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Don’t Mess with Reading Science—Texas Schools Need Spelling!

A lack of textbook funding is linked to dwindling reading scores in Texas.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak to a large gathering of Texas teachers, administrators, and education academics from across the state at a major state literacy conference. These highly competent and dedicated educators are frustrated. They are grappling with the problem of failing schools and dwindling reading scores caused in many instances by ineffective reading instruction and a lack of textbooks. I can say ineffective reading instruction because Texas is near the bottom in the nation based on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress which is the gold standard of America’s national reading assessments. Texas students scored lower in reading on the last national test than at any time in the test’s seventy-year history (Carpenter, 2018)!

All citizens in Texas should find this lamentable ranking shocking, unacceptable, and scary. If Texas aspires to be an economic powerhouse but delivers a workforce that cannot read well the future of the Lone Star State may not be so bright. Two solutions to the Texas reading problem are fully within the state’s grasp: 1) Adequate textbook funding and 2) science-based spelling books with a grade-by-grade spelling curriculum. Spelling, in light of science, is the missing link to achieve better reading scores. But in many school districts, Texas can no longer afford spelling books and has replaced them with ineffective curricular substitutes.

Landing near the bottom in reading scores is due in part to a lack of funding from the multibillion-dollar Texas Permanent School Fund, America’s largest education endowment. According to investigative reporting by the Houston Chronicle, the Texas Permanent School Fund has become Not-So-Permanent and not well managed over the last two decades as they dramatically reduced textbook spending. The Chronicle’s compelling investigative reporting paints an ugly picture: “huge school endowment pays out less and less for schoolchildren.” The Available School Fund which distributes the money to schools for textbooks no longer provides enough money for spelling books which were abundant when reading scores were higher in Texas and rising. In the last decade per-student spending has plummeted from $370 per student to $207 per student adjusted for inflation and according to the investigation “systematically denied thousands of children the education they deserve.” (Carroll & Hunn, 2019) There’s plenty of money for textbooks in Texas but a lot of it is going to the fund managers according to the investigation.

One devastating result is that districts stopped purchasing spelling books because they couldn’t afford them. The truth is if Texas intends to improve reading scores the state can’t afford not to have spelling books. Abandoning spelling books flies in the face of the latest cognitive and developmental science of reading which places spelling at the very core of the reading brain (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019; Willingham, 2015). It’s not just phonics for decoding which many districts finally do recognize as important, what’s missing in too many Texas school children’s reading brains is spelling knowledge which science says is essential for reading comprehension. Spelling knowledge builds the reading brain.

Here’s how it works: It’s easier for anyone including developing readers to read or decode words correctly than to spell words correctly. While decoding is necessary for reading it’s not sufficient. The reading brain is fundamentally powered by neurological representations of spelling (Adams, 1990; Gentry & Ouellette, 2019, Willingham, 2015). Spelling is what Texas students are missing both instructionally and in their reading brains.

Scientists have touted the importance of spelling for decades. Scores of research studies show that good readers can spell, poor readers can’t spell, and struggling readers with dyslexia almost always have difficulty with spelling. It’s that simple. Yet in spite of the fact that “the best differentiator between good and poor readers is repeatedly found to be their knowledge of spelling patterns” (Adams, 1990), Texas is going down the scientifically debunked whole language road of not focusing on spelling, ergo abominable reading scores. And while no one is using the term “whole language” that’s exactly what they are practicing by not teaching spelling explicitly.

The outcome for two decades with too little attention to spelling has been bottom-of-the-barrel reading scores in Texas tainted by a rotten whole language apple placed there unwittingly by educators who don’t know the science of reading. Some purchase the same reading programs that have failed to raise reading scores for decades and still believe there’s “no need to teach spelling.” The publishers of mammoth reading series for marketing purposes have inserted substandard and ineffective spelling lessons with no science base or grade-by-grade spelling curriculum. Teachers tell me they often skip these lessons because they recognize them as being ineffective and focusing on the wrong words. Beyond that, the spelling is buried under too much other stuff. Spelling lessons are being supplanted by more phonemic awareness, more phonics for decoding, more sight words, more grammar, more vocabulary and too little time or resources for spelling. Yet spelling books actually save time by integrating the isolated lessons listed above in a research-based spelling curriculum. In many Texas classrooms, a proper spelling curriculum and 15 minutes of standalone spelling study have been missing for two decades as reading scores reach the bottom in the state’s history.

While Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) and the State School Board call for teaching spelling in a grade-by-grade curriculum, many schools don’t have a spelling curriculum. Districts leave it to teachers to “meet the TEKS standards” and those without a curriculum may haphazardly pull words from the internet or use the bogus spelling in the reading program with words pulled from stories and lessons often skipped over following no specified science-based curriculum at all.

