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Creating Better Readers and Writers: The Importance of Direct, Systematic Spelling and Handwriting Instruction in Improving Academic Performance

By J. Richard Gentry, Ph.D., and Steve Graham, Ed.D.

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Creating Better Readers

“No subject of study is more important than reading . . . all other intellectual powers depend on it.” —Jacques Barzun, cultural historian and former Columbia University dean

Literacy: The Foundation of Education

Reading is at the heart of education, the basic skill upon which all others are built. Learning to read and write provides the foundation for both academic and economic success. The vast and ever-expanding array of human knowledge, particularly in the sciences and technologies, means that today’s students must master increasingly complex skills throughout their lives to compete effectively in the 21 st century global economy.

Learning to write letters and spell words reinforces the letter-naming, phonemic, and word-deciphering skills required in developing literacy. 1 This instruction assists children in developing the pre-reading skills associated with proficient reading by the end of the first or second grade: phonological awareness, letter identification, and vocabulary development. 2 Further, students’ reading skills and comprehension are improved by learning the skills and processes that go into creating text. 3

An extensive and evolving body of research shows that direct and explicit spelling and handwriting instruction is required if all students are to master the mechanics of reading and writing—which is not only a requirement of federal and state legislation, but also a critical goal for a nation whose economy has transitioned from a manufacturing to a knowledge base. As these skills become automatic, students are freer to concentrate on the higher-level thinking and communication skills needed for success in school and life.

The Science of Spelling and Literacy

Today, a catalog of research in education, psychology, and neurology—including brain-scanning studies 4 —supports the central role that spelling plays in learning to read and write proficiently. This research clearly documents that knowledge of spelling is connected to reading, writing, and vocabulary development because they all depend on the same language abilities. 5

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1Virginia Berninger and others, “Treatment of Handwriting Problems in Beginning Writers: Transfer from Handwriting to Composition.” Journal of Educational Psychology 89 (1997): 652-666.
2 Hollie Scarborough, “Predicting the Future of Achievement of Second Graders with Reading Disabilities: Contributions of Phonemic Awareness, Verbal Memory, Rapid Serial Naming, and IQ.” Annals of Dyslexia 68 (1998): 115-136.
3 Steve Graham and Michael Hebert, “Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve." Carnegie Corporation Time to Act Report (2010), 4.
4 Gentry, Breaking the Code, 7-9; Joshi and others, “How Words Cast Their Spell,” 6-16, 42-43.
5 Snow and others, Knowledge to Support the Teaching of Reading, 85.

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