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Brain Research: Implications For Spelling


Q. 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?


By 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.


Brain research 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 accurate methods.


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


         the illustrations


         "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 other languages.


But Whole 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 very well.


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 disabled.


Unfortunately, those 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 kindergarten year.


Importantly, 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 reading comprehension.


A 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.


The 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,


By Susan Darst Williams Writing 07 2008







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