The Science of Spelling

Once again, Richard Gentry revolutionizes how you think about spelling instruction. The Science of Spelling breaks down preconceptions and misconceptions about how kids learn to spell, making startling new connections between orthography and literacy. Think that reading builds strong spellers? Through up-to-the-moment research, Gentry reveals that the opposite is true, that children use early spelling cognition to break the reading code. In fact, you'll discover that spelling is no longer a sidebar of writing and revision instruction, but a crucial strategy for teaching every aspect of literacy to all readers and writers.
Best of all, Gentry's research also leads to new, powerful implications about the teaching of spelling, and he offers techniques and insight that will change your lesson planning, including how-tos for:
  • identifying, through spelling, what level of emergent writing a student has attained
  • using scaffolding, hand and finger spelling, letter boxes, and other instructional devices appropriately
  • managing word lists and word sorts
  • differentiating spelling instruction and assessment
  • evaluating spelling books and finding alternatives to traditional spelling resources
  • teaching phonemic awareness and phonics through spelling.
Plus Gentry includes all the research-based forms, rubrics, and tools you'll need to put his ideas to work right away. Deepen your spelling instruction, enhance your students' ability to connect the words they see to what they understand and what they write, and see for yourself the hidden power behind the science of spelling.

Below are journal articles written by Dr. Gentry. Some are available online with membership to the journal or through access via an associated library. 

Current Research: 
A Conversation by J. Richard Gentry, Ph.D.
Dr. Gentry, a nationally acclaimed expert in literacy with particular research focus in spelling and beginning reading development, began his career as a classroom teacher. He earned his Ph.D. in reading education from the University of Virginia and served as professor of elementary education and reading at Western Carolina University. Dr. Gentry’s research, writing, and extensive work with students and teachers for over thirty years have had a powerful impact for promoting literacy.
In addition to writing popular books such as The Science of Spelling, Spel...Is a Four-Letter Word, Teaching Kids to Spell, My Kid Can’t Spell!, and Breakthrough in Beginning Reading and Writing, Dr. Gentry conducts workshops that have helped thousands of school districts adopt better practices for spelling instruction.
Spelling Connections provides the curriculum and resources you need to deliver effective, explicit, research-based instruction in spelling. More than 30 years of spelling research and research synthesis have contributed to the success and effectiveness of Spelling Connections. No
other program offers the extensive research perspective outlined below .   

                Kindergarten: The Stages of Spelling Development
The new Spelling Connections embraces a research base calling for children in emergent literacy to create developmentally appropriate spellings that will enable them to write for their own purposes, even as they learn correct spellings. A compelling body of research now supports children’s use of what the researchers term “invented spellings” at emergent levels. Generating these non-adult spellings is a developmentally appropriate activity (International Reading Association, 1998). This research reports how the act of generating spellings actually enhances children’s letter knowledge and phonemic awareness skills, solidifies knowledge of sound-symbol relationships, and leads to success with reading in first grade (Juel, 1994; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998).
Spelling Connections also resonates with research-based Vygotskian concepts such as teaching in the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978), as well as scaffolding techniques (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976), including scaffolded writing (Bodrova & Leong, 1998). The program also helps teachers use research-based techniques such as Elkonin Boxes, or “letter boxes,” which employ tangible objects or physical actions to teach children challenging mental concepts such as segmenting sounds in words or making sound-symbol matches (Elkonin, 1963; Galperin, 1969; Clay, 1993; Bodrova & Leong, 1998).
In particular, the research base for Spelling Connections for Kindergarten includes a deep and broad perspective of developmental aspects of learning to spell that grew out of Piagetian theory underpinning the notion that aspects of cognitive development proceed by way of qualitative stage- like change. This theory aligned with
• Charles Read’s classic studies of children’s classification of speech sounds (1971, 1975)
• research conducted by Carol Chomsky (1970)
• a body of developmental spelling research conducted by Ed Henderson and a group of researchers at the University of Virginia (Beers, 1974; Gentry, 1977, 1978; Henderson, 1981; Henderson & Beers, 1980; Templeton, 1979; Zutell, 1979; reported in Gentry, 2000a)
These seminal works began to identify developmental guideposts to when certain accomplishments with spelling might be expected. Spelling, we learned, was not merely memorization of correct spellings, but a more complex acquisition of many aspects of word knowledge gained over time. Over the years, these findings have received widespread acceptance by researchers (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998; Read & Hodges, 1982) and practitioners (International Reading Association, 1998) and have been extended to incorporate aspects of development in reading (Ehri, 1997) and writing (Bodrova & Leong, 1998; Gentry, in press).
