It all started back in mid-September. As a result of my weekly education column, I receive countless press releases from advertising firms, colleges and universities, educational agencies and other entities. I always look at the subject line, but due to my inbox overload, pressing “delete” is common.
But this subject line caught my eye: Raising Confident Readers-Spelling is Vital. I could hardly wait to open it. You see, for the past five or six years, my what-ever-happened-to-spelling battle cry has grown louder and more frequent. Why do we have so many high school students who can’t spell basic vocabulary words like interesting, prefer, future, famous, tomorrow and Edinburg? Equally loud is my why-can’t-our-students-write-in-cursive cry.
I opened the email and began reading: Statistics show that four out of ten eight-year-olds in the United States cannot read independently. . . Dr. J. Richard Gentry, a nationally acclaimed expert on childhood literacy, reading, and spelling says reading and spelling are linked and can be taught from birth.” The email goes on to describe Dr. Gentry’s latest book, Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write — from Baby to Age Seven.
I responded to the email, sent by a publicity firm, explaining that I am interested in what Dr. Gentry has to say, especially about the “Spelling is Vital.”
I received a quick response, along with the link to an article Dr. Gentry co-authored with Dr. Steve Graham, a professor of Special Education and Literacy at Vanderbilt University. The title of the article is “Creating Better Readers and Writers: The Importance of Direct, Systematic Spelling and Handwriting Instruction in Improving Academic Performance.” I knew it. If we want to increase academic performance, we cannot continue to ignore the role of spelling and handwriting.
In the email I received, Dr. Martin Saperstein, president of Saperstein Associates, the research firm that published the paper, Dr. Gentry and Dr. Graham conducted extensive research and found that “standalone spelling and handwriting instruction is required if all students are to master the mechanics of reading and writing.”
Dr. Gentry is also quoted in the email: In too many cases, schools have dropped important parts of the language arts curriculum such as spelling, handwriting and phonics instruction that are foundations of literacy. There is this idea that students will “catch” foundational literacy skills like spelling as they learn to read and write. However, research shows spelling must be taught — not caught. Another bad idea is tucking spelling in with the reading lesson; that practice waters down the kind of spelling curriculum readers and writers need for success.
According to Dr. Gentry, “10 to 15 minutes a day of direct spelling instruction using developmentally appropriate word lists helps students acquire the ‘dictionary in the brain’ that is critical to developing literacy and higher-order thinking and communication skills.”
I cannot believe how few high school students are able to write in cursive. According to Dr. Graham, “Handwriting plays a critical role in how we learn and express ourselves. Children who experience difficulty mastering the skill of handwriting may avoid writing and decide that they cannot write, leading to arrested writing development and hindering their performance across the entire academic curriculum.”
More to follow on this topic. I have Dr. Gentry’s book and will write another column after I read it and speak to him personally.
I’m not surprised at all, but I am definitely relieved to learn my imagination had not run rampant. Spelling and handwriting do matter. A lot.
Chris Ardis is in her 27th year of teaching, 26 of those with McAllen ISD. Visit her web site at www.chrisardis.com to read articles on education, health, mental health, finances and beauty and a monthly column by McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez.