The Impact of Learning to Spell on Reading

posted in: Spelling | 0

Several studies, including this one by Desimoni et al. (2012), have shown that good readers tend to be good spellers, and poor readers tend to be poor spellers.

In particular, a study by Conrad (2008) found that children were better able to spell words they had practised reading and to better read words they had practised spelling. The transference from spelling into reading was particularly strong, which is not surprising given that spelling requires recall which is much more difficult than recognising words which is the skill used in reading.

However, some good readers can be poor spellers (referred to as unexpectedly poor spellers) and similar, some good spellers can be poor readers (referred to as unexpectedly poor readers), although this tends to be less common than good readers who are poor spellers.

It is interesting to look at some of the intervention research in this area.

Moller et al. (2022) carried out an experimental intervention in which they randomly divided a group of 65 kindergarten students into three groups. One group were taught using a systematic phonic approach into which spelling practice was integrated. One group was provided a phonic based intervention without spelling and the third group acted as a control group in which they participated in the normal classroom activities.

They found that those children in the intervention group made significantly greater gains in phoneme awareness, spelling and reading compared to the phonic intervention only group and the control group

A meta-analysis by Graham and Santangelo (2014) of 53 studies, encompassing 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 the spelling of words be systematically taught (ith a specific focus on teaching orthographic and phonic knowledge), but also that teachers should be discussing the spelling of new vocabulary encountered in reading. Students need to stop and pronounce unfamiliar words, with key orthographic and phonic components highlighted and discussed, along with the meaning of the word.


Conrad, N.   (2008).  From Reading to Spelling and Spelling to Reading: Transfer Goes Both Ways.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 100 (4), 869

Desimoni, M., & Scalisi, T., & Orsolini, M. (2012). Predictive and concurrent relations between literacy skills in Grades 1 and 3: A longitudinal study of Italian children. Learning and Instruction. 22. 340-353. 10.1016/j.learninstruc.2012.02.002.

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.

Galuschka, K., Görgen, R., Kalmar, J., Haberstroh, S., Schmalz, X., & Schulte-Körne, G. (2020). Effectiveness of spelling interventions for learners with dyslexia: A meta-analysis and systematic review. Educational Psychologist, 55(1), 1–20.

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.

Møller, H., Mortensen, J., & Elbro, C. (2022). Effects of Integrated Spelling in Phonics Instruction for At-Risk Children in Kindergarten. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 38:1, 67-82, DOI: 10.1080/10573569.2021.1907638

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.