What is “The Science of Spelling”?

The Science of Spelling utilizes the large body of Science of Reading research to implement evidence-based best practices and strategies to teach and practice spelling. Learning to spell is a key ingredient to becoming a good reader and is far more intricate than just memorizing words. Catherine Snow et al. (2005) summarize the real importance of spelling for reading as follows: “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.”

Encoding (spelling) is a developmental process that impacts fluency, writing, pronunciation, and vocabulary. Fluency is best developed through a combination of mastering systematic phonics, practicing high frequency words, and repeated readings (Moats 1998; LeBerge & Samuels, (1974); Rasinski, 2009). When the relationship between spelling and reading is conveyed, students gain a better understanding of the code and demonstrate gains in reading comprehension (Moats, 2005), vocabulary (Moats, 2005), fluency (Snow et al., 2005), and spelling (Berninger, 2012).

Spelling Shed is ESSA Tier 4 Compliant

Our independent research partner, McREL International, have analyzed our product and developed a research-driven logic model and evaluation plan for our curriculum and technology.

What does effective spelling instruction look like?

Effective spelling instruction should teach strategies rather than memorization, and typically includes a combination of direct instruction, word study, and practice.

Direct instruction should be explicit and systematic and involve teaching patterns of the English language, as well as common exceptions. This includes:

  • Alphabetic Principle
  • Spelling-Pattern Knowledge (phonics)
  • Generalizations, not ‘rules’

Word study involves teaching students strategies for decoding and encoding words, such as identifying morphemes, prefixes, suffixes, and roots. This includes:

  • Spelling Variations - based on word origins (etymology)
  • Meaning (morphology)

Practice should be both guided and independent, giving students opportunities to apply their learning to new words and contexts. Additionally, it should also be differentiated, meaning different students will be given different activities or tasks to work on in order to meet their individual needs. It is also important to incorporate multisensory techniques and activities to build a broader understand of a concept.

Encoding, or writing words, is based on the same fundamental abilities as decoding, or reading print. They are reverse and compatible processes that rely upon each other.

Spelling instruction intersects with phonemic awareness and phonics instruction in the primary grades. Many of the practices and strategies used to teach phonics also help to teach early spelling.

In later grades, the focus of instruction and practice should shift to morphology and etymology. This helps students use knowledge of words parts and origins to connect to new and unfamiliar words and builds vocabulary acquisition.

Why is spelling important and what does Science of Reading research say?

Spelling supports reading, orthographic mapping, and vocabulary acquisition. Science of Reading (SOR) research includes all the methods or approaches that have been found, through research, to give kids a learning advantage in reading. SOR research demonstrates essential evidence-based practices that are effective in early literacy instruction.

Practices such as systematic and explicit instruction in: phonics, morphology, word mapping, and etymology correlate greatly with reading success.


Advanced research in cognitive science is showing that spelling may be the missing link to reading success.

  • The importance of using spelling as a tool to increase reading ability has been highlighted in recent journals in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, as well as in recent books by reading scientists and educators (see for example Seidenberg, 2017; Gentry & Ouellette, 2019; Moats, 2020).
  • Many researchers, including Gentry (2019) and Moats (2019), agree that spelling is foundational for reading and that good spellers build strong readers.
  • Spelling requires more long-term memory and a more in-depth cognitive analysis than simply seeing letters or patterns and attempting to read a word. (Graham & Santangelo, 2014; Gentry & Ouellette, 2019)


Orthographic mapping is the process used to store written words in long-term memory, so they can be automatically recognized on sight.

  • Orthographic mapping involves the formation of letter-sound connections to bond the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings of specific words in memory (Ehri, 2104).

Spelling instruction assists children in permanently mapping and storing words for accurate and quick writing.

  • Ehri (2014) theorizes that orthographic mapping may be the system binding together the complex tasks of decoding, encoding, and comprehending.
  • Ehri (2014) further concludes that “an important consequence of orthographic mapping is that the spellings of words enter memory and influence vocabulary learning, the processing of phonological constituents in words, and phonological memory.”


Teaching morphemes and word origins helps students understand the meaning of words at a deeper level, which helps them to connect to and recognize unfamiliar words.
  • Knowledge of word structure and how words are formed is linked to both greater vocabulary development and stronger reading comprehension (Prince, 2009; Wolter & Green, 2013).
  • Researchers Miller and Veatch (2011) found, “When students are taught about the generative nature of words, they can unlock the meaning of the words in a strategic way."
  • Studies have found evidence that students could use their knowledge of roots to unlock the meaning of unfamiliar words (Crosson & McKeown, 2016).
  • Research shows that nearly 70% of multisyllabic words in the English language come from Greek and Latin Roots. (English and Reading, 2012)

How does Spelling Shed align to Science of Reading research?

