kitchen table math, the sequel: spelling & reading

Thursday, March 27, 2008

spelling & reading

A passage from Elizabeth's post on picture overshadowing and learning to read via sight words as opposed to phonics:

I have little doubt will be found true, and that is, that it is scarcely possible to devote too much time to the spelling book. Teachers who are impatient of the slow progress of their pupils are too apt to lay it aside too soon. I have frequently seen the melancholy effects of this impatience. Among the many pupils that I have had under my charge, I have noticed that they who have made the most rapid progress in reading were invariably those who had been most faithfully drilled in the spelling book.
Richard G. Parker

I asked palisadesk a couple of weeks ago whether in her experience good spellers were also good readers and vice versa. Here's what she had to say:

> Are your 7th graders who tested Level A less skilled readers than the kids
> who tested higher??

Yes, definitely, but the correspondence isn't exact. That is, some lousy spellers are excellent readers but none of the SUPER-lousy spellers were excellent readers. All the sixth and seventh graders who scored at level A (meaning they couldn't spell even regular words like plant correctly) were middling to poor readers, though some had B's in reading and most were not considered remedial readers. I found a consistent correlation between word decoding and word recognition and basic spelling.

In fact, some kids with poor orthographic memory learn to read via spelling. They don't really master distinctions like "supper" vs. "super" or "stared," "starred" and "started" until they master the spelling skills involved. Then it seems to click in.

I'm familiar with Ehri's work [post on Ehri's new study t/k] and the fluency research is supportive, too, of the need for visual representations of the word (Shaywitz's "word form area" in the, I think occipital, lobe, is key to fluent word recognition, and also connects to the right hemisphere visual and meaning areas).

Many normal kids, not "LD," get stalled at the point of multisyllable words such as the ones they encounter in more advanced (especially nonfiction) text -- words like photosynthesis, heterogenous, homeostasis, bicameral, etc. They have not been trained to "see" word parts (morphemes) and they have a strategy of just taking a wild guess based on the first letter or letters. Guessing from context or pictures no longer works well in middle school and beyond.

I call these kids "bumper car readers" -- they crash into the front end of the word and hope for the best, but can't segment it into its parts. Once they can easily do this, long words are no problem and are easy to read AND spell, with a few glitches here and there (is it occasional or ocassional?). Bob Dixon, who wrote the Spelling Mastery series and Morphs as well, calls this the morphographic principle, and says kids need to g through abnout half of Spelling Through Morphographs (about 70 lessons) to really internalize it. I bet a year of SM level D,E, or F would do the same. For reading, rather than spelling, a good quick fix is a program called REWARDS from Sopris West ( -- it teaches multisyllable word decoding, morphemes, word parts, some vocab and spelling, and fluency (rate). There's an intermediate level for kids in grades 4-6 and another for grades 7 and up -- the strategies are identical but the vocabulary is more advanced in the secondary version.

BTW Bob Dixon wrote a great book for grownups that you can sometimes find cheaply on alibris -- it's called "The Surefire Way to Better Spelling." It's got a lot of the handy stuff from Morphs in it. But the actual programs are better for teaching kids, because they are carefully structured to provide the needed practice, transfer etc.

For years now I've had a feeling spelling was much more important than anyone knew (or than anyone knows today, I should say).


ElizabethB said...

The PhD Thesis I talked about in another spelling post found the exact same relationship that Palisadesk describes. It was very interesting, it's called "Spelling as a correlate of reading ability in underprepared college freshmen : measures and error types" by Sandra Jean Kelton Pitts.

Coincidentally, I was reading last night online some classics recommended by The Classical Christian Education Support Loop. (They have a great list of 1000 books,

and found this excerpt from "The Hoosier Schoolmaster" by Edward Eggleston, 1871 and found that they worked through Webster 5 times before allowing students to read! (If you check the note in Webster's 1828 dictionary, you'll see that this was not just spelling, but spelling and sounding out the words, the entry for spelling book says "n. A book for teaching children to spell and read.")

