Progress in Reading Instruction Requires a Better Understanding of the English Spelling System

Jeffrey S. Bowers*, Peter N. Bowers

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)
351 Downloads (Pure)


It is widely claimed that the English spelling system conforms to the alphabetic principle, according to which letters or letter combinations (graphemes) represent speech sounds (phonemes). But this is not accurate. English spellings have evolved to represent both phonemes and meaning (through morphology and etymology), and in direct contradiction to the alphabetic principle, spellings prioritize the consistent spelling of morphemes over the consistent spellings of phonemes. This is important because the alphabetic principle provides the main theoretical motivation for systematic phonics instruction that explicitly teaches children grapheme–phoneme correspondences in English without reference to morphology and etymology. Furthermore, this theoretical claim has biased the research literature, with many studies considering the efficacy of phonics but few studies assessing the relevance of morphology and etymology to reading instruction. We briefly describe the linguistic organization of the English spelling system and then outline pedagogical and empirical arguments in support of the hypothesis that reading instruction should be designed to teach children the logical and meaningful organization of English spellings.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)407-412
Number of pages6
JournalCurrent Directions in Psychological Science
Issue number6
Early online date2 Nov 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2018

Structured keywords

  • Language
  • Cognitive Science


  • alphabetic principle
  • phonics
  • reading
  • structured word inquiry


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