Why teach reading and spelling together?

Posted by Catherine Young Morris on

One of my favorite books published in the last few years has been BrainWords: How the Science of Reading Informs Teaching by Richard Gentry and Gene Ouellette (2019). There are a lot of different opinions out there about the relationship between spelling and reading, especially in primary school, and this book goes a long way to clarify the sate of our knowledge on the topic in a highly accessible way. Spoiler alert: the pathways to developing reading and skilled reading look different. It’s so easy when a person reads and writes well to forget just how many things they needed to learn to do so. Even more so, how much practice it takes!

Our children deserve every bit of our patience and encouragement.

Brain Words, the authors explain, are “detailed and accurate spelling representations” of words in our mind. This is what results in a person being able to recognize a word automatically on sight. There are two complementary pathways to Brain Words, anchored to a spoken understanding of the word and its meaning:

  • The sounding out pathway (letters to sounds - reading), and
  • The orthographic pathway (sounds to letters - spelling)

While consistent with the Simple View of Reading,[1] the model highlights how reading and spelling compliment each other. When you think about it, it’s hard to see how it could be otherwise.

This is why Practice Readers Books - books engage both the reading and spelling pathways. But what are the take-aways for parents?

1. Yes, continue reading to your child. Sit with your child to support them as they practice reading independently (your feedback is important, especially in the early phases of reading development). Encourage your child to sound out unfamiliar words, and help them understand the meaning of new words they encounter as they read. This is all practice with the sounding out pathway.

2. Encourage your child to write: individual words, sentences, or stories. Encourage your child to say words aloud, listening closely to the sounds to help them figure out how to spell the words, rather than simply giving them the accepted spelling. When they’re ready, give them feedback on the spelling, or look up words in a dictionary to confirm the spelling. Fear not if you don’t have paper on hand. Spelling aloud is a great activity for the car or walks! This helps your child practice the orthographic pathway.

If your child does not have enough written language knowledge to sound out or spell words yet, then you will need to take a few steps back. Check out our post on the phases of reading and spelling development to learn more about supporting your child in their reading practice at each phase, or tips for parents of pre- and partial-alphabetic children.

What is the relationship between spelling and reading? They are the two sides of the word learning coin.

[1] The Simple View of Reading, described by Gough and Tunmer (1986), is considered one of the best supported models of skilled reading.  It describes how reading comprehension requires both language understanding, and the ability to decode written text (read written words). It also predicts and explains three key types of reading challenges.