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Are Spelling and Reading Manipulatives Effective?


Other than helping to keep hands occupied and minds engaged, is there actual value to using “manipulatives” to teach spelling and reading?

Other than helping to keep hands occupied and minds engaged, is there actual value to using manipulatives to teach spelling and reading?

Let’s face it – it can be hard to make a language arts curriculum interesting. Sometimes the reading passages can capture a child’s attention, and colorful graphics may help, but the actual work of learning letters, sounds, punctuation rules, parts of speech, spelling patterns, etc., can be downright tedious. It’s no wonder that parents can be drawn to programs that include letter tiles, magnetic letters, or foam letters (especially in pretty colors).

There has been some research that supports using letter tiles or magnetic letters to develop reading skill, especially for students with language-based learning issues. Being able to break a word easily into its component letters can help children with word analysis and decoding. However, it’s important to remember that learning to read and learning to spell are two very different processes. If letter tiles help students with reading, do they also work for spelling?



Actually, researchers have found that the best way to make spelling “stick” is to have the child write the words by hand. More recent studies, using advancing technology to study the brain, have supported these findings.

A 2012 study compared three groups of students: those who traced a letter, those who wrote it freehand, and those who typed it on a computer. Those who wrote the letter by hand showed increased activity in the areas of the brain that are activated by adults as they read and write.

Another researcher found that the brains of students who wrote by hand showed greater activity in the areas associated with reading, writing, and working memory.

It is becoming increasingly evident that writing by hand stimulates important areas of the brain that help students improve language skill, especially in the area of spelling.

Language Arts Manipulatives

All of this makes sense when considering the processes involved in handwriting, as opposed to using letter tiles or magnetic letters. When working with the manipulatives, the student must execute these tasks:

1) Think about the sound being made.
2) Decide which letter needs to be written. (visual memory)
3) Choose the letter from a total group of letters. (visual discrimination)
4) Place the letter in the correct order. (visual sequencing)

Writing by Hand

Note that, with letter tiles and magnetic letters, the hand follows the exact same motion for every letter. This is significantly different from the process of writing by hand:

1) Think about the sound being made.
2) Decide which letter needs to be written. (visual memory)
3) Think about how the letter is formed. (kinesthetic memory)
4) Engage the proper hand motions. (kinesthetic sequencing)

Writing by hand helps students take greater advantage of more areas of the brain, which is why it’s a core component of Spelling You See. We invite you to investigate this unique research-based program that is easy to use and fun for students.

Image source: Munchkin Inc.



About Jean Soyke

Jean Soyke is a certified elementary educator with specialties in math and curriculum development. She taught in both public and private schools before homeschooling her four children, grades K-12.


One thought on “Are Spelling and Reading Manipulatives Effective?

  1. Suzie Homemaker

    My 3rd grade teacher had me write words 250 times. I still failed the test. Just because the brain is more engaged does not mean they will remember it. I now teach my kid with Learning Press’s spelling. Those magnet even help me remember phonics I never learned. Very little of phonics taught in 70s. So no matter what researchers say. The proof is in what kids learn. Not in a computer hooked to the brain see activity. A

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