I recently worked with a second grader who showed me a paragraph he wrote about helping the “oshin.” His thoughtful ideas were right on the mark. His spelling, however, was not. When this boy reads books about the ocean, complete with pictures and context clues, he can read the word without hesitation. But when I later showed him the word “ocean” on its own, he had no idea what it said. What’s going on here?

The fact that the boy can read “ocean” in some instances, but not others, indicates that the word is not yet automatic for him. When will he become fluent with this word? Likely, when he learns to spell it.

According to language and literacy expert Catherine Snow, “Spelling and reading build and rely on the same mental representation of a word. Knowing the spelling of a word makes the representation of it sturdy and accessible for fluent reading.”In other words, when a student knows how to spell a word, they will likely also know how to read it. 

Furthermore, there is a strong relationship between spelling and writing. According to our educational consultant, Karen Hunter, students who are good spellers can use their cognitive resources to focus on the content of what they want to write. Poor spellers may restrict what they write by only using words they know how to spell. Proper spelling becomes increasingly important as students get older. The National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges reported that, 80 percent of the time, an employment application is doomed if it is poorly written or poorly spelled.2

Studies have shown that progress in reading does not necessarily result in progress in spelling.Therefore, formal spelling instruction is needed to help students make optimal gains in both reading and writing. The Center on Instruction (COI) publication Why Teach Spelling? provides an excellent overview of the research on spelling instruction. This free booklet explains why spelling deserves quality instruction time, describes the most effective ways to teach spelling, and provides tables of Common Core State Standards linked to spelling. 

Although the research on teaching spelling is clear, educators are still faced with the overwhelming question of which program to choose. The COI publication contains a checklist for evaluating a spelling program, which will help you determine whether a particular spelling program aligns with research-based instructional strategies. 

We completed this evaluation for our spelling program, Signs for Sounds, and we’re pleased to report that our program aligns well with the recommended strategies. Signs for Sounds teaches students how to take words apart, sound-by-sound, and how to write them down on paper, letter-by-letter. The program teaches words with both regular and irregular spelling patterns—emphasizing high-frequency words—through a unique and highly motivating system. Click here to download a free sample.

This section of our website provides much more information on the importance of teaching spelling, and this free webinar will tell you everything you need to know about implementing Signs for Sounds in your classroom. 

If spelling is not currently part of your ELA curriculum, or if the program you are using is not yielding good results, we hope this research will prompt a change for the better. When spelling improves—when “oshin” forever becomes ocean—reading and writing improve as well. Moreover, the absence of spelling errors will allow you to focus more intently on the brilliant ideas your students write down. When we’re not so busy correcting spelling mistakes, maybe we can think about how to help the ocean, too.


Snow, C. E., Griffin, P., and Burns, M. S. (eds.) (2005). Knowledge to Support the Teaching of Reading: Preparing Teachers for a Changing World. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 86.

National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges. (2005). Writing: A Powerful Message from State Government. New York: College Board.

Mehta, P. D., Foorman, B. R., Branum-Martin, L., & Taylor, W. P. (2005). Literacy as a unidimensional construct: Validation, sources of influence and implications in a longitudinal study in grades 1–4. Scientific Studies of Reading, 9(2), pp. 85–116.