The Spelling Shed lessons were developed by applying Science of Reading research and follow a systematic progression of phonics and word study skills typically addressed in each grade level. At the beginning of each grade level, there is an intentional spiral review of skills expected to have been acquired in the previous year, but they also include words of increasing difficulty. Throughout the progression, new and more advanced concepts/skills are delicately intertwined within the review. This aids in linking past learning to the new concept/skill and to reinforce and solidify learning. If students are struggling with a particular skill, educators can use previous grade level lists, which will have a more in-depth focus to match students’ needs. The majority of the words selected for each list contain only the phoneme-grapheme correspondences that have been previously reviewed, to avoid cognitive overload, help ensure focus, and attain mastery of the skill at hand.

High-Frequency Words

Practicing to read high-frequency words is essential to becoming a fluent reader, but not by memorizing the whole word. Brain research shows that strong readers, even when they process a written word, such as ‘instantaneously,’ they are reading by sounds. Researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that readers who read fluently are able to map graphemes to their sounds automatically. The process occurs so quickly it appears they are reading “by sight” (Ehri & Snowling, 2004). Most high-frequency words are decodable and are more efficiently taught alongside the corresponding phonetic patterns. When students use their knowledge of the sounds to learn and master high-frequency words, they simultaneously strengthen the skills that will enable them to read thousands more.


The first 100 high-frequency words represent over 50% of English text and 13 of those words make up 25% of any text. It is recommended to begin HFW instruction with the following 15 words because it will help students start to recognize and form simple decodable phrases and sentences. This instruction can even begin before formal phonics instruction does, to give students a jump start on decoding simple sentences.

a, to, the, for, in, was, you, he, I, it, of, and, that, are, is

All Dolch words and Fry Instant 300 high-frequency words are included throughout the grade K-3 lists. The Dolch and Fry words appear in the progression according to their frequency of occurrence throughout texts. Phonetically decodable high-frequency words are integrated into the appropriate lists that correspond to the matching phonics pattern in the progression. Partially decodable words (sometimes called ‘heart words’) are available in separate lists. These words can be a temporary irregular or permanent irregular word. A “temporary” irregular has an irregular word part that is a pattern that has not been introduced yet, and will eventually become a decodable word. A “permanent” irregular will always have a word part that does not follow a decodable or predictable pattern. The “irregular” parts of the word need to be explicitly taught and memorized.

The Kindergarten lists include the first 66 most frequently occurring Dolch words, the top 29 Fry Instant Words (plus any Fry words that are also one of the top 66 Dolch words), and any additional decodable words (from both lists) that appropriately fit the covered phonics patterns. The high-frequency words are also grouped together in review lists for optional further practice to help obtain mastery.

From 1st-3rd grade, the decodable high frequency words continue to integrate into the phonetically appropriate lists. By the end of first grade, 194 Dolch words and 222 Fry words will have been covered and by the end of third, all Dolch and 300+ Fry Instant words will have been covered.

Word Study

“The simple fact is that the present orthography is not merely a letter-to-sound system riddled with imperfections, but instead, a more complex and more regular relationship wherein phoneme and morpheme share leading roles.” Venesky (1967)

As the concepts/skills advance in difficulty in grades 2-5, the importance of teaching the etymology and morphology of words increases. Words are encoded by their relationship of sounds (phonemes) AND meaning (morphology).

“Learning to spell requires instruction and gradual integration of information about print, speech sounds, and meaning—these, in turn, support memory for whole words, which is used in both spelling and sight (automatic) reading.” Moats (2005)

Research confirms that spelling enhances young children’s ability to read and write. However, as students get older, the continued teaching of appropriate spelling practices (the generalizations of spelling; studying the meaning of roots, prefixes, and suffixes; families of related words; the historical development of the English language; and words’ language of origin) could provide them with significant benefits (Moats, 2005). Moats (2005) describes the two big sources of complexity in English spelling as the layering of various languages as English evolved and the emphasis on meaning instead of sounds. Explicit spelling instruction in these areas can help students unlock clues to the meaningful relationships between words and contribute to vocabulary growth and reading comprehension. The Spelling Shed 3-5 lists slowly begin to introduce these concepts and provide for rich vocabulary and morphology acquisition.