIGHTED, EGUL, and TIPE are typical during this phase for monster, united, eagle, and type. At the same time, automatic word reading is expected to increase to as many as 300 to 400 sight words and many high-frequency words are spelled correctly.
Spelling-to-read instruction should be continued after the consolidated/automatic alphabet phase in word reading and writing in grade two and beyond (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019). Moreover, a fact still ignored by educators is that a great deal of research supports the use of standalone spelling books for delivering a deep level of spelling knowledge aka brain words (Wallace, 2006). Scientists have known for decades as clearly stated by renowned developmental psychologist Marilyn Adams that “the best differentiator between good and poor readers is repeatedly found to be their knowledge of spelling patterns and their proficiency with spelling-sound translations.” (Adams, 1990) With this basic understanding in mind, it goes to reason that we should be teaching spelling. But we don’t.
One can trace the problem to a particular but prevalent whole language tenet and its devastating domino effect—a major untruth that today is totally debunked by science yet still mistakenly supported by principals, administrators, and by many in our academic education training institutions. It is a “no need to teach spelling” tenet which has become a driving force for addressing spelling inadequately in state and national standards. Too many educators still believe that kids catch spelling by osmosis. Here’s the myth:
“There should be no special spelling curriculum or regular lesson sequences.” (Goodman, Smith, Meredith, & Goodman, 1987, pp. 300-301)
For twenty some years, big money publishing has marketed the whole language untruth (maybe without knowing it was untrue). These corporations make untold millions of dollars delivering ineffective “Word Study” products. Even the most current of these products may have no special grade-by-grade spelling curriculum, no regular lesson sequences, and importantly no research base—all adhering to the now debunked whole language myth. Often the word study products are branded by a best-selling writing workshop author’s name or well-known reading author team all of whose work is associated with the whole language yet they still don’t get the spelling part right.
Notwithstanding important transformational and beneficial changes in literacy education built upon whole language theory, the following whole language spelling dominoes crashed down to the detriment of school-aged readers and writers across the nation.
1. In an era of whole language dominance, the National Reading Panel failed to highlight the importance of spelling for reading. The essential pillars were said to be phonological awareness, phonics for decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension—all important for reading—but the NRP report left out the critical and deeper level of brain word knowledge that is encoding for spelling. National legislation called No Child Left Behind followed suit, giving spelling and the reading-writing-spelling connection in brain circuitry short shrift (Moats 2005/2006).
2. Following the whole language tenet, spelling was no longer a part of national testing as it had been in the 1970s and 80s when national reading scores were actually rising (Woo, 1997).
3. Entire states abandoned spelling books as part of the language arts curriculum.
4. National and state testing arbitrarily began being implemented in grade three which is much too late. Rather America should embrace an advisable policy of formative assessment at the end of grade one when virtually every child’s reading circuitry for English should be in place. The waiting until grade three debacle is harmful to children.
5. In this same era, two decades of teacher education programs failed to pay attention to an explosion of new knowledge in cognitive psychology and neuroimaging about the science of reading (Seidenberg, 2017).
6. Scientists may have failed to effectively translate research findings into classroom practices including monitoring five evidenced-based developmental phases of word reading and invented spelling (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019).
7. A national teaching force of kindergarten and first-grade teachers through no fault of their own entered the workforce with virtually no training for teaching beginning reading, writing, and spelling (Allington, 2013; Stuhlman & Pianta, 2009).
9. Supervisors and principals not knowing the spelling/reading conundrum plunged into a desperate trend of addressing the obvious American reading problem by purchasing “teacher-proof” or core reading programs. Even today some are mandating so-called rigorous curricula touting more units of phonics, more phonemic awareness study for decoding, or complicated word study programs that still don’t deliver a grade-by-grade curriculum for spelling and brain words. This in spite of the fact that research has shown that more of what we are already doing isn’t the answer (Allington, 2013; Gentry & Ouellette, 2019).
10. Linked to the gap between the science of reading and classroom practice a sluggish school response to an explosion of knowledge about dyslexia and the reading brain contributed to what many teachers and parents believe to be ineffective screening and support for children with a reading disability including dyslexia. Lackluster all-over-the-board dyslexia screening procedures are commonplace in districts across North America and may have stunted progress with addressing the dyslexia problem (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019).