Without spelling instruction what’s missing in the child’s brain are neurological spelling representations that can automatically be accessed for both reading comprehension and writing. The way the reading brain works is that the visual brain matches words on the page with neurological representations of spelling in an area of the reading brain that neuroscientists call the word form area which is metaphorically a reading-brain dictionary. The reading brain then automatically activates the reader’s already existing spoken language system connecting to each word’s sound and meaning leading to comprehension. It should be noted that no one is born with reading circuitry; it is developed through reading and spelling instruction. An automatically accessed neural spelling representation of a word in the brain has been dubbed a “brain word” (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019). Your brain just activated about 147 brain words if you read and comprehended this paragraph thus far. You used the spelling on the page matched to the spelling in your brain. Texas students need a standalone grade-by-grade research-based spelling curriculum to develop brain words and the best delivery system is a spelling book (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019; Wallace, 2006).

A proper spelling curriculum is detailed, scientifically curated, and found in the table of contents at each grade level of a research-based spelling book. Nothing like this comprehensive curriculum exists in a reading program. There is no comprehensive spelling curriculum, no allowance for 15 minutes a day for spelling instruction as is supported by research, and no appropriate testing or monitoring for each Texas student’s spelling development. Spelling is especially important for English Language Learners because English has a challenging orthography or spelling system.

If your child is using the reading program spelling list ask the teacher what grade level your child is spelling on and you won’t get an answer. The teacher doesn’t know because the reading program is not addressing spelling properly.

It’s important to point out that while all Texas students and everyone else are born with spoken language circuitry, reading circuitry must be developed through instruction. Teaching readers generally begins in kindergarten and first grade and then is supported by the development of spelling brain words in Grade 2 and beyond. Spelling instruction plays a major role in the brain’s reading circuitry development and research supports standalone spelling books as the best delivery system (for research syntheses calling for explicit instruction see Gentry & Ouellette, 2019; Gentry & Graham, 2010; Graham & Santangelo, 2014; Wallace, 2006). Funding for spelling books in Texas would supply five essential literacy supports for Texas students:

1. Spelling books are a safety net for building a literacy foundation of brain words. Unless students are functioning above grade level as readers and writers, each child needs 15 minutes of explicit and systematic grade-level spelling instruction each day every year in elementary school (Moats, 2005/2006). Regardless of which reading or writing curriculum is being used, brain science shows that spelling is foundational for reading. The brain both builds the reading circuitry and reads for comprehension “using the spelling” (Willingham, 2015).

2. Spelling books enable your child’s teacher to monitor your child’s spelling growth and let parents know when a child’s lack of spelling development might signal a reading or writing problem.

3. A spelling curriculum makes early detection and intervention of dyslexia more likely when co-occurring with other signals of dyslexia. Noticing an abnormality in a child’s spelling development is one of the most recognizable indicators for early intervention which is a key for overcoming dyslexia (Gentry, 2006; Texas Education Agency, 2014). When spelling is buried in the reading program teachers don’t notice these abnormalities.

There should be yearly growth in each child’s ability to spell words while in elementary school. Too many schools aren’t tracking individual spelling growth, and many don’t have a grade-by-grade spelling curriculum even though rigorous state standards and the State Board of Education may call for them.

4. Poor reading and poor spelling are directly connected (Adams, 2011; Gentry & Graham, 2010; Moats, 2005; Reed, 2012). The two go hand in hand. A growing body of current research shows that the skills that promote spelling also promote reading and vice versa (Graham & Santangelo, 2014). Researchers describe the explicit teaching of reading and spelling as “two sides of the same coin” (Ehri, 1997) with both necessary for teaching reading.

5. Spelling, or encoding, requires deeper learning than simply using phonics for decoding. Too many school districts create a spelling problem by simply adding more units of phonics study for decoding without properly addressing encoding. Of course, phonics is important and districts should have been teaching phonics for decoding all along. However, there is growing evidence that spelling, or encoding, requires a deeper level of phonics knowledge and more precision than simply using phonics for reading (Carreker, 2011; Forman & Francis, 1994).

If you are a Texas parent of an elementary child (or any parent in America) you should be distressed if your school or district doesn’t include a focus on spelling instruction. You should find it unacceptable if the Texas Permanent Fund doesn’t provide funds for a research-based spelling book. You should demand that Texas pay attention to science and teach spelling explicitly in a grade-by-grade curriculum.

Parent voices need to be heard. Contact your local school board, the state board of education members, and state legislators and ask for textbook funding for a grade-by-grade spelling curriculum to support better reading scores in Texas.


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