Brain Research: Implications For Spelling
Aren't some people just naturally poor spellers, born that way? Isn't it a
waste of time to try to turn bad spellers into good ones in school?
no means. The whole point of school is to turn naturally-poor readers into good
ones! The problem is that so few schools are using the right kind of language
acquisition curriculum and instruction methods. We are grossly overspending on
the wrong teaching and remediation methods, when the inexpensive and highly effective
solution is staring us in the face: phonics-only reading and spelling
instruction in the early grades of school.
There's a reason that
so many more students fail to read at grade level these days, and have a
significantly smaller "spelling vocabulary" - words that they can spell
correctly all the time, from memory. It's because the American K-12 language
acquisition philosophy that has been popular for over a generation actually
works at cross purposes with the way the brain operates.
indicates that people who have trouble with reading and spelling were taught to
read and write with the wrong parts of their brain through Whole Language
programs in schools. Whole Language made good sense where it started - with
deaf children - but denying all other children the power of their sense of
sound in learning to read and write is a very bad idea.
That's because the
English language is based on sight and sound, equally. But most schools use
Whole Language methods, which are far less speedy and accurate than phonics.
The student is taught to minimize the sense of sound, and instead emphasize
visual skills such as sight-reading, memorization, and content analysis.
Instead of decoding
and composing words using the student's sense of sound, the student is taught
to employ much more laborious, much more subjective, and therefore much less
For example, they are
taught to figure out a word by looking at:
the word's position in the sentence
the letter it starts with
the letter it ends with
the context of the written passage
"what makes sense to them"
and other non-phonological clues.
It takes forever. And
lots of times, students guess wrong. But in the absence of a logic-based,
sound-based system for decoding and composing words, they don't even realize
they're guessing wrong, much less know how to get the word spelled right.
Schools often protest
that they do, indeed, teach phonics, and encourage students to sound out words.
But in all but a handful of schools, the children aren't given systematic,
intensive, explicit phonics, and that's the system they need.
The lack of proper
phonics in kindergartens and first grades, and the lack of success in reading
and writing instruction across the board, is obvious in everything from falling
test scores compared to years past, the quality of student writing as assessed
on all grade levels, the increase in the need for remedial reading in high
school and college, and employer complaints in the workforce about less academically
competent and even functionally illiterate high school graduates.
The erosion in
spelling instructional quality is especially evident, though, if you study the
way students misspell words. For example:
Does a student write
"quit" when he or she means "quiet"? Pronounce those two words. See how
different they are? The principal differences are one syllable vs. two, and a
short / i / sound vs. a long / i / sound.
A student trained to
read and spell using phonics would never make a mistake like that. The student
would decode or compose the word rapidly and accurately, instead of wasting
time going through all the Whole Language clues, and wondering what word it is,
or how to spell it.
The Whole Language
students don't appear to have an "ear" for language at all . . . and you can
tell they are not connecting the sound-symbol correspondences of English from
the way they read aloud in a struggling monotone, mispronouncing and skipping
words, and continue to reverse letters and misspell simple words into late
grade school and beyond. No wonder they can't handle grade-level reading
assignments in middle school, high school and college.
Clearly, it's a
tremendous mistake to leave a child's sense of sound out of what should be the
quick and simple process of teaching the child to read and write.
Here's why: English is
based on the relationship between the 26 written symbols we call the
"alphabet," and the sounds those letters make, alone and in combination.
English is a "phonological" language. That means it is based on sound.'
English has written
symbols that the brain can instantly decode quickly and accurately - the
alphabet. It differs from languages such as those in Asian countries, which are
based on symbols. It's much more objective and reason-based than Egyptian
hieroglyphics, for example, and can provide much more variety and complexity
with just those 26 alphabet letters.
It's not a joke that a
Chinese typewriter should have 50,000 keys, one for every word in the language.
That's approximately how many distinct "symbols" there are in that language.
It's been simplified in recent years, but still shows how inefficient and
time-consuming it is to rely on a picture-based language system.
The reason English has
so many more words than picture-based languages - 10 times as many, or more -- and
the reason it's the language of science worldwide, is because of the phonological
nature of English. It creates more precision, objectivity and accuracy than
Language-style instruction, which is what most teachers are taught to use,
minimizes sound as a teaching tool. Instead, Whole Language reading and
spelling instruction basically drives students to try to decode words in
silence, based on the visual symbols they see on the page.