A Lamentable Anti-Literacy Cycle
A lack of spelling knowledge starts a lamentable cycle. Children who can’t spell can’t read proficiently at their grade level; they likely dislike reading and suffer embarrassment. They don’t perform well on reading tests. In the reading world, this is known as “the Mathew effect” where good readers with brain words get richer and poor readers without brain words get poorer. Often the poor readers haven’t been taught spelling explicitly nor have they been exposed to a grade-by-grade spelling curriculum of brain words. The longer these students struggle with reading in school the worse the problem gets. Poor readers read less often and miss out on gaining vocabulary, concepts, and background knowledge all necessary for comprehension. Their spoken language system doesn’t develop in the same way as a good reader’s. An insidious notion that grade three and above students “read to learn” and K-2’s “learn to read” perpetuated by arbitrary third grade testing and a commitment in the No Child Left Behind Act to ensure that every child can read by the end of third grade perhaps blinded too many educators to the fact that learning to read and reading to learn to happen simultaneously even in kindergarten. Here’s an example, a midyear first grader who sees a really cool picture of a backhoe and reads the words, “Here is a backhoe. Deep grooves in the tires help it grip the earth. It has a strong arm that can dig a hole or tear down a building,” (Moeller, 2013) is learning to read while reading to learn. On the next page the first grader compares the backhoe to a wheel loader not only having activated the -ack, -eep, it, and -ip beginning reading chunks in the word form area but also learning rarely spoken vocabulary such as grip and groove, along with engaging in comparison and contrast for comprehension.
How can America fix the spelling problem?
A systemic change in policy would be to value the explicit teaching of spelling. In the beginning support and monitor early developmental phases of invented spelling because it contributes to better reading by the end of first grade and recognizes that beginning to read and reading to learn both begin in kindergarten. Then teachers should motivate and increase reading across the curriculum at all grade levels, continue this spiraling upward reading trend throughout the elementary years and emphasize building brain words with a spelling book safety net following a grade-by-grade curriculum of explicit spelling instruction. Finally, we all should recognize that literate adults continue building brain words for the rest of their lives. Studies have shown college students who develop brain words get better at reading. (Ouellette, Martin-Chang, & Rossi, 2017)
One old-fashioned new way to increase reading proficiency is to use standalone research-based spelling books with a grade by grade curriculum and regular lesson sequences. You can find a listing of the type of brain words being learned in each grade-level spelling book’s table of contents. At each grade level, you will find brain word lessons with frequently occurring sound-to-spelling syllable types, morphological word parts, derivational patterns, a few appropriate spelling rules, and some arbitrary spellings that simply must be learned. The grade level spelling book table of contents is a spelling curriculum for brain words.
Spelling books are old-fashioned but not outdated because Noah Webster, the founding father of American education and author of the first American core reading program, wisely reasoned that spelling and brain words were necessary for reading. He introduced the first American reader with a standalone spelling book. His blue-backed speller taught millions of Americans to read in the 19th century. This old-fashioned way is new in the 21st century because the current science of reading supports spelling to read methodology with high-frequency words and syllable chunks in some ways similar to the ways Noah Webster advocated. I suppose the 18th-century reading brain wired up similarly to reading brains today.
In real estate what’s important is location, location, location. In politics, it’s the economy. In reading comprehension, it’s spelling, spelling, spelling. Pay attention to science educators! If you want better readers, teach spelling!
Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Allington, R.L. (2013). What really matters when working with struggling readers? The Reading Teacher 66(7), 520-530.
Gentry, J. R. and Ouellette, G.P. (2019) Brain words: How the science of reading informs teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.
Goodman, K.E., Smith, B., Meredith, R. & Goodman, Y. (1987). Language and thinking in school: A whole-language curriculum. Katonah, NY: Richard C. Owen.
Moats, L. (2005/2006). How spelling supports reading and why it is more regular and predictable than you may think.” American Educator 29:12–22.
Moeller, D. (2013). Big wheels at work: Kaleidoscope Collection. Los Angeles, CA: Hameray Publishing Group.
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 21:350–357.
Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it. New York: Hatchette Book Group.
Stuhlman, M.W., and Pianta, R.C. (2009). Profiles of educational quality in first grade. The Elementary School Journal, 109(4), 323–342.
Wallace, R.R. (2006). Characteristics of effective spelling instruction. Reading Horizons, 46(4): 267–278.
Woo, E. (1997). How our kids spel: What the big deel? Los Angeles Times, May 29, A1.