Spelling Shed and the Science of Reading

Systematic instruction means that there is a planned sequence of phonics elements that comprises a logical progression of skills and knowledge, with sufficient practice and cumulative review for mastery to be achieved.

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). As students begin to master phonics, it is advantageous to use those skills to practice the 300 high frequency words which make up 65% of all texts (Fry, 1999). 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).

The Spelling Shed lists were developed by applying the 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 grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPC’s) that have been previously reviewed, to avoid cognitive overload, help ensure focus, and attain mastery of the skill at hand.

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 phonograms 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.

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. Temporary and permanent irregular (heart) words are available in separate lists. These words are partially decodable and the “irregular” parts of the word need to be explicitly taught and memorized. A “temporary” irregular has an irregular word part that has 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 first 100 high-frequency words represent over 50% of English text and 13 of those words make up 25% OF ANY TEXT. In Kindergarten, the irregular (heart) word lists are blended into the progression because these are words that are essential for young readers to master. The first three lists include 15 temporary and permanent irregular (heart) words that students can begin memorizing after they know letter names and before phonics instruction begins. It is recommended to start with these words because it will help students begin to recognize and form simple decodable phrases and sentences. 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. A list of the temporary and permanent irregular (heart) words for each grade level will appear as the first list. These words can be referenced or used as each teacher sees fit for their students’ needs. In the first grade lists, some of the temporary and irregular HFW are integrated into lists that fit with a partially decodable part of the word, to help students continue to map graphemes to their sound. 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.

As the concepts/skills advance in difficulty in grades 2-5, the importance of teaching the etymology and morphology of words increases. As Venesky (1967) stated, “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.” Words are encoded by their relationship of sounds (phonemes) AND meaning (morphology). Moats (2005) states, “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.” 

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 rules 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.


  • Moats, L., & Snow, C. (2005). How Spelling Supports Reading. American Federation of Teachers, 1–13 https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Moats.pdf 
  • Berninger, V. “Evidence-based, developmentally appropriate writing skills k-5: teaching the orthographic loop of working memory to write letters so developing writers can spell words and express ideas.” Presented at Handwriting in the 21st century?: An educational summit, Washington, D.C. January 23, 2012.
  • Ehri, L. and Snowling, M.J. (2004). Developmental variation in word recognition. In Stone, C.A., Silliman, E.R., Ehren, B.J., and Apel, K. (Eds.), Handbook of language and literacy: Development and disorders, pp. 433-460. New York: Guilford.
  • Fry, E. B. (1999). 1000 Instant Words: The most common words for teaching reading, writing, and spelling. Westminster, CA: Teacher Created Materials.
  • LaBerge, D., & Samuels, J. (1974). Toward a theory of automatic information processing in reading. Cognitive Psychology, 6, 293-323.
  • Moats, L. (1998). Teaching decoding. American Educator, Spring/Sum, 1–8. 
  • 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.
  • Rasinski, T.V. “Introduction: Fluency: The Essential Link From Phonics to Comprehension.” Essential readings on fluency. Newark, Del.: International Reading Association, 2009. 1-10. Print.
  • Venezky, R. L. (1967). English orthography: Its graphical structure and its relation to sound. Reading Research Quarterly, 75-105.