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Two questions from teachers:
I have a question that was posed to me be an elementary principal. Her question was, “How many times does a student need to write a high frequency word before they feel secure with it?”  [I must admit, I have never been asked this question before, and I cannot find research that addresses this specific question.]
The teachers in my school have kids copying missed spelling words 15 times. Is this a good idea?
Shanahan’s reponse:
Everyone knows that in order to accomplish great proficiency, musicians, and athletes must engage in a great deal of repetitive practice. It would make sense that readers and writers would need to do the same thing to become accomplished with the words of their language.
Yet analogies can be problematic. Two phenomena may be strikingly similar, but there are always differences (that’s why they are analogies). There definitely are useful drills in music and athletics, but that doesn’t mean that language works the same way.
Repetition is important in language learning, but not necessarily the kind of repetition provided by writing a word over and over again.
I have found no studies on the repetition of word writing or spelling, which surprised me. However, there is a substantial body of psychological research on word recognition (primarily because many psychologists have been interested in memory and word memories are relatively easy to study). None of these studies, as far as I can tell, look at comfort level; they are more likely to consider reaction times, correct responses, and generalization to other words.
Basically, these studies suggest that the number of repetitions needed to learn a word is about 10-15 times, with lots of variation — among kids and words. For example, poor readers may require 12-25 reps to “learn” a word, while better readers may get away with only 8-12 (Lemoine, Levy, & Hutchison, 1993).
Of course, words with regular sound-symbol relationships are learned about 25% faster than those with irregular spelling patterns. Studies also show that kids probably aren’t really memorizing words as much as they are becoming increasingly sensitive to intraword segments — combinations of letters within the words (Aaron, Wilczynski, & Keetay, 1998). This is probably why so many studies have found that words are much easier to learn through repetition than are nonwords (Jeffries, Frashish & Noble, 2009).
Which points out why repetition may not be the best approach to “word memory.” Most of our word memories do not come through brute force memorization, though initially that is all we have. To learn words, people analyze the words for lexical and auditory/orthographic information, and these features are what allows later word recall for reading or spelling. Repetition helps — you can build some kind of word memory through rote repetition. But to develop a powerful, flexible understanding of words, you need to ask yourself, “repetition of what?”
Kids are likely to learn a lot more words through pattern analysis (e.g., phonics) and the kinds of sorting activities recommended by Don Bear, Shane Templeton, and their colleagues.
When I was a classroom teacher, I worried less about the number of repetitions kids made when they wrote, than I did about them trying to get them to build a visual memory of the words. I would have them “take a picture” with their eyes. Then I’d hide the word and ask, “Can you still see the picture?” Kids would then try to spell the word from memory.
Given my success with that, I’m not surprised that the so-called, “Cover-Copy-Compare” method works (Joseph, Konrad, Coates, Vajcner, Eveleigh, & Fishley, 2001; Skinner, McLaughlin, & Logan, 1997). The kids visually analyze a word, then cover it up, try to recompose it from memory, and visually compare their written attempt with the word. That’s a form of repetition, but one with greater attention to building memory than to copying. Similar, the teacher who has kids trying to read or write a word repeatedly, might do better by supplementing or replacing this repetition with guided attention to the particular elements and features of the words (such as, “this ‘e’ is silent, or this one has two vowels side by side).
Finally, research suggests that repetition may be important, but such repetition may better be built into language processing than working with lists and the like (Ideda & Morita, 2003). Reading or writing certain words again and again that are embedded in stories or articles, rather than presented list like, seems to provide greater support for learning (it may be a kind of interval training — you see the word, then you see some other words, then you see the word). Thus, writing high frequency words within the context of sentences or paragraphs may place more appropriate memory demands on learners.
Kindergartners tend to have very limited word memory, while typical second- or third-graders often can learn new words very quickly. This is the result of developing knowledge of sound-symbol relationships and spelling patterns; that knowledge makes words “stickier.” As Linnea Ehri has long pointed out, trying to learn a sight word when you are 5-years-old can be a major challenge — depending a lot on repetition and misleading mnemonics (like “monkey” has a tail). However, as kids gain an understanding of the spelling system, sight vocabulary develops much faster; often with very few exposures and no rote work at all.
Repetition clearly has a role in reading and spelling — part of building that a system of word knowledge is getting some words into kids heads, but word analysis and repetition within natural language should be the major work horses in that endeavor. I encourage teachers to teach sight vocabulary to beginning readers, but I limit such memory work to about 5 minutes per day, and with both sight word learning and spelling, one tries to make such repetition sensible rather than rote. 
It is true that high frequency words do not have typical spelling patterns, but it is rare that all of their elements are odd (e.g., the vowel pronunciation in “the” is a bit funky, but the /th/ is a more consistent element). Analyzing such words, rather than just repeating them again and again, is a better avenue to long-term learning than copying it over and over again.

About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
March 7, 2016