A synthesis of this research base led to the Gentry Writing Scale (Bodrova & Leong, 1998; Gentry, in press). (The Gentry Writing Scale appears on pages 2–5.) This scale, which goes far beyond assessing stages of developmental spelling, will help you lead your students to make important connections between spelling and reading and writing. Originally described as a “writing scale” in a kindergarten research project by Bodrova and Leong (1998), the Gentry Writing Scale not only measures developmental stages of spelling (Gentry, 1977, 1982, 2000a) but also tracks reading and writing development by helping you see evidence of the child’s changing concept of the alphabetic principle. The scale demonstrates how emergent readers and writers use the underlying knowledge sources you teach for spelling when they read and write. These include concept of word, segmenting sounds in words, recognizing letters, and learning how letters relate to sounds. In addition to phases of word learning and reading, the scale is backed by research showing how spelling stages are, in fact, writing stages in kindergarten (Bodrova & Leong, 1998; Gentry, in press).
Current Research: A Conversation by J. Richard Gentry, Ph. D. 2
Following Linnea Ehri’s research, the scale shows how spelling stages dovetail with phases of word learning and reading. (Ehri demonstrated how the Gentry scale corresponds almost perfectly with her own prealphabetic, partial alphabetic, full alphabetic, and consolidated alphabetic phases of word learning. [Research reported in “Learning to read and learning to spell are one and the same, almost,” (Ehri, 1997).] This scale is also compatible with other independent but similar studies, such as the work of Darrell Morris (1981).
The Gentry Writing Scale will help you identify levels of emergent reading, writing, and spelling as you follow each child’s progress from one level to the next. The scale makes it easy for you to consider each child’s development based on his or her use of letter approximations versus real letters, completeness of phonemic representation, qualitative differences in invented spelling, sophistication of sound-symbol correspondence, and representation of the alphabetic principle (Gentry, in press). The scale will help you follow five stages in the child’s knowledge and application of how print works in writing. (Keep in mind that the child’s writing stage likely impacts his or her strategies for reading.)
Note: A child is considered to be in a particular stage when more than half of his or her developmental spellings fit the criteria for that stage.
See following pages for a detailed explanation of the Gentry Writing Scale.
Current Research: A Conversation by J. Richard Gentry, Ph. D. 3
Gentry Writing Scale
Stage 0 Spellers
Stage 0 is the minimal competency expected at the beginning of kindergarten. It describes nonalphabetic writing.
Indicators in Child’s Writing
• Scribbled or approximated letter forms; “wavy” or “loopy” writing.
• No true distinguishable alphabetic letters. • No developmental or created spelling. • Little awareness of how print “works”. • Does not write his/her name.
Instructional Recommendations for Transitioning to Stage 1
Stage 0 (Nonalphabetic Writing) Scribbling and the use of letterlike forms characterize the writing of Stage 0 spellers.
• Use poetry and rhymes to help the child notice prominent sounds, phonograms, and rhyming words.
• Use oral activities to promote phonemic awareness.
• Read aloud and discuss stories.
• Model reading, engage in shared reading, and do repeated readings of easy-to-read material.
• Begin teaching letters and sounds.
• Teach the child to write his/her name.
• Encourage the child to use letters in his/her name (and newly learned letters) to represent messages and in place of scribbles and “wavy” or “loopy” writing.
• Accept what he or she can do to build confidence.
• Allow the child to write for his/her own purposes.
• Look at the child’s independent writing to assess growth and foster the child’s expanding literacy knowledge.
Current Research: A Conversation by J. Richard Gentry, Ph. D. 4
Stage 1 Spellers
Stage 1 is the minimal competency expected by mid- kindergarten. It describes writing that is prealphabetic. Precommunicative spelling is typical of this stage.
Indicators in Child’s Writing
• Writes in letters that appear to be random with no matches to sounds.
• Uses known letters, such as those in the child’s name.
Stage 1 (Prealphabetic Writing) Dan’s grocery list reads “milk, bran flakes, doughnuts.” Note that at Stage 1, Dan did not know that letters represent sounds.
Instructional Recommendations for Transitioning to Stage 2 • Sort picture cards based on sounds. • Have the child match pictures by beginning sounds, then letters.
• Teach letters of the alphabet.
• Read aloud and do book talks.
• Do shared and interactive reading with beginner-oriented text.
• Encourage the child to do independent reading of wordless books, picture books, easy alphabet or letter books, caption books, and easy decodable books.
• Help writers attend to initial sounds in spoken words by modeling the sound as you elongate and accentuate it.
• Model how to stretch out sounds in words.
• Use Elkonin Boxes (see Teacher Edition page T173) to help the child segment the sounds in words.
• Encourage the child to match prominent sounds in words with a letter that “says” the sound.
• Model the process of connecting a prominent sound within a word to a letter.
• Do sound-matching activities first and move to the more difficult tasks such as isolating sounds and segmenting sounds in words (Yopp & Yopp, 2000).
• Use poetry and rhymes to help the child notice sounds, phonograms, and rhyming words. Focus especially on learning letters and sounds in prominent positions in words (e.g., initial and ending letter/sound positions).
• Build confidence by using the writer’s attempts to convey messages he/she wishes to write as a vehicle for individualized teaching. Continue supportive literacy activities in reading and phonological awareness.
• Encourage the child to write for his/her own purposes.
• Look at the child’s independent writing to assess growth and foster the child’s expanding literacy knowledge.
Current Research: A Conversation by J. Richard Gentry, Ph. D. 5
Stage 2 Spellers
Stage 2 is the minimal competency expected by the end of kindergarten. It describes writing that is partial alphabetic. Semiphonetic spelling is typical of this stage.
Indicators in Child’s Writing
• Begins to use letters to represent sounds.
• Uses partial letter-matches to sounds (i.e., not all sounds are represented by letters).
• Focuses on prominent sounds, especially consonants (e.g., boat is spelled BT).
Stage 2 (Partial Alphabetic Writing) Leslie used Stage 2 spelling to label Humpty Dumpty. Stage 2 spellings are often abbreviated.
• Long vowels and other letter name spellings are employed (e.g., eighty is spelled AT). • Uses a few memorized spellings that make messages readable (e.g., my motor boat is spelled MY
MR BT). • Limited knowledge of letter-sound matching and how letters work in words. • Growing, but incomplete, knowledge of the alphabetic system.
Instructional Recommendations for Transitioning to Stage 3
• Read aloud and do book talks.
• Introduce and model more advanced beginner-oriented text.
• Encourage independent reading of wordless books, picture books, easy alphabet or letter books, caption books, and easy decodable books. Move to higher levels than in Stage 1.
• Do shared and interactive reading with beginner-oriented text. • Model how to stretch out sounds in words. • Sort picture cards based on sounds. • Use letter tiles for making words.
• Work with onsets (e.g., c in cat) and rimes (e.g., at in cat). • Continue the use of Elkonin Boxes (See Teacher Edition page T173). • Have students match pictures by beginning sounds, then letters. • Continue to teach letters of the alphabet that have not yet been mastered. • Encourage the child to connect each sound in a word to a letter.
• Use poetry and rhymes to help the child notice sounds, phonograms, and rhyming words. Focus especially on medial sounds. This focus on medial sounds will help the child move from BT to BOT to spell boat.
• Accept partial alphabetic spelling, but model full alphabetic spelling by helping the writer connect all sounds in a word to a letter.
• Begin to help the child focus on four basic high-frequency phonics patterns: consonant-vowel- consonant (as in cat), consonant-vowel (as in he), consonant-vowel-consonant-silent e (as in bike), and consonant-vowel-vowel-consonant, (as in beat).
• Do word sorts to help the child read and recognize the phonics patterns described above. Continue through stages 2, 3, and 4 until the patterns are mastered.
• Encourage children to write for their own purposes.
• Look at the child’s independent writing to assess growth and foster the child’s expanding literacy knowledge.
Current Research: A Conversation by J. Richard Gentry, Ph. D. 6
Stage 3 Spellers
Stage 3 is the minimal competency expected by the middle of first grade. It describes full alphabetic writing. Phonetic spelling is typical of this stage.
Indicators in Child’s Writing
• Writes a letter for virtually every sound in a word to create spellings that are very readable phonetically but not necessarily close to the correct spelling (e.g., eighty spelled ATE, motor boat spelled MOTR BOT).
• Intersperses correct spellings of first-grade words and words important to the child (e.g., names of family members) in writing.
• Phonetically able to write anything he/she can say.
Instructional Recommendations for Transitioning to Stage 4
• Read aloud and conduct book talks.
Stage 3 (Full Alphabetic Writing) This sample shows that Stage 3 spellers represent all the surface sound features in words. This Tooth Fairy story reads, “One night I was in my bed and the tooth fairy came.”
• Introduce and model more advanced beginning to middle level first-grade texts.
• Encourage independent reading of books at levels 3–8 or C–H. (Match books to child for easy reading.).
• Continue to teach phonics explicitly.
• Model how to stretch out sounds in words to get all the sounds in the word and full alphabetic spellings.
• Use letter tiles for making words.
• Help children move from Stage 3 spellings, such as BOT for boat, to spelling in chunks of phonics patterns, such as BOTE. Introduce word sorts with patterns such as -oat and -ote. Continue this type of word analysis through Stages 3 and 4.
• Continue working with basic patterns such as consonant-vowel-consonant (as in hop) for short vowels and consonant-vowel-consonant-silent e (as in hope) for long vowels. (Once Stage 3 writers internalize basic patterns such as these, they move into Stage 4.).
• Focus on high-frequency word families and other chunking activities. • Work with onsets (e.g., c in cat) and rimes (e.g., -at in cat). • Focus attention on medial vowels. • Do word sorts.
• Use word walls to teach sight words. • Model conventions for basic capitalization and punctuation. • Encourage the child to write for his/her own purposes.
• Look at the child’s independent writing to assess growth and foster the child’s expanding literacy knowledge.
Current Research: A Conversation by J. Richard Gentry, Ph. D. 7
Stage 4 Spellers
Stage 4 is the minimal competency expected by the end of first grade. It describes consolidated alphabetic writing. Transitional spelling is typical of this stage.
Indicators in Child’s Writing
• Writes with spelling patterns in chunks of letters that mark vowels and show evidence of phonics knowledge.
Stage 4 (Consolidated Alphabetic Writing) Writing stories using developmental spelling helps set the foundations for later spelling competency. This story includes Stage 4 spelling.
• Spells syllables and one-syllable words in chunks of letter patterns such as consonant-vowel-consonant- silent e (as in cave) and consonant-vowel-vowel- consonant (as in heat), though word knowledge may be incomplete (e.g., the child may write BOTE for boat).
• Uses developmental spellings that look more like English spelling (e.g., fried is spelled FRIDE). • Writes a majority of developmental spellings in chunks.
Instructional Recommendations for Continued Growth
• Integrate spelling instruction in reading and writing anchored in studies of developmentally appropriate word lists and patterns.
• Provide comprehensive, research-based spelling instruction.
• Teach spelling and word-specific knowledge to enable the writer to determine if it’s mene or mean, or seperate or separate.
Current Research: A Conversation by J. Richard Gentry, Ph. D. 8
Grades 1–8: Current Research A Conversation
What does the latest research say about teaching spelling in the 21st century?
Technology, such as in brain scanning studies, and advancements in educational research have shown that spelling is critical for proficiency in both reading and writing. After decades of receiving instructional short shrift—and disastrous results from its neglect—the importance of teaching spelling is being rediscovered, revitalized in schools that are succeeding, and reasserted by the research community (Joshi, Treiman, Carreker, & Moats, 2009).
The twenty-first century view is that English spelling is complex and requires a specialized memory system that draws from deep levels of language-based knowledge rather than a reliance on memorizing words. We’ve learned that teaching spelling is a brain-building boon for effective reading and writing, creating a “dictionary in the brain” for every reader and writer (Gentry, 2004; Paulesu, 2001).
What specific new research developments are reflected in the new Spelling Connections? There is a new “overlapping wave” perspective that disputes the claim that spelling can be taught with one strategy such as memorizing high-use words or word sorting—two popular single-strategy approaches (Sharp, Sinatra, & Reynolds, 2008). Spelling Connections recognizes the complexity of spelling and teaches from a multistrategic perspective. Teachers who use Spelling Connections actually teach spelling—they don’t just assign it. We incorporate enough word sorting so that key words and patterns are committed to memory.
Automatically knowing a word’s correct spelling and activating that knowledge becomes a strategy that replaces less accurate strategies such as sounding the word out or guessing. Children are adaptive and will move to more effective strategies if we teach those strategies. Knowing how to spell a word because of gained understanding of the structure of English spelling is a great strategy!
What new trends should be avoided?
Replacing research-based, stand-alone spelling books with the inferior spelling component of a reading program is neither research-based nor effective. Spelling components of reading programs were developed to sell reading programs, not to teach spelling. They greatly reduce the spelling curriculum. Their most egregious flaw is that they pull words from reading stories and do not necessarily follow the research-based principle of focusing on words and patterns that children need for writing. They ignore the basic research finding that it’s harder to spell a word correctly than it is to read a word correctly (Bosman & Van Orden, 1997).
Substituting a reading program’s weak spelling component for a strong, research-based, spelling curriculum is shortchanging students. Stories selected for a reading program should not drive the spelling curriculum; rather, a good spelling curriculum is organized around the words and patterns children at a particular grade level need for their writing (Gentry, 2004; Graham, 1983).
I have analyzed many spelling components of reading programs and found a multiplicity of problems ranging from arbitrary memorize-and-test word lists to worksheets that waste time and do not teach spelling concepts.
A recent development in some reading programs is that the spelling component attempts to “look like” research-based spelling programs by including patterns. However, these programs may tend to collapse too many patterns into too few lessons resulting in a truncated and confusing curriculum.
Current Research: A Conversation by J. Richard Gentry, Ph. D. 9
In many of these spelling components, there is no explanation for how words were chosen and no evidence of a spiraling curriculum in which lessons build upon what students know.
What’s the difference between “teaching spelling” and “assigning spelling”?
Spelling Connections gives teachers the resources and options they need to teach spelling. Teachers who simply give students the spelling pages from the reading program or give out a word list and test on Friday aren’t teaching; they are assigning.
Good spelling teachers use pretest results to determine how much focus particular students need and which connections need to be addressed. Good spelling teachers make instructional decisions regarding how to present material with options for focus, intensity, and differentiation.
For example, if most students show weakness on a particular pretest, the teacher might plan a whole- class teacher-led word sort to help students grasp the unit concept followed by an interactive word sort or buddy sort. If only a small group showed difficulty with the pattern, the teacher might pull those students for a teacher-led sort.
How does this comprehensive, research-based program differ from other methods of teaching spelling? Comprehensive is the key word. Spelling Connections is based on a comprehensive synthesis of research underscoring the fact that learning to spell is complex. Other methods often focus on a single research-based principle, or a gimmick that is not research-based. The deep research base for Spelling Connections covers a spectrum of spelling issues and practices. It reflects the complexity of spelling and the important connection of spelling to reading and writing (Gentry, 2004). Research clearly documents that knowledge of spelling is connected to reading, writing, and vocabulary development because they all depend upon the same underlying language abilities (Snow, Griffin, & Burns, 2005).
Is it necessary to teach spelling explicitly or is there a more effective way for children to learn word- specific knowledge? There are two theories regarding instructional approaches for spelling acquisition (Allal, 1997). The first calls for specific instruction in spelling, and Spelling Connections fits into this category. The other calls for integrating spelling into writing and reading instruction. There is little or no empirical research base for the latter theory (Allal, 1997). While the aim of that approach might seem desirable, research has not come forth to
• support abandoning explicit, stand-alone spelling instruction.
• integrate spelling into reading instruction.
• support abandoning a research-based curriculum for an inquiry- based word sorting program.
• validate nonsystematic spelling instruction in the context of “writer’s workshop” or writing lessons (Joshi et al., 2009; Allal, 1997).
Spelling Connections recognizes the functional, social, and contextual advantages to CONNECTING spelling to writing and reading and helps teachers make these powerful connections to reading and writing in every unit.
Current Research: A Conversation by J. Richard Gentry, Ph. D. 10
Can’t I just pull a grade-level word list from the Internet or use the one from my reading program?
Spelling researcher Linda Allal writes, “Study of word lists is very widespread in elementary schools, but many teachers do not apply the principles that assure instructional effectiveness” (1997, p. 136).
Practices that lead to problems include no individualization, badly designed exercises, developmentally inappropriate words, words irrelevant to writing, too many worksheets, and testing words without teaching spelling. We follow the research-based practice of anchoring our program with a unit pretest/posttest word list, which is very different from assigning a list to be memorized and giving a test on Friday.
For example, Spelling Connections provides options for differentiating instruction via the word list. Our word list is thoroughly researched, and all words were carefully selected with the developmental appropriateness of the type and timing of instruction in mind.
We provide research-based study strategies and activities and have carefully designed relevant exercises that connect to writing and reading to insure that the skills learned will be reinvested in reading and writing situations. We have made sure you avoid the pitfalls of bad practice and given you the tools to teach spelling, not just assign it.
How were words chosen for the word lists?
The spelling words and their organization for study are vital to a good spelling program. Research demonstrates that a spelling program must teach the words that students use in writing (E. Horn, 1960; Hollingsworth, 1965; T.D. Horn, 1969; Graves, 1981; Smith & Ingersoll, 1984). A good spelling program will identify these words by using both studies of children’s writings (Rinsland, 1945; Smith & Ingersoll, 1984) and studies that note how often particular words appear in print (Thorndike & Lorge, 1944; Kucera & Francis, 1967; Carroll et al., 1971; Fry et al., 1985).
Other considerations should include the word’s degree of difficulty, universality, permanence, and application to other areas of the curriculum.
We conducted the most thorough word analysis ever accomplished to develop the word lists in Spelling Connections. In all, 22 published word lists and vocabulary studies were analyzed.
The result was a list of more than 7,800 words organized in these word categories: On Level, Above Level, Below Level, Review, and Assessment. Word selection criteria include words most frequently used at specific grade levels for writing (writing level), words most frequently used for reading (reading level), difficulty level for students at particular grade levels (proficiency level), and other criteria such as frequently misspelled words in each grade.
How can I be sure words are presented at the appropriate grade level?
Research provides clear evidence that spelling should be taught systematically (T.D. Horn, 1969; Joshi et al., 2009). The right words and patterns must be presented at the right time. Because spelling growth is a developmental process, the organization of words and their placement make a difference in how easily students learn to spell them. New information is built upon previous lessons and what children already know (Bear et al., 2000; Ganske, 2000).
The Spelling Connections word list is organized according to principles set forth by linguistic, cognitive, and developmental theory research. We have incorporated the massive research evidence for teaching letter recognition, the alphabetic principle, and phonics (Adams, 1990; National Reading Council, 1998; National Reading Panel, 2000).
Current Research: A Conversation by J. Richard Gentry, Ph. D. 11
Our curriculum is informed by phase observation and developmental research on the development of sound, pattern, and meaning (Ehri, 1997; Gentry, 1982, 2007; Templeton & Morris, 2000). It includes morphological development for prefixes and suffixes, Greek and Latin bases or roots, and word histories or origins (Venezky, 1999).
Which works best—the pretest/posttest word list, word sorting, teaching spelling rules, or other exercises? Spelling Connections includes all of the above with correct balance. In a comprehensive review of spelling research, Steve Graham (1983) validated the use of the language-based, stand-alone program with the pretest/posttest word lists (Graham, 1983, p. 563, reported in Allal, 1997, p. 135). Graham outlined five research-based principles in his synthesis:
1. Use word lists but not arbitrary lists. Construct lists to reflect words and patterns likely to be used by writers at developmentally appropriate grade levels and teach a few key rules.
2.Pretest and have students self-correct.
3. Teach students to use a research-based word study technique. Our look-say-see-write-check technique is directly based on a method Ernest Horn validated (Horn, 1954).
4.Use the “test-study-test” cycle.
5. Use spelling games and other alternative activities to increase motivation and to take advantage of the social context of learning.
Each of these research-based strategies has been built into Spelling Connections. Spelling Connections enables students to build a deep and wide word-specific knowledge base to support the reading, writing, and communication skills needed for language proficiency.
Complete research, word studies consulted for compiling word lists, and bibliography can be found at