The roles of spelling exposure and print referencing in vocabulary instruction

This article begins with a literature review that differentiates simply exposing a child to the spelling of a word in print from explicitly referencing that spelling in print, referred to as print referencing. When using print referencing, the researchers prompted students to point to the target word in print. The goals of the study were to 1) determine the effect of spelling exposure on learning pronunciations and meanings of vocabulary words, 2) compare the effects of spelling exposure and print referencing on vocabulary word learning, and 3) compare the vocabulary word learning of advanced and less advanced readers.


The 45 first-grade participants in the study all had knowledge of 18 or more letter–sound combinations. Students were split into two groups: one group received spelling exposure intervention only and the other received spelling exposure plus print referencing intervention. Students in the spelling exposure only group 1) saw the picture + word card, 2) were told the pronunciation/meaning of the word, and 3) repeated the pronunciation/meaning. For the print referencing group, researchers additionally drew students’ attention to the spelling on the card by prompting students to point to it. Note that cards without any printed word at all were also compared.


  • Spelling being included on the picture cards supported word pronunciation (even 14 days later!)
  • Print exposure alone was sufficient to support learning word meanings (print referencing didn’t help… nor did print referencing help pronunciations).

Although print referencing did not have a significant effect on vocabulary word learning, the study suggests that spelling exposure facilitates first graders’ learning of word pronunciations—and remembering these pronunciations—which the authors note is more challenging than learning word meanings. The study’s results support prior findings in similar research with second and fifth graders.

Chambre, S. J., Ehri, L. C., & Ness, M. (2017). Orthographic facilitation of first graders’ vocabulary learning: does directing attention to print enhance the effect? Reading and Writing, 30(5), 1137–1156.