Are We Giving Students The Entire Picture?

Why We Continue To Leave Young Readers and Spellers Behind…

Abe Moore
5 min readMar 18, 2018


Photo C/- Pexels

Over the past month, I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a keynote about The Evolution of the Reading Brain headlined by US neuroscientist Dr Maryanne Wolf, and a planning and assessment PD session for spelling run by Dr Misty Adoniou from the University of Canberra. Both featured a similar message; We must attach meaning to words when learning to read and spell. Are we giving students the whole picture? Or are traditional approaches to reading and spelling the reason so many students are getting left behind?

Poor spelling is a consequence of uninformed teaching

Dr Adoniou, the author Spelling It Out (which I reviewed in two parts here and here last year), suggests that Australian teachers continue to rely on an overemphasis of phonological awareness and commercial programs to teach spelling. Adoniou believes that teachers do this because they lack the confidence or understanding to teach students, possibly because they themselves were likely never taught. And so the cycle continues; and if the child fails to learn, it is the programs fault, not the teachers. She states that spelling is possibly the most tested subject in schools, yet the least diagnosed.

‘’Strategies such as ‘look cover write check’ and activities where words are repeatedly written in different fonts or colours reflect a belief that spelling is predominantly a visual skill and that English spelling is somewhat chaotic and illogical… and can only be learned through memorisation. This position allows teachers to abandon a notion of teaching spelling and essentially leave the task of learning to spell up to parents and children through the distribution of take-home spelling lists.”

There are 250,000 words in the English language of which 80% have Greek and Latin origins. An educated adult has a vocabulary of around 60,000 words. English words are a reflection of their origin and history. As a morpho-phonemic language, words are formed by their meanings as well as their sounds. Phonology (sounds) and orthology (rules) play an important role in the development of spelling and reading, but when only armed with these strategies, students begin to struggle around the year three mark. Adoniou advises that it is vital teachers provide learners with a range linguistic resources to draw upon including:

- Semantic knowledge (knowing what words mean)
- Phonological knowledge (including phonemic awareness)
- Orthographic knowledge (understanding what is possible in letter order)
- Etymological knowledge (knowing where words come from)
- Morphological knowledge (knowing the meaningful parts of words)
- Visual knowledge (recognising the correct look of a word)

The recently updated National Literacy Learning Progression for spelling is heavily based upon recommendations put forward by Dr Adoniou. The progressions make it clear that a range of strategies must be given to students to help them understand and create meaning in texts. A problem in the past has been the perception that etymology and morphology should only be studied by proficient spellers at the pointy end of a hierarchical pyramid, as a form of extension or challenge.

So the big question is: what do we teach? Dr Adoniou suggests that spelling “lists” should include authentic errors that students have made in their writing, words that target subject or topic knowledge, words that assist communicative and expressive needs, or just words that will pique student interest. Whole class ‘noticing’ can be built around meta-awareness through public word walls, private spelling journals, and teacher talk that models various strategies.

Developing The “Reading Circuit”

Image C/- Maryanne Wolf

Dr Maryanne Wolf, an engaging and vibrant presenter, focused her keynote on the physiology of the brain and the need to create a complete “reading circuit”. According to Wolf, the reading brain is plastic and without complete instruction, the circuitry is incomplete. She states that oral language builds the circuitry in young children and stresses the importance of exposure to oral language from birth to six years of age.

Wolf suggests that the human brain was never born to read. Over time, existing circuits of neurons — originally designed for vision, language, and cognition — learned to forge a whole new circuit. Humans spent some 2000 years developing the cognitive breakthroughs needed for reading and writing, yet we ask children to make the same discoveries within their first 2000 days. To further complicate matters for some learners, Wolf explained the existence of a type of word poverty.

According to Dr Wolf, children from disadvantaged and welfare dependent families experience a “32 million word gap” before they even step foot into a classroom. By the age of four, these children are likely to hear tens of millions fewer words compared to their peers from middle-class and professional backgrounds. The importance of this hits home when combined with Dr Adoniou’s declaration that:

The size of vocabulary is the single biggest predictor of success at school.

There is a perception that students who struggle with phonics-based learning need more, targetted, and individualised phonics based learning. In fact, what is needed, is change. Like Adoniou, Dr Wolf advocates teaching a wide range of strategies to students and uses the acronym, POSSM. (Phonemes; Orthography; Semantics; Syntax; and Morphemes). She suggests that around 40% of learners struggle with traditional practices and never get past a fourth grade level of fluency. For these students, the traditional “Learn and burn” mentality of spelling lists, weekly tests, and commercial programs based on phonetics, will simply never work; students need the whole picture. This is particularly true for students with learning difficulties and disabilities. According to Wolf, learning how to teach students with dyslexia enhances our ability to teach all students.

Finally, another topical issue covered by Dr Wolf was the impact of technology on reading skills. Skimming, distraction, attention switching and access to voluminous information has changed the way we access texts. Deep, continuous, concentrated reading for pleasure or learning has been replaced by scanning, browsing, keyword spotting and bouncing between texts, which has led to a decrease in sustained attention and memory. Deep reading is described by Wolf as the underpinnings of wisdom and virtue. She argued that slower, deep reading processes are vital for developing skills such as inference, analogical thinking, critical analysis, and insight.

Anyone interested in learning more about these topics and authors in far more detail can browse Misty Adoniou’s book, Spelling It Out, and Maryanne Wolf’s offering, Proust and the Squid, online at Amazon’s Kindle bookstore. The video of Maryanne’s keynote from the DECD Literacy Summit 2018 can be watched below. I’ll leave you with this spelling fail that gave me a laugh.



Abe Moore

Education blog. "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say" - Flannery O'Connor