"There had to be a spelling-school. Not only for the sake of my story, which would not have been worth the telling if the spelling-school had not taken place, but because Flat Creek district had to have a spelling-school. It is the only public literary exercise known in Hoopole County. It takes the place of lyceum lecture and debating club. Sis Means, or, as she wished now to be called, Mirandy Means, expressed herself most positively in favor of it. She said that she 'lowed the folks in that district couldn't in no wise do without it. But it was rather to its social than to its intellectual benefits that she referred. For all the spelling-schools ever seen could not enable her to stand anywhere but at the foot of the class. There is one branch diligently taught in a backwoods school. The public mind seems impressed with the difficulties of English orthography, and there is a solemn conviction that the chief end of man is to learn to spell. "'Know Webster's Elementary' came down from Heaven," would be the backwoods version of the 'Greek saying but that, unfortunately for the Greeks, their fame has not reached so far. It often happens that the pupil does not know the meaning of a single word in the lesson. This is of no consequence. What do you want to know the meaning of a word for? Words were made to be spelled, and men were probably created that they might spell them. Hence the necessity for sending a pupil through the spelling-book five times before you allow him to begin to read, or indeed to do anything else. Hence the necessity for those long spelling-classes at the close of each forenoon and afternoon session of the school, to stand at the head of which is the cherished ambition of every scholar. Hence, too, the necessity for devoting the whole of the afternoon session of each Friday to a "spelling-match." In fact, spelling is the "national game" in Hoopole County. Baseball and croquet matches are as unknown as Olympian chariot-races. Spelling and shucking[10] are the only public competitions."

It's amazing what you'll find in the classics!

Catherine Johnson said...

I've only recently discovered that you have to climb into the way-back machine if you want to figure out how to teach - and what to teach, in some cases...

concernedCTparent said...

I just learned this evening, that in spelling ends in fifth grade in our district. In some ways that probably doesn't mean much considering that spelling instruction consists of learning a list of words one week, and moving it out of short term memory just in time for the next list. Nevertheless, the idea that the children in our district are capable spellers using spelling lists from grades 1-5 is disturbing.

I think I need to stop listening to this stuff, it's getting really depressing.

Katy S said...

I've been behind on my blog reading trying to get into graduate school - successfully I might add, as I received two acceptance letters this week.

However I wanted to make sure you all saw the article in the New Yorker (last week? week before?) "Are our brains wired for math". It is fascinating. I wrote a bit about it for our school math blog but I thought of you guys over here too.

My summary is here:

The original article is here:

I recommend reading the article in its entirety. I've pulled out parts that relate to our curriculum and our struggles but in context the pieces are even more fascinating.

Here is the teaser from the mag: According to Stanislas Dehaene, humans have an inbuilt “number sense” capable of some basic calculations and estimates. The problems start when we learn mathematics and have to perform procedures that are anything but instinctive.

My apologies if you all have already covered this article - I didn't see it if you did but like I said - I've been out of it!

Cheers all.

SteveH said...

"Our inbuilt ineptness when it comes to more complex mathematical processes has led Dehaene to question why we insist on drilling procedures like long division into our children at all. There is, after all, an alternative: the electronic calculator. 'Give a calculator to a five-year-old, and you will teach him how to make friends with numbers instead of despising them,' he has written."

"inbuilt ineptness"?

Many people are quite "ept" if only schools would teach them correctly. When the US is so far behind other developed countries on the TIMSS data, I don't want to hear any excuse of "inbuilt ineptness" until this gap is eliminated.

"friends with numbers"?

How about friends with fractions?
How about friends with algebra?

How does that work without calculators? Use Mathematica? Why not just hire someone else to do the work for you? Everyone in the US can become "big concept" people.

"By removing the need to spend hundreds of hours memorizing boring procedures, he says, calculators can free children to concentrate on the meaning of these procedures, which is neglected under the educational status quo."

"boring"? By whose definition? If kids say that a subject is boring, does the school have to take out that material?

Can you concentrate on the meaning of the procedures without mastery of the procedures? He's part of the no linkage, math redefinition crowd.

The assumption in all of this is that Dhaene's work is somehow significant to the major issues of modern K-12 math education. I reject the notion that teaching math to the level of state standards has much of anything to do with how the brain works. The level is far too low and the amount of class time is far too large.

If you portray learning math as some sort of deep, mysterious, cognitive process, then maybe many will overlook extremely bad curricula, incompetence, and different goals.

Liz Ditz said...

I think I pointed this out elsewhere, but repetition is good, as we all know:

The Science of Spelling: The explicit specifics that make great readers and writers (and Spellers!) by Richard Gentry ISBN 0-325-00717-9.

The Science of Spelling by J. Richard Gentry (ISBN 0-325-00717-9)

Table of contents:

Ch. 1 -- Discovery #1: There is a neurological basis for spelling

Ch. 2-- Discovery #2: The emergence of spelling ability and ablilty to spell words correctly and automatically are different

Ch 3 -- Discovery #3: You can recognize fivle levles of ememrgent writing, match your teaching strategies to the child's level, and greatly improve the quality of your literacy instruction.

Ch 4 -- Discovery #4: You need good quality intstructional resources for teching spelling (The goodness and evils of spelling books and alternative approaches).

Ch 5 -- Discovery #5: There is one best way to teach spelling -- access and teach each individual --hooray for spelling books

Ch 6 -- Discovery #6 The spelling pathway to literacy is powerful and humane.

Ch 7 -- Discovery #7: A good spelling curriculum makes it easier to know your students.

From Chapter 4:

Seven Methods of Teaching Spelling

1. nondifferentiated, explicit word study anchored in word lists (often embedded in basal reading programs)
2. Differentiated, explicity instruction anchored in word lists (in other words, the whole class doesn't get one "spelling list", but the lists are differentiated based on the child's previous performance)
3. Explicit study of common spelling patterns (the "word sorting" approach)
4. Incidental learning of spelling by reading (the whole language approach?)
5. focuing on writing and teaching spelling in use (like the previous, but with "mini-lessons" as needed)
6. Fad programs (such as "teach only high-use words")
7. Teacher choice (typically a smorgasbord of the foregoing six)

The worst is probably #7--teachers in a fog.

This book, together with Louisa Cook Moates' Speech to Print (ISBN-13: 978-1557663870) should be required texts in teacher-preparation programs.

And here's Gentry's homepage:

Katy S said...

SteveH - you said "I reject the notion that teaching math to the level of state standards has much of anything to do with how the brain works."

I would say those two things have everything to do with each other. Perhaps you use your liver to calculate 4X7?

That is why I encouraged everyone to read the article in its entirety. He goes on to make this point:

This attitude might make Dehaene sound like a natural ally of educators who advocate reform math, and a natural foe of parents who want their children’s math teachers to go “back to basics.” But when I asked him about reform math he wasn’t especially sympathetic. “The idea that all children are different, and that they need to discover things their own way—I don’t buy it at all,” he said. “I believe there is one brain organization. We see it in babies, we see it in adults. Basically, with a few variations, we’re all traveling on the same road.”

He also addresses the language connection:

Today, Arabic numerals are in use pretty much around the world, while the words with which we name numbers naturally differ from language to language. And, as Dehaene and others have noted, these differences are far from trivial. English is cumbersome. There are special words for the numbers from 11 to 19, and for the decades from 20 to 90. This makes counting a challenge for English-speaking children, who are prone to such errors as “twenty-eight, twenty-nine, twenty-ten, twenty-eleven.” French is just as bad, with vestigial base-twenty monstrosities, like quatre-vingt-dix-neuf (“four twenty ten nine”) for 99. Chinese, by contrast, is simplicity itself; its number syntax perfectly mirrors the base-ten form of Arabic numerals, with a minimum of terms. Consequently, the average Chinese four-year-old can count up to forty, whereas American children of the same age struggle to get to fifteen. And the advantages extend to adults. Because Chinese number words are so brief—they take less than a quarter of a second to say, on average, compared with a third of a second for English—the average Chinese speaker has a memory span of nine digits, versus seven digits for English speakers. (Speakers of the marvellously efficient Cantonese dialect, common in Hong Kong, can juggle ten digits in active memory.)

I just thought someone here - anyone - would appreciate this bit of research. I did not mean to suggest that it be swallowed whole, just that it was an interesting piece of this puzzle we are all trying to work out.

SteveH said...

I read the whole article.

It might be an interesting (small) piece of the puzzle assuming you first fix the huge problems of extremely bad curricula, incompetence, and different goals.

Basic education is not that complex and Dehaene is using his theories not just to improve how something is taught, but to change what is taught. He is taking taking small bits of research data and extrapolating them way too far.