Spelling and the science of reading

Today's guest blog is from Georgina Mavor, senior That Reading Thing trainer from Western Australia. Her background in psychology gives such depth to her work with students who struggle to read and write. I'm thrilled to be able to share her wisdom here.

In That Spelling Thing workshops, most of our discussion is about classroom practice. This post demonstrates how the methodology works in a support setting, and we can't say it often enough: what works for our weakest spellers is also good for the stronger ones. It doesn't work the other way round.


So much of literacy is tough for younger and older students with dyslexia. Spelling is a particular challenge and classroom activities that are not based on what we know from science are not harmless. The impact of activities that have not been thought through and/or low performance on weekly spelling tests that are not genuinely part of retrieval practice plays out for a very, very long time.

When working with students negatively affected by their school experiences with spelling, the challenge is to engage them in meaningful (and focused) spelling work whilst at the same time countering their personal perceptions that their brains are the enemy.

With every new student I hit the effects of this mindset at some point in our intervention journey and my work in changing it whilst improving their spelling performance begins in earnest. My first priority is to embed a 'script' (prompt) that demonstrates 'how our alphabet code is used to represent sounds in words' and provides them with a step by step process for using the code knowledge that they already possess and are developing. That Spelling Thing provides exactly that.

Syllables and sounds said in a clear voice. Repeatedly. First, it reduces the load on memory. And second, using the script develops phonology. If students have spent years not reading then their brains haven't been processing longer words and their mouths haven't been speaking them. This must be turned around. Mouths must gain valuable experience in speaking syllables clearly and articulating longer words, then we can see the benefit that research has clearly demonstrated of phonology to spelling. This one little practice streamlines memory use and supports development of neurological connections related to language. Rocket fuel.

Next, I attempt to liaise with schools to reduce the number of words that my student works with. Teachers need to take working memory limitations, phonological processing, and all other processing issues impacting on performance seriously. Our goal is learning. Students, teachers and parents reap the 'warm fuzzies' when this occurs. With a significant number of students, spelling requires a reduction in breadth and an increase in depth. Often I will draw up a home practice timetable that fits with the student's workload, outside commitments and their parent's availability. I also talk with parents about their involvement. Regular, meaningful spaced practise makes a difference.

Bringing all these elements together takes time. With some students I show them a 'rate of forgetting' visual and explain to them that this happens with everyone. It also helps them to understand why practice, retrieval (testing) and revisiting earlier learning makes a difference. We talk about words they would like to use in their writing (words they know how to spell are more likely to be used in their writing), which if done, revisits earlier learning without adding to what they need to practise separate from the 'real work' in the classroom.

To teach spelling well, instructors need to understand memory. The range of human capacity in memory is wide. I am at one extreme, whilst the majority of my students are at the other. Spelling is about using memory efficiently and in doing so we are using it effectively. It is here that the real 'expertise ' in teaching spelling comes into play, alongside a good dose of collaboration. Words can be 'bundled' according to their spelling of 'tricky bits', endings and base words. But in the end it is my students who can tell me the easiest way for them to remember the tricky bits.

It is not just students who have trouble with spelling. Public advertising and social media demonstrate that spelling doesn't come naturally and that many adults are closet poor spellers. No one should have to live with the ongoing impact of ignorance in how to teach spelling well. From my spelling challenged colleagues who have adopted the practices outlined in That Spelling Thing with both their students and themselves, their feedback is that their own spelling has significantly improved and not just with words they have consciously addressed, but with others too. Here we see the unfolding of implicit learning. Provide solid explicit instruction and the brain does what it was designed to do - learn a lot on its own. Isn't it time to jump-start the neural development of all young people? To be brave and 'play' with the 'rocket fuel' of literacy - spelling.

Image dowloaded under creative commons from researchgate.net Ebbinghaus-forgetting-curve fig2_321959834