The Impact of Learning to Spell on Reading

A meta-analysis by Graham and Santangelo (2014) of 53 studies which encompassed 6,037 students from kindergarten through to 12th grade found that the explicit teaching of spelling resulted in consistent and significant improvement in spelling (regardless of the students’ grade level or literacy skills) compared to no instruction in spelling or informal/incidental approaches to spelling. Not only were these gains maintained over time, but they also generalised into students’ writing.

In addition, because spelling and reading rely on the same underlying knowledge of a word (i.e., the relationship between letters and sounds and the corresponding mental representation of the word), learning how to spell a word results in increased automaticity in reading the word (see Reed et al.), and an increase in word reading fluency is linked to increased comprehension.

Two studies referred to by Ehri and Rosenthal (2007) found that the better a student’s orthographic knowledge, the better they were at remembering the pronunciations and meanings of new vocabulary words when they were explicitly instructed in the spelling of the word. These authors suggested that this created a ‘Matthew effect’ whereby differences in orthographic knowledge created a difference in vocabulary size and this difference increased over time.

The findings of these types of studies imply that not only should spelling of words be systematically taught, but also that teachers should be discussing the spelling of new vocabulary introduced in reading programs. Students need to stop and pronounce unfamiliar words, with key orthographic and phonic components highlighted and discussed, along with the meaning of the word.


Graham, S., & Santangelo, T. (2014). Does spelling instruction make students better spellers, readers, and writers? A meta-analytic review. Reading and Writing, 27(9), 1703-1743.

Reed, D.K., Petscher, Y., & Foorman, B.R. (2016). The contribution of vocabulary knowledge and spelling to the reading comprehension of adolescents who are and are not English language learners. Reading and Writing, 29, 633–657.

Ehri, L.C., & Rosenthal, J. (2007). Spellings of words: A neglected facilitator of vocabulary learning. In Dorit Aram& Ofra Korat (Eds.) Literacy development and enhancement across orthographies and cultures pp.137-152.

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