The Science

7spell is scientifically designed, and utilizes principles based on decades of research in learning, retention, and psychology. Here is a summary of the theory and research behind 7spell's effectiveness.

Craik, F., and Tulving, E. "Depth of processing and the retention of words in episodic memory." Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol 104(3) (1975): 268-294. Print and PDF.

In this seminal study performed at the University of Toronto, Canada, the authors performed a series of tests in which they gave the study participants a sequence of words to learn, with information related to each word as it appeared in order. They discovered that when the information provided stimulated the participant's brain to process the word on a more involved level (referred to as "deep encoding" or "degree of elaboration" in the study), that word was more effectively learned and remembered. With 7spell, the user is given a wide range of additional information about each spelling word, including the word's definition - one of the key factors in enhanced memory, according to this study - as well as usage examples, synonyms, and antonyms.

Garcia, S.M., Tor, A., and Schiff, T.M. "The Psychology of Competition: A Social Comparison Perspective." Perspectives on Psychological Science, November 2013, 8(6):634-650. Print and web.

Each person is influenced by a unique set of factors related to their own status and progress towards goals, but is also affected to a greater or lesser degree by the achievements and perceived standards of the people around them. This analysis of past and current studies looks at the way people view and are motivated by individual goals as well as societal achievement (competition). The authors conclude that effective use of motivational strategies must take both into account. This is something that 7spell accomplishes by providing each user with the ability to set personal goals, earn reward points, and view their own progress tracking reports, and also to publish all of those results on public social media platforms.

Kivetz, R., Urminsky, O., and Zheng, Y. "The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected: Purchase Acceleration, Illusionary Goal Progress, and Customer Retention." Journal of Marketing Research, February 2006, 43(1):39-58. Web.

In a study focusing on the influence of reward-scheme programs on behavior, the authors found that when people see visible progress towards their goals they are more likely to increase the activity required to reach those goals. The study also confirms that most people are also motivated by receiving rewards for completing specific activities, even if those rewards are not immediately transferable to actual material or monetary benefits. Status points, rewards, and real-time progress tracking are all methods used in 7spell to encourage frequent spelling practice by awarding points for the completion of exercises and activities. Because the user can access their progress charts at any time, they will always be able to see how close they are to achieving their personal spelling goals.

Buton, M., Winterbauer, N., and Todd, T. "Relapse processes after the extinction of instrumental learning: Renewal, resurgence, and reacquisition." Behavioural Processes, May 2012, 90(1): 130–141. Print and web.

Instrumental learning, also called "operant conditioning," is a method by which behaviors are learned in connection with a stimulus, a reward, or both. In this research done at the University of Vermont, the authors studied the ways in which the information connected to a specific behavior is retained when the stimulus is removed, and how subsequent repetition or reward reinforces information recall and a resumption of previously learned behaviors. They conclude that there are two primary methods of reinforcing active memory and behavior: by creating a different way to test the subject's memory, and by providing the opportunity for intensive focused repetition of that stimulus-behavior response. These two methods are widely used in the 7spell activities and games to create the link between instruction and memory that is so crucial in effective spelling learning on the student's part.

Xue, G., Mei, L., Chen, C., Lu, Z-L., Poldrack, R., Dong, Q. "Spaced Learning Enhances Subsequent Recognition Memory by Reducing Neural Repetition Suppression." Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 2011;23(7):1624-1633. Print and web. http://doi:10.1162/jocn.2010.21532

In this study comparing long-term and short-term memory, the study authors tested the neural activity of participants as they memorized a set of images. Half of the study participants used massed learning techniques, in which each new image was presented multiple times in a row; the other half were given the images in a spaced repetition mode, where the images were shown in alternating order. Although each participant saw each image the same number of times, the people in the spaced-repetition exercise were able to accurately remember more images, and for a longer period of time. Repetition is a key technique in learning spelling, and 7spell incorporates spaced repetition in two ways. First, the system uses randomized selection of spelling words from the user's current list to populate the activities and exercises, ensuring an interval between word reviews. Second, the system's Word Discover feature provides pop-up instant review of the words on that list, again in random order. By providing users with multiple opportunities throughout the day to read and review their words, 7spell provides all of the benefits of the spaced repetition methodology in its spelling instruction.

Blocki, J., Cranor, L., Datta, A., and Komanduri, S. "Spaced Repetition and Mnemonics Enable Recall of Multiple Strong Passwords." Cornell University Library, January 3, 2015. PDF.

Spaced repetition is a memory training tool that relies on frequent and consistent review of information; mnemonics is a memory technique that involves multiple ways of looking at that information, such as the incorporation of images or story lines. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University focused on the combination of spaced repetition and mnemonics in evaluating how best to train people to remember specific pieces of information: computer passwords. They found that by combining the two methodologies, the results in both ease of learning and retention were increased. 7spell uses each method separately and together to help users learn and remember new spelling words by using the same words in multiple exercises, presenting spelling words in a variety of formats, and encouraging users to add information related to each word to make a personal connection that helps them to remember that word and its correct spelling.

Recommended Games to Improve Your Spelling

How can you make learning spelling fun? Children (and adults) will be more likely to spend time in spelling practice if it’s seen as a game instead of a chore. Of course, you can turn spelling lessons into games, making them into competitions between students and offering prizes, creating “spelling bees” where children compete on teams or as individuals. There are also many board games available that you can use to encourage your children to spend time working on their spelling skills. We’ve found several that we think work well for children of all ages:

Boggle (Hasbro) or Perquacky (Cardinal Industries)
These two games are very similar; both use dice with letters on each side with which players must make as many words as possible. The difference is that in Boggle, the dice are in a grid and can’t be moved – players have to make words using the letters that touch each other. In Perquacky, the dice are loose and can be moved and shuffled around to make the words. Both games are timed and are scored by the number of words each player can make.

Scrabble (Hasbro)
A perennial favorite, this board game helps with spelling, vocabulary improvement, and pattern recognition. You can find versions of the game on line and play against the computer, your friends, or people around the world. Many on-line versions of the game offer a choice between British (UK) and American (US) spelling options.

Scripps Spelling Bee Game (THQ)
The Scripps Spelling Bee is a nationally-televised competition for students that tests their word knowledge and their spelling skills. This new game for Nintendo helps children learn new words with the correct spelling and pronunciation. As a bonus feature, they (or their parents) can create their own personal spelling word lists for future practice, giving them an opportunity to input school homework and practice for upcoming spelling tests using the same fun game format.

You might also be interested in the documentary movie that was made about students preparing for and competing in the Scripps Spelling Bee in Washington, DC, Spellbound. Children who might not be motivated to work on their spelling could become inspired after watching the hard work and success of others their age as they compete on local and national levels.

What’s your favorite spelling-related game?

How to Use Stories to Help Your Child Spell

One good way of helping a child improve their writing skills and their spelling skills is to have them write out a short story of at least five or six lines. This can be a retelling of a bedtime story the child enjoys and knows well, or a description of what they ate for lunch, or a story they make up about their pet. Have the child write their story on alternating lines, leaving room between each line. When they’re done, read the story out loud with them to make sure you know exactly what they’ve written, and then write down the same words underneath each line, using the correct spelling. When what the child wrote matches what you write, and they’ve spelled the words correctly, be sure to point that out and compliment them on their skills. Where they made mistakes, you can point those out as well, but the most important part of this exercise is to give children a way to read their own words and see them correctly spelled.

Story-writing practice can be part of a spelling practice program that’s easy to follow for both parents and children. Keep these stories in a notebook and have children write down words they want to practice or have trouble spelling in the same notebook. This notebook can be used alone, or in combination with the spelling tests and lessons the child gets in school. For example, if a child brings home a test and two or three of the words were spelled wrong, those words can be written down in the notebook for future practice. After a few weeks, the child can go back to those words and make sure they know how to spell them correctly.

Spelling notebooks aren’t just for children – anyone who wants to improve their spelling can benefit from daily practice. Some words are hard to spell, but if you take a few minutes to write them down and learn how they’re spelled correctly, you’ll remember them in the future.

Why Writing Practice Improves English Spelling Skills

Just as important as reading practice, writing practice will help children improve their spelling skills. Researchers now recognize four levels of writing that show where a child is in the process of connecting the written alphabet to the sounds of the letters and the ways those letters and sounds are combined to form words.1 If you ask a child to write or draw a story, you will get different results from different ages.

At first, children are learning how to form the letters of the alphabet, but haven’t learned the connection between the written letters and the sounds of spoken English. When the children draw, their letter formation is more like scribbling, and no words are made by combining letters. The story is formed entirely of drawings.

In the second stage, children begin to correctly match the letters to their sounds. They are able to shape the letters of the alphabet more or less correctly, but if they combine them, the combinations rarely form recognizable words; however, the children may think they’re making words. The story contains mostly drawings with some letters.

In the third stage, children are able to use the written letters to create words that are understandable to others, even if the spellings of the words are not all correct. The words will often be in a sentence format, but there may be no spaces left between the individual words, and words will break at odd points when the end of a line is reached. Letters may still be incorrectly formed (for example, a backwards “S”). The story contains an equal number of drawings and words.

Finally, the children learn to match letters to phonemes (combinations of letters that create different sounds) and begin the process of accumulating a basic “dictionary” of words that they will add to for the rest of their lives. They can put these words into sentences to form stories, and have learned the correct forms of the letters of the alphabet. The story will be mostly words, illustrated with drawings. Formal spelling instruction often begins at this point.

Writing practice reinforces spelling because it adds another way of learning. There are three main learning styles: visual (focused on what is seen), auditory (focused on what is heard), and kinesthetic (focused on what the body experiences). Children learn to spell by looking at words and hearing them spoken out loud, and by writing them down. The act of writing helps put the words and their correct spelling into “muscle memory” and then into long-term memory in the brain. Adults will improve their spelling using the same techniques, and we encourage you to practice your spelling skills by writing, just as you encourage your children to do so.

1 Gentry, J. R. The Science of Spelling (2004).

Pattern Recognition and Spelling Improvement

When children are learning to read, they’re actually learning how to spell. Unfortunately, this is a difficult process for many children, in large part because the way English words are pronounced doesn’t always have a clear connection to the way they are spelled. In English, there are approximately 40 different sounds represented by each of the 26 letters of the alphabet (there are more than 26 because, for example, the letter a is pronounced differently in the words call and fat and plane). However, there are well over 1,000 different ways to spell all the possible sound combinations! No wonder many children find it difficult to learn to spell, when even their teachers might have a hard time explaining why the words through and threw are spelled differently. By comparison, children in Rome learning Italian only have to deal with 25 different basic sounds and 33 possible spelling combinations.1

Learning how to spell means learning how to recognize the patterns that these letters make in combination. Part of this process is memorization of the rules of the English language, like the fact that the two-letter combination ch is a valid unit of sound (a phoneme) by itself, but that the two-letter combination hc is not. In a broader sense, learning how to spell in English is the process of learning how to visually recognize and remember the way words are spelled correctly. Because of this, it makes sense that children who are exposed to more correctly-spelled words – that is, those children who read more – will recognize and remember more words.

Encouraging children to read is one of the best ways to help them learn how to spell. The more texts a child reads, the more ways they’ll see words containing different letter patterns. Repetition is key to learning how to spell; this could be the repetition of taking one word and writing it over and over until you’ve memorized its spelling, or memorization of certain rules of English spelling. However, because children (and adults) generally enjoy reading for pleasure, learning spelling through seeing the same words over and over may seem like no effort, especially compared with the work of preparing for a spelling test. Any time you can combine fun with learning, you’ll encourage children to participate. In addition, reading aloud to and with children gives them excellent practice in both seeing how a word is spelled and learning how the spelling goes with the pronunciation.

1 Kher, U. “Blame it on the Written Word.” Time Magazine (2001).

Why English Words Are Spelled the Way They Are

Beowulf wæs breme – blæd wide sprang –
Scyldes eafera Scedelandum in.

A thousand years ago, if you had read this text (assuming that you were one of the relatively few people in Western Europe who could read back then), you’d know that you were reading about a young hero, and that “this Beowulf was famous – praises of him flew far and wide – the son of Scyld, living in the Scandian lands.” In the intervening centuries, though, words have changed and have been added to the English language, and many of the words that were present in the earliest forms of English are now spelled and pronounced in an entirely different fashion.

Almost immediately after the creation of English as a written language, people started changing its orthography, the way the words are spelled and written. At first, the spelling changed depending on how each person heard the word, using a more phonetic spelling. It was common to have a variety of spellings of common words, but because they matched the way the words were pronounced (more or less) and because the number of written texts and people who could read them was smaller than it is today, the issue of developing a consistent English orthography was not addressed until after the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. As more people started to read, they began to notice that the same words were spelled in different ways depending on where the material was published. However, it wasn’t until the 1800s and the emergence of the field of phonetics (the study of the sounds common and unique to various languages) that people started working towards developing a standard spelling and pronunciation of English words.

Today there are people who want to simplify the rules of spelling, usually on a phonetic basis (for example, making it so that the last parts of the words rough and cough would be spelled differently because they’re pronounced differently). One of the common examples of why the current multiplicity of ways to pronounce the same sequences of letters is not a good thing is the constructed word ghoti – which, as you may have heard, can be pronounced “fish.” Why?

say “gh” as in “tough” (f)
say “o” as in “women” (ih)
say “ti” as in “explanation” (sh)
. . . and you get “fish”

An extreme example of this phenomenon is the word ghoughpteighbteau. Can you guess how it might be pronounced?

say “gh” as in “hiccough” (p)
say “ough” as in “though” (oh)
say “pt” as in “pterodactyl” (t)
say “eigh” as in “neighbor” (ay)
say “bt” as in “debtor” (t)
say “eau” as in “bureau” (oh)
. . . and you get “potato”

In the end, with all of the changes that English has gone through, and continues to go through with newly-developed words and ones that are adopted from other languages, it’s not likely that the debate over spelling reform will be resolved soon.

Cross-posted at The Vocabulary Builder’s Blog.

Why Better Spellers Are Faster Readers

In this post, we talked about how increasing your reading speed can help you improve your spelling by exposing you to more words and giving you practice seeing those words used in context. Did you know that learning to spell correctly will help you become a better reader, too? When you learn the rules of spelling words in English, you’ll be able to apply them to the new words you come across when reading.

When you come across an unfamiliar word while you’re reading, it will slow you down. If you don’t know the meaning of the word, you’ll have to stop and look it up, or run the risk of losing an important piece of information in the text. However, if you’ve studied the rules of English spelling, you’ll be able to apply those rules to the new words you come across while you’re reading. One of the reasons for this is that words which have the same etymological roots – that is, their meanings are related – often have similar spelling patterns. Being able to identify these patterns can also give you clues about the definition of an unfamiliar word.

One of the ways that you can increase your reading speed is by eliminating subvocalization, the habit of saying words to yourself as you read, whether you say those words out loud, just move your lips as you read, or only “hear” the words in your head. One of the reasons that spelling practice helps to eliminate this habit is that when you know how a word is spelled, you’ll know how it’s pronounced. Subvocalization often occurs because you’re mentally trying to “sound out” a word you don’t know how to pronounce; when you recognize a word and know how it sounds already, you won’t unconsciously think you need to say it in order to read it.

If you combine speed-reading techniques with vocabulary improvement and spelling practice, these three learning tools will work together to increase your skills even faster than any one of them alone.

Do you want to work on acquiring new English vocabulary? This blog will help.

When to Break the Rules of Spelling

For more than a century, children learning English were taught a rhyme to help them learn how to spell words correctly. We’re sure you’ve heard it:

I before E, except after C
or when sounding like A
as in neighbor and weigh

All well and good, but we’re sure you’ve come across many words that don’t follow that rule, like science and weird. Part of the problem is that the man credited with coming up with this rhyme wrote it in the 1880s, and words have changed pronunciation over time. Also, he lived in England, and there’s a difference between British and American pronunciation of several words with this letter order issue, so the rule may not hold depending on what version of English you’re learning.

One recent recommendation, supported by the Oxford English Dictionary editors, is to rewrite the rule like this:

I before E, except after C
in words where the “ei” sound
is the same as the “ee” sound

With this edit, you can see that the words deceive, ceiling, and conceit clearly follow the rule in both spelling and pronunciation. Words like their and foreign (which have the “ei” letter order without the “c”) and words like ancient and glacier (which have the “c” but use the “ie” order), which were seen as exceptions to the earlier rule, now make more sense under the new rule, because none of these words contain the “ee” sound.

So that’s the good news: by adjusting an old rule, you can come up with one that will help you remember some of the tricks to the spelling of English words. The bad news is that there are still many words that contain either the “ei” or the “ie” letter combination, and learning which spelling is correct is really a matter of practice. Here are some words to work on – can you come up with your own helpful rules?


Ways to Practice Your Spelling

Learning how to spell a word correctly is an important piece of information about that word, as important as how it’s pronounced and how it’s used. If you can’t spell a word correctly, you’re only benefiting from part of the value of that word. This will affect all of the ways you communicate with other people (personal letters, documentation or memos for work, or essays you write for school) and the information you’re communicating will lose a good deal of its impact if your readers notice spelling errors. Here are some ways you can improve and practice your spelling skills:

Go to a spelling bee. Back in the days before television, when people got together to entertain themselves and each other, spelling bees were often held for both adults and children as memory exercises and competitions. Many schools still hold spelling bees, especially after the attention that the Scripps National Spelling Bee has gotten through movies (such as Spellbound and Akeelah and the Bee) and television broadcasts. When you’re in a spelling bee, you’ll hear a word carefully pronounced, and then you’ll spell that word by saying each of its letters in order. This is excellent practice for learning words with difficult spellings, and is a fun way to practice your vocabulary as well. Many community calendars or school calendars will have information about upcoming spelling bees.

Play word games. Games like Scrabble and Boggle are useful tools for spelling practice. Play Scrabble on line against the computer, or against friends, or invite your friends over for dinner and “Scrabble night” and you’ll learn words and also how to spell them. Word-based television game shows like “Wheel of Fortune” or “Countdown” will help you with pattern recognition as well as spelling. Many online game sites have word-themed games as well, such as “Typer Shark” and “Bookworm.”

Test your spelling skills. Go to used book stores, the library, or university tutoring centers to look for books that contain practice spelling tests, and test yourself regularly. If you’re studying for the SAT or GRE, you may have materials through those study programs, and GRE/SAT “how-to” guides containing practice spelling tests are also frequently found in libraries and bookstores.

The Trouble With English, Part #3,725: Silent Letters

One of the most difficult aspects of English to master is the link – or lack of one – between the way words are spelled and the way they are pronounced. This is a particular problem for people whose first language has fewer ways to pronounce vowels and consonants and combinations of the two. “Silent” letters are ones that appear in the spelling of a word, but not in its pronunciation. Here are some examples of words with silent letters:

This word has both a silent c and a silent e, and is pronounced MUSS-uhl. However, the related adjective muscular is pronounced MUSS-kyu-luhr, including the hard-c “k” sound when the word is spoken out loud. If you remember both of these words, you’ll remember to spell muscle with a c.

This is pronounced FOR-ehn, leaving out both the sound of the i and the sound of the g. This pronunciation does not change in the related noun foreigner (FOR-ehn-uhr). This is a particularly difficult word, because you need to remember both of the silent letters and that the e comes before the i for no apparent reason and in contradiction to the often-cited rule “I before E except after C.” Foreign is just one of those words you’ll have to practice until its spelling no longer seems so foreign to you.

With three silent letters, the word through (pronounced THROO) can definitely cause you some problems. The o, g, and h are silent in this word; the “oo” sound comes from the u. To make things even more confusing, the word though, which is different only in the lack of an r, is pronounced THO (rhyming with “no” and “show”) rather than THOO as you might expect after looking at through.

The silent k at the beginning of this word, pronounced NIF (with the “i” vowel rhyming with the word “eye”) is a hard one for children to remember, because it makes little sense. However, back when people were speaking Old English, the “k” sound was likely pronounced, perhaps by the famous K-nights of the Round Table.

Listen is pronounced LISS-ehn, with a silent t. A similar word, often, can be pronounced with or without the “t” sound, depending on dialect of English the speaker grew up with.

The silent s in island (EYE-lund) is easy to forget. Practice writing the word and saying it out loud, or create a mnemonic trick to remember the s, such as the phrase “Islands Sit in Seven Salty Seas.”

Cross-posted at The Vocabulary Builder’s Blog.

How Improving Your Reading Speed Improves Your Spelling

Many people who work on improving their English grammar, vocabulary, or spelling skills find that they end up reading more often than before. Some of this is study material, but some is also reading for pleasure, and learning to appreciate and look for good writing and interesting vocabulary words. The more you read, the more words you’ll be exposed to, and (if the author is a good speller also) the more correctly-spelled words you’ll see and become familiar with. One of the best ways to improve your spelling is to read as much as possible so that you can see how words are spelled and how they’re used in context. By increasing your reading speed, you’ll be able to read and absorb more information. If you’re interested in improving your reading speed, you can get some helpful tips here.

The speed at which you read text often depends on what you’re reading, and why. If you’re skimming through text looking for key information – for example, in a handout you’ve been given fifteen minutes before the start of a meeting – then you might not notice the occasional misspelled word in that text. On the other hand, if you’re the person responsible for writing or editing the handout in the example above, it’s crucial that you take the time to read more carefully and correct any mistakes in spelling or grammar.

Whether you’re reading material that is part of your study program or not, you’ll be reading words that you’ve seen before as well as ones that are new to you. We’re sure you’ve had more than one experience of looking at a word that is not correctly spelled and thinking, “That just doesn’t look right.” Take the time to confirm the correct spelling of the word with a dictionary. Don’t rely on spell-check programs to mark mistakes or correct them. While you’re looking up the word, you can also strengthen your understanding of the word by looking at its etymology, associated words and definitions, and any synonyms or antonyms the word might have.

A good speed-reading program will teach you to increase your reading speed but also teach you how to absorb information and recognize things in the text like misspelled words. While you’re reading, even if you’re reading quickly, let your eyes be “caught” by new words or by misspelled words, and teach yourself the correct spelling as you go. If you don’t have time to look up a word right away, make a note of it for later.

Improve your reading skills, and you’ll find that your spelling skills improve just as quickly!

Cross-posted at the 7 Speed Reading blog.