Spelling and the Brain: A Method of Instruction that Makes Sense

Jul 12, 2017 | Posted by Jennifer


Do you have a student in your life who struggles with spelling? The odds are likely as spelling in our country has gotten progressively worse over the past fifty years. I certainly found this to be true in my own family. When I deemed my oldest child ready to begin spelling several years ago, I dutifully purchased the current “Cadillac of spelling curriculums” and we gamely began to work through it. Despite knowing how bright my son was, I found that even though he would pass the spelling exam, the words didn’t always stick with him. Mastery was elusive.

What I didn’t know then, I have since learned. I was trying to teach my son spelling using a visual method where he would look at a word on the list, copy it ten times for practice, and then recall it later for the test. He would score 100%, and then a week later I would encounter a misspelled word that he had previously gotten correct on the prior week’s spelling test. The correct spelling hadn’t stuck in his brain. He had obviously not attained mastery.

The trouble with teaching spelling using a visual, workbook-style approach is that the letters get mixed up upon reception. My son’s brain had scrambled the letters as he was reading the word in whole on paper. Because he didn’t receive the input into his brain correctly, it made sense that his output was scrambled as well. I needed a new approach to spelling.

According to Andrew Pudewa spelling is defined as “the correct retrieval of sequentially stored, virtually random bits of information.” As such, it demands a sequential approach to mastery. A much more sound approach to spelling is what Andrew terms the “oral/aural” approach. In other words, instead of using a visual (spatial) approach to spelling, which I had been using with the workbook, I needed to instead employ an auditory (sequential) approach.

If you think about it, it makes sense. Harkening back to the bygone era of one-room school house spelling, auditory spelling builds mastery by forcing the student to sequentially recall the letters in order as he spells the word out loud. Recognizing the disconnect, I began to quiz him verbally over the dinner table. I was amazed at how much better he performed. And even better, he retained what he learned.

On Monday, July 17 at 7:30 PM central standard time, Andrew will be giving a free webinar that will explore this fascinating topic in more depth. During the webinar he will expand on how the brain best learns to spell and will discuss how IEW’s award-winning spelling curriculum, Phonetic Zoo, uses this time-tested approach to spelling mastery. We hope to see you there!


Jennifer Mauser has always loved reading and writing and received a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1991. Once she and her husband had children, they decided to homeschool, and she put all her training to use in the home. In addition to homeschooling her children, Jennifer teaches IEW classes out of her home, coaches budding writers via email, and tutors students who struggle with dyslexia.

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