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Current Research on Spelling Instruction

By J. Richard Gentry, Ph.D.


Dr. J. Richard Gentry, a nationally acclaimed expert in literacy with particular research focus in spelling and beginning reading development, began his career as a classroom teacher. He earned his Ph.D. in reading education from the University of Virginia and served as professor of elementary education and reading at Western Carolina University. Dr. Gentry’s research, writing, and extensive work with students and teachers for more than 30 years have had a powerful impact on the promotion of literacy.

In addition to writing popular books such as The Science of Spelling, Spel…Is a Four-Letter Word, Teaching Kids to Spell, My Kid Can’t Spell!, and Breakthrough in Beginning Reading and Writing, Dr. Gentry conducts workshops that have helped thousands of school districts adopt better practices for spelling instruction. He blogs for the prestigious website, offering commentary on a range of topics, including education and policy, reading and the brain, baby/toddler reading, and the Common Core State Standards.

Dr. Gentry is the author of Spelling Connections, which provides the curriculum and resources you need to deliver effective, explicit, research-based instruction in spelling. More than 30 years of spelling research and research synthesis have contributed to the success and effectiveness of Spelling Connections. No other program offers the extensive research perspective outlined below.

Spelling Connections: Current Research A Conversation

What does the latest research say about teaching spelling in the 21st century?

The latest research shouts out “spelling matters!” There’s more evidence today than ever before that spelling is foundational for reading. Advanced research in cognitive science, including brain scan science, is demonstrating that spelling may be the missing link to reading success in America, where 66% of fourth graders read below proficiency levels (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2014)— almost all of these kids are poor spellers.

There’s a direct connection between poor spelling and poor reading (Adams, 2011; Gentry & Graham, 2010; Moats, 2005; Reed, 2012), and a disconnect between the latest spelling research and what’s happening in many schools. The disconnect is that research calls for explicit spelling instruction, and many of our nation’s schools are potentially harming children by not teaching spelling explicitly. When we don’t teach spelling well, children struggle or fail with reading, as evidenced by our nation’s fourth-grade reading scores.

The latest research is unequivocal that spelling matters for reading. Take, for example, renowned cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham, author of the highly regarded book Raising Kids Who Read (2015). He says that spelling is, in fact, the spark that ignites the reading circuity in our brains. Willingham calls for teaching spelling to raise reading achievement and help solve America’s reading problems.

Using clear and straightforward language to describe the central role of spelling in the reading brain, Willingham posits two processes of decoding: sounding out words using phonics, which research shows is essential for beginning reading, and matching letters on the page with the spelling representations in the brain. These representations are processed in the occipitotemporal region, which houses the visual word form area (Dehaene & Cohen, 2011).

As readers mature, they do not read letter-by-letter but instead process ordered pairs of letters (common spelling pieces such as th, for instance); morphemes; and small words. Spelling representations in the mind match with the print on the page and jumpstart the reading circuitry, automatically activating sound and meaning. Ideally, in Dr. Willingham’s words, “[U]sing word spellings to read requires very little attention, if any. You see it in the same way you just see and recognize a dog.” He continues, “As your child gains reading experience, there is a larger and larger set of words that he can read using the spelling, and so his reading becomes faster, smoother, and more accurate. That’s called fluency” (p. 133).

Solid recent research studies on spelling agree that spelling is foundational for reading (Abbott, Berninger, & Fayol, 2010; Gentry & Graham, 2010; Moats, 2005; Reed, 2012) as well as for writing (Kandel & Perrett, 2015; Graham & Santangelo, 2014; McCutcheon & Stull, 2015). The takeaway is that here at the beginning of the 21st century, we’ve learned much more about spelling as a brain-building boon for effective reading and writing, creating a “dictionary in the brain” for every reader and writer. Fluent reading is a process of instantly matching the words on the page with the dictionary of spellings in the brain, and fluent writing is getting thoughts on paper as fast as you can think them (Gentry, 2004; Paulesu et al., 2001; Willingham, 2015).

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