Instead of going by
the sound-symbol correspondences in English, the student is taught to
concentrate on other, weaker, more subjective and error-prone slower tools.
Those include memorization and the analysis of the visual patterns the letters
make in words. This is why the same student who got 100% on a spelling test one
week may misspell several of those same words in writing assignments the
following week. Memorization and "content-based decoding" simply don't work
We have known since
the 1990s that sound-based language instruction is the best and most natural.
That's because of the increasing proof from neurological studies, especially based
on the technology of MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and PET (Positron
Emission Tomography). These scans show that good readers have a markedly
different blood flow through the brain than struggling readers do.
Simply put, the scans
show that a child with poor reading and spelling skills is underutilizing his
or her brain. It's not that the brain parts aren't there; it's just that they
haven't been activated. Why not? Because the child hasn't been taught to read
and write with the right parts of the brain. The predominant method in U.S.
schools - Whole Language -- literally handicaps them by not developing their
brains in the right way.
Readers who have built
up the logical, rational, sound-coded parts of their brains for reading and
spelling do much better than students who are often labeled as "dyslexic" or
"learning disabled" in our schools today. The "learning disabled" brains might
already be different from the norm and thus not entirely "wired" correctly for
reading and spelling with ease. Ironically, though, these are the students who
most need the proper brain structure that a phonics-only reading and spelling
system creates in their brains.
For more on these MRI
studies on reading, spelling and the brain, see Eden et al. in 1996, Demb
Boynton & Heeger in 1998, and Stein & Walsh, 1997; and for PET studies,
see Gross-Glenn et. al. in 1991, Hagman et. al. in 1992, Rumsey et. al in 1992
and 1997, and Paulesu et. al. in 1996. Also read this interview with Dr. Sally
Shaywitz of Harvard:
But there's hope. Brain
studies also show that certain teaching strategies -phonics-based strategies -
can, and do, alter the pattern of brain activation that tends to be associated
with poor spelling. This instruction improves decoding and spelling skills
markedly, even in children who previously were thought to be seriously learning
children never learn to read and spell as well as they might have, if the
instruction had taken place before age 10. By that time, the brain's plasticity
in the language acquisition area has largely waned. But at least they can, and
do, achieve a lot better.
And that success
suggests strongly that all children would be better served if they all were taught
to read and spell with phonics-only systems in the first place.
A number of recent
studies have indicated that about 60 hours of structured, intensive, daily
phonics teaching (lasting about 20 or 30 minutes a day) alters and improves the
way the brain responds to print. Less right hemisphere involvement occurs,
accompanied by more left-hemisphere, phonologically-based activity as reading
improves. The scans of formerly "learning disabled" brains now corresponds more
closely to the brain patterns displayed by scans of the brains of good readers.
The 60-hour threshold
corresponds with field data from phonics-only kindergartens that indicates that
all or most of the children are decoding text accurately by Christmas of the
in a study in 2004, the new brain connections formed by the phonics-based
training in these struggling readers continued to develop one year after the
intervention had ended. The outcomes included increased fluency, accuracy, and
recent MRI study of spelling produced similar outcomes. The brain activity of
struggling spellers was discernibly different to that of competent spellers. However,
when systematic spelling instruction was provided, spelling improved and the
MRI profiles altered, becoming more like those of good spellers.
Beginning with a need
for phonological knowledge, the brain of the emergent speller (given adequate
practice opportunities) establishes a new organizational pattern known as an "autonomous orthographic
lexicon." It enables automatic, rapid responses, without the phonological
encoding previously necessary.
brain imaging studies show that struggling readers and spellers expend up to
five times as much energy as do those who are fluent in reading and spelling.
No wonder they do not
choose to read, and may become actively resistant to the task. They work so
hard, and get nowhere . . . because they haven't been taught correctly. This is
how eager-beaver kindergartners turn into "reluctant readers" in fourth or
fifth grade, getting angrier, more embarrassed and more school-averse with each
tick of the classroom clock.
Unfortunately, slow early progress in reading
and writing in grade school predicts a decline in academic progress across a
student's school career, as he or she increasingly loses access to the
curriculum and "checks out" of schooling. That's why change is urgent.
How many more students
could be successful readers and writers if phonics-only instruction ruled the
day in kindergarten and first grade? We'll never know . . . until we try!
Homework: Talk with your child's
educators and school administrators about this issue, and spend some time
browsing on the website of the National Right to Read Foundation, www.nrrf.org