Davis Reading Exercises: Spell Reading & Sweep-Sweep-Spell


Building Skills for Visual Word Recognