During my years of teaching in special education and low reading achievement classrooms, I saw first hand that poor spellers were poor readers. I also saw, thankfully, how certain types of spelling instruction helped children to become better readers. But until recently I never really connected the spelling and reading dots with thick black lines. But now, after digesting research studies that explore the connections between cognition, brain structure, and after reading what writers, researchers, and cognitive psychologists like Richard Gentry, Louisa Moats, and Dan Willingham have to say about the importance of spelling for reading, now more than ever, I know that spelling is foundational to reading. You should know it, too.
Brain and cognition research support, in a big way, the idea that effective spelling instruction not only activates reading circuitry, but also creates the neural pathways and cognitive “wiring” that lead to higher reading achievement. Over the last ten years, studies have shown, with ever increasing degrees of specificity, that the spelling-reading connection is real, and that it consists of multiple processing systems in the brain that coordinate actions to enable reading (see citations).
Aided by fMRI technology and an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how reading develops, researchers now know that reading is a complex interaction between a number of brain “processors”: phonological, orthographic, sound-symbol, and context and meaning. In a student's early years (i.e. elementary school, especially the primary grades), there exists in the brain a greater emphasis on phonological and sound-symbol processing. Later, the orthographic area gains importance, eventually storing thousands of words in entirety, readying them for later use.
Creating mental images of correctly spelled words is an act that never ceases, and even as adults we add to our brain-based repository of spelling representations. Why just this year, after writing and revising a series of science articles, I added camouflage, a word I could never before spell correctly. Seeing and spelling camouflage, literally dozens of times, permanently etched the whole word into my grey matter.
Think of the repository of word spellings as a “dictionary in your brain” (Gentry, 2015 Willingham, 2015). Because brains activate this respository and draw upon it during fluent reading, it is critical that we help children develop their “dictionaries because well-developed “dictionaries” lead to higher reading achievement.
As I understand it, effective spelling instruction activates the brain circuitry that stores, in the orthographic processing area, the following: letter pairs (such as ph, sh, and ch), morphemes (patterns, such as ame, ight, and unk, as well as affixes and roots), and complete words (such as chunk, shameful, and orthographic). This storing mirrors a child’s reading, writing, and spelling development: first words are built up from separate stored sound-letter matches, then chunks, and later whole words. From eye motion studies and cognition studies, we now know that fluent reading is dependent upon the lightning-fast and effortless recognition of entire words. Thus, one of our teaching goals should be to help the brains of our students store thousands of word spellings.
This storing is a critical component of the reading process, a process that combines the fluent and effortless matching of words a reader sees (reads) with word meanings and word spellings.The process is analogous to a walk down a forest path. As you enter the woods, your brain, stocked with literally thousands of concepts, stands ready to match the concepts with whatever you see. As you look around, your constantly thinking brain fluently (i.e. automatically and accurately) matches each seen thing with a concept. That fluffy green stuff? Moss. The jumping grey thing? Squirrel! Each visual image is automatically matched with a name (or names) and a meaning (or meanings). You see and recognize a hemlock, some ferns, a hickory tree, a stream or a bubbling brook, a black-capped chickadee, a woodpecker (is it a downy or a hairy?), a rock with lichen on it, and so on.
This act of cognition is similar to how the reading brain works. Scientists have shown that upon seeing a word (essentially a set of squiggles) on a page or screen, in roughly a quarter of a second or less, the brain’s reading circuitry coordinates various storage and processing areas. All this storage, processing, and coordination ensures that when a reader looks at a word, the reader knows the sound of the word, the meaning of the word, and the conventional spelling of the word. In the end, brain action enables a fluent reader to read this sentence - The tired man fill asleep on the bead – identify any errors, and quickly swap in correct words for the incorrect.
When, through effective spelling instruction, children encounter dozens of spelling patterns and hundreds (if not thousands) of words, their brain dictionaries expand and deepen. Put another way, over months and years of practice, children develop word permanency. Willingham specifically puts it in terms of spelling, saying that children “develop an increasing number of mental representations that allow them to identify words by their appearance, i.e., by their spelling.” (Willingham, 2014)
One fascinating “literacy and cognition” study, authored in 2015 by Bruce McCandliss and his colleagues at Standford University, seems to give strong support to these important points:
All of this is tremendously exciting. By emphasizing best practice spelling instruction, we stand ready to not only accelerate the achievement of our typical students, but also to help students with dyslexia and other reading difficulties begin to build better functioning neural pathways, thereby making reading easier for them, both now and later in life.
I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.