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New Study Highlights Integrating Spelling Instruction

Teaching spelling can alleviate the problem of reading failure in America.

Key points

  • Teaching spelling may be a solution for better results not only for normally developing readers but also children at risk.
  • A 2022 Danish study makes a strong case for integrating explicit spelling instruction with phonics.
  • A child’s spelling and reading will change over time from kindergarten to the end of first grade—even for children at risk.

One of the longtime objectives of my Psychology Today education blog is to highlight the importance of spelling-to-read methodology which for decades has been given short shrift due to whole language domination in reading education. Could the antidote to an epidemic of reading failure in American schools be to start teaching spelling explicitly? There is growing evidence from neuroscience and cognitive psychology that that’s the case.

Researchers in neuroscience and cognitive psychology agree that spelling is an essential component of the brain's reading architecture (see for example Adams, 1990; Ehri, 2014; Gentry & Ouellette, 2019; Moats, 2005/2006; Ouellette & Sénéchal, 2008, 2017; Seidenberg, 2017). By attempting to spell a word, even an invented or “sound” spelling, the child’s self-attempt to spell necessitates deeper processing than merely trying to figure out what a word is in reading or trying to use phonics to read the same word. Spelling, the process of mapping sounds to letters for a word in the child’s spoken language, requires more long-term memory and cognitive analysis than seeing alphabetic letters or phonics patterns and trying to read the word. Spelling invokes a deeper level of internal analysis than sounding out in reading using phonics, and critically the reading brain architecture actually integrates spelling and phonics knowledge to develop both automatic word reading and automatic word spelling (Graham & Santangelo, 2014; Gentry & Ouellette, 2019).

For English, which has a complex mapping system sometimes called “opaque” by researchers, kids generally need about two years of word study in kindergarten and first grade before they amass a corpus of roughly 300 plus words (and syllable patterns) that they spell and read automatically. Kindergartners and Grade 1 students gradually integrate the spelling and reading systems which are reciprocal; in the words of developmental cognitive scientist Linnea Ehri, “Learning to read and learning to spell are one and the same, almost” (Ehri, 1997)

Remarkably, it’s not only English spelling where the integration of spelling and reading is important. A compelling 2022 Danish study by Moller and others also highlights the importance of integrated spelling and phonics even for children at risk of reading disability. This study’s findings are in agreement with previous studies on the significance of spelling-to-read methodology (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019; Ouellette & Sénéchal, 2008, 2017).

Major spelling-to-read findings from the Moller study and its impact on reading brain development include the following:

  • Learning to spell stimulates the development of phoneme awareness and letter knowledge — two of the most important prerequisites of reading development (Hulme et al, 2012).
  • Learning to spell involves both an internal analysis of words into their sounds and mapping appropriate letters or chunks of letters to sounds.
  • At the same time learning to spell goes beyond phonemic awareness and letter knowledge in that invented spelling requires active use of the orthographic code.

The Moller study reports that an “integrated spelling condition was associated with significantly larger gains in phoneme awareness, spelling, and reading” than either a phonics alone condition or what they called “business-as-usual.” Additionally, the study reports, “activities that encourage letter-sound production may be more beneficial than those which only require letter-sound recognition.” (p. 80)

In the Moller study, beginning kindergarteners at risk of early reading difficulties had significantly greater gains when integrating spelling with phonics instruction. The study reports similar findings across a number of languages and cites numerous studies of English learners—even ones who are not at risk, who move through phases of invented spelling with clearly observable changes in spelling categorizations for inventing spelling as each child builds the brain’s reading architecture on the path to proficient reading and writing expected by the end of grade one (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019). Indeed, these results very much mirror those of Ouellette & Sénéchal who found that spell-to-read activities directly boosted phoneme awareness and early reading in English speaking students (2017).

In real estate, it’s “location, location, location!” In politics, it’s “the economy!” For developing reading proficiency and comprehension, it may be “teach spelling!” Do this beginning in kindergarten and throughout first grade in addition to teaching phonics. This applies to all beginning readers including kindergartners who are at risk of reading difficulties.

You Can Assess Developmental Spelling Changes Leading to Reading Proficiency

J. Richard Gentry
The Monster Test
Source: J. Richard Gentry

“The Monster Test” is a free, time-tested, easy-to-administer, research-based beginning reading assessment for monitoring children’s developmental spelling as they move through five phases of invented spelling beginning with scribbles in preschool and moving to random letters expected by the beginning of kindergarten. Subsequently, children are expected to advance to MTR, to MOSTR, and finally to MONSTUR by the end of first grade when they have amassed the aforementioned 300 plus automatic spelling words, called “brain words” along with syllable patterns essential for reading and writing. See for yourself how the spelling of 10 words with special sound features change along the pathway to proficient reading.

References

Adams, Marilyn J. 1990. Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Ehri, Linnea C. 1997. “Learning to Read and Learning to Spell Are One and the Same, Almost.” In Learning to Spell: Research, Theory, and Practice Across Languages, ed. C Perfetti, L.Rieben, and M. Fayol, 237-269. Mayway, NJ:Erlbaum.

Ehri, L. C. (2014). “Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning.” Scientific Studies of Reading, 18:5–21. DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2013.819356

Gentry, J. Richard. & Ouellette, Gene P. (2019) Brain words: How the science of reading Informs Teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

Graham, Steve, and Tanya Santangelo. 2014. “Does Spelling Instruction Make Students Better Spellers, Readers, and Writers? A Meta-Analysis Review.” Reading and Writing 27 (9): 1703-1743.

Helene Lykke Møller, Johannes Obi Mortensen & Carsten Elbro (2022) “Effects of Integrated Spelling in Phonics Instruction for At-Risk Children in Kindergarten.” Reading & Writing Quarterly, 38:1, 67-82, DOI: 10.1080/10573569.2021.1907638

Hulme, C., Bowyer-Crane, C., Carroll, J. M., Duff, F. J., & Snowling, M. J. (2012). “The causal role of phoneme awareness and letter-sound knowledge in learning to read: Combining intervention studies with mediation analyses”. Psychological Science, 23(6), 572–577. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611435921

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. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2008.01166.

Ouellette, 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. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000179

Ouellette, G., Sénéchal, M., & Haley, A. (2013). Guiding children's invented spellings: A gateway into literacy learning. The Journal of Experimental Education, 81(2), 261–279. .https://doi.org/10.1080/00220973.2012.699903

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