In a traditional primary classroom, spelling errors were looked upon as mistakes to be corrected. But to spelling expert Richard Gentry and reading researcher Gene Ouellette, the ways young students invent spelling of words provides key insights into their brain circuitry and their development as readers.
As Gentry and Ouellette write in their book Brain Words, beginning writers go through five phases in learning how to combine alphabet letters into words. It’s no small task when dealing with English. The brains of beginning writers have to integrate orthography with phonology, vocabulary, and grammar.
Phase observation of those five stages—including a close look at invented spelling—offers many useful clues about how a child is learning to read. If we know what to look for we see evidence of what they have learned, where they are in relation to developmental milestones, whether or not they are having problems, and what we need to teach.
The Five Phases of Reading Development
Research has shown that the five invented spelling phases develop in parallel with five early phases of word reading (Ehri 1997, 2000; Gentry & Ouellette, 2019). For typical development, it’s reasonable to expect that most children are reading independently with fluency and comprehension by the end of first grade (or at least by the beginning of second grade) as they build a dictionary in their brain—300 to 400 words along with high frequency chunks of syllables and phonics patterns that they use automatically for both reading (decoding) and spelling (encoding). This dictionary, which Gentry and Ouellette call brain words, includes information on pronunciation, meaning, and, critically, spelling. The last phase, Phase 4, is when readers and writers can use Brain Words and Chunks of Phonics Patterns automatically connecting to their spoken language system enabling self-teaching to kick in (Share, 2004). Decoding and encoding are no longer a slow laborious sounding out letter-by-letter process. The essential presence of automatic Brain Words in Phase 4 frees up memory and attention for comprehending and composing texts.
Essentially, the goal is to make all words sight-words, but not through inefficient memorization. Brain words are best created through interactive explorations of print that affords opportunity to connect spelling, sound, and meaning in the reading brain. This can be accomplished through decoding and through guided spelling within a spelling-to-read approach (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019)
A Spell-to-Read Approach to Teaching Reading
Richard and Gene recommend a spell-to-read approach for teaching reading, based on developmental reading theory, research, and brain study. In this science-based approach, they flip the typical sequence for teaching on its head and present words aurally first and then ask students to analyze the sounds they hear. They encourage students to then spell the word how they hear it or how they see it in their mind’s eye in self-directed attempts often referred to as invented spelling. The student’s own spelling is then shaped into the correct form and the word then used in reading and writing activities. Rethinking reading instruction and word study in this way is directly linked to building better functioning neural pathways for word reading and comprehension. New information from cognition psychology demonstrates how having a deep level of knowledge of words in the brain—including how to hear them, say them, read them, and spell them correctly—turns out to be a very big deal.
Adding Brain Words to Your Classroom
Rethinking reading instruction and increasing focus on word reading will not replace contextual reading activities or other teaching that focuses on known important areas such as phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension; these are all vital elements of reading instruction. Rather, the information in Brain Words is intended to add to your teacher knowledge and, most importantly, give you effective research-based tools to add to your current instructional practices to make your teaching more efficient and effective—to the benefit of all students. You will be adding effective word level processing foundational skills to the already effective text level processing work that you do.
Understanding current developmental theory and research can help bridge a gap between reading research and practice. In Brain Words, Richard and Gene map out the science and look at specific strategies and tools it suggests for your classroom. Inside, you’ll find examples of effective reading instruction and word study along with easy-to-use formative assessments that can fit with whatever reading program or methodology you are using.
“We hope you share our passion to better understand what the scientific study of reading has to say about how children learn to read and how best to help them on this journey. Our overall goal is that this book will transform your classroom by helping you rethink reading instruction and word study as a way to build an automatic and accessible dictionary in each child’s brain and use the evidence-based tools we offer to enhance your teaching toward this goal,” (Gentry and Ouellette, Brain Words 2019).