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Vulnerable Students Need Explicit Spelling Instruction

We must teach spelling to all students vulnerable to academic failure.

Spelling knowledge is essential for the brain’s reading architecture. To connect the alphabet code the reader sees on the page to circuitry enabling reading comprehension, the reader must use knowledge of spelling. (Ehri, 2022) As a skilled reader you see the word on the page, recognize it automatically, and connect to the word’s sound and meaning already in your brain. See, recognize, and connect to meaning in your spoken language. That’s the process.

Reading researcher Dr. Louisa Moats, a long-time proponent of spelling books and a leader in the science of reading movement, doesn’t mince words when stating the equity problem in reading education, a challenge directly addressed by explicit spelling instruction:

Students who are African American, Hispanic, learning English, and/or from impoverished homes fall behind and stay behind in far greater proportion than students who are white and middle class. Moats goes on to give the statistics: The rate of weak reading skills in these groups is 60–70 percent, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. (Moats, 2020, p. 42-43)

While reasons for reading failure in America among these vulnerable populations are complex, the lack of a spelling curriculum is a visible, affordable, fixable first step supported by cognitive science and neuroscience. In schools where ESLs and others don’t have a spelling book, here’s what English spelling often looks like in fourth grade:

J. Richard Gentry
Look what happens when we don't teach spelling!
Source: J. Richard Gentry
J. Richard Gentry
An English learner who didn't get English spelling instruction.
Source: J. Richard Gentry

These two writing samples were gleaned from two fourth graders, one African American and one a Hispanic student who is learning English. You can see samples like these in every school or district in America where English learners and vulnerable populations are struggling with literacy in districts that are short changing spelling instruction. Too often, students who produce samples like these don’t have a spelling book—a tangible signal that spelling is being neglected—or access to systematic, explicit spelling instruction. Too often the teacher doesn’t have a grade-by-grade English spelling curriculum. Many desperately search for something on the internet or do the best they can but the results are haphazard with no consistency across the grades.

5 Achievable and Desirable Instructional Goals for Explicit Spelling Instruction

Here are five achievable and desirable instructional goals for both regular and ESL classroom teachers who have a spelling book in each child’s book bag.

1. Teach English spelling 20 minutes a day in grades 1-8 (Moats, 2005/2006, p. 42-43). Recognize that spelling instruction and practice transfer to reading improvement and benefits word reading throughout elementary school (Graham & Hebert, 2011; Graham & Santangelo, 2014 ). Think of those 20 minutes a day as a wise investment of time enabling the teacher to integrate essential components of reading in every weekly spelling lesson such as phonological awareness, a deeper level of phonics knowledge, sentence building and grammar, plus sight word and vocabulary building. The integration of these skills as opposed to teaching each of these components as separate subjects saves valuable teaching time in the reading and language arts schedule.

2. Use spelling books and weekly posttest assessments to gather data and monitor each child’s individual progress. A child’s spelling is a window into the mind of how the child is internalizing spoken and printed English. Use a spelling book curriculum as a resource for providing early identification of students including ESLs who may be having problems and be in need of early intervention. Beyond assessment, modern spelling books come in both print and digital formats with options for long distance learning and student self-pacing—a boon for ESLs and others.

3. Use each child’s spelling to explicitly show what word study, including phonics and pronunciation awareness, she or he needs to be taught in English. At each grade level kindergarten through high school, there’s a common thread in the spelling of students: the spelling reveals foundational English word knowledge the student already knows or will need to learn for continual development as a fluent reader, writer, and even speaker of English.

Cognitive science and neuroscience have clarified the critical role of spelling for reading. For example knowledge of spelling patterns is the best differentiator of good and poor readers (Adams, 1990). Neuroscientists report that neuroimaging studies show “atypically low activity in a part of the brain that processes the spelling of words.” (Seidenberg, p.10) Explicit spelling instruction enables teachers to connect this science into solid classroom practices.

4. Recognize that the history of reading education in America backs the current cognitive science and neuroscience by providing strong evidence of the value of spelling books for literacy success. From Noah Webster’s Blue-Backed Speller which taught over 80 million Americans to read in the 1800s, to the emergence of Ernest Horn’s research-based spelling books considered essential for reading instruction in the early 20th century, the spelling book was front and center in reading education. Yet spelling books and explicit word study anchored in spelling instruction are absent from curricula used in four of the current most popular reading programs across America. (Gentry, 2022: Swartz, 2019). These programs need to be supplemented with explicit spelling instruction.

5. Know that investment in spelling books and explicit word study for spelling is money well spent. You don’t have to wait. These resources are available and ready-to-use to supplement any reading program.

Integrated spelling instruction is a powerful teaching tool for enabling ESLs and other venerable populations to learn, correctly spell, automatically read, and speak new English vocabulary; this intense word study activates automatic word reading fluency and connects to comprehension. For example, note how a third grade spelling lesson on single syllable homophones such as role, roll, cent, sent, way, weigh, grate, great, sail, cell, and sell enables immediate gains in spoken vocabulary and reading fluency in just one weekly lesson. The words become brain words for automatic use.

A Five-Step Science-Based Spelling Pretest for Your Toolkit (For All Grades)

On the Monday pretest take the student through these five steps with each word: Hear It, Say It, Write It, Read It (and Self-Correct), Use It.

J. Richard Gentry
Five-Step Pretest
Source: J. Richard Gentry

Celebrate a comeback in explicit spelling instruction to revitalize equity in reading education for children vulnerable for reading failure.


Adams, Marilyn J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Ehri, L. C. (2022). What teachers need to know and do to teach letter-sounds, phonemic awareness, word reading, and phonics. The Reading Teacher, 76 (1) pp. 53-61

Gentry, 2022). Why spelling instruction should be hot in 2022—2023. Raising Readers, Writers, and Spellers. Psychology Today blogs.…

Gentry, J. R. & Ouellette, G. P. (2019) Brain words: How the science of reading informs teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

Graham, S., and Hebert, M.A. (2010). Writing to read: Evidence for how writing can improve reading. A Carnegie Corporation Time to Act Report. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Graham, S., & Santangelo, T. (2014). Does spelling instruction make students better spellers, readers, and writers? A meta-analytic review. Reading and Writing, 27, 1703–1743.

Moats, L.C. (2020). Speech to print: Language essentials for teachers, (Third Edition). Baltimore, MD: Brooks Publishing

Siedenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what we can do about it. New York: Hachette Group.

Swartz, S. (2019, December 3). The most popular reading programs aren't backed by science. Education Week, 39(15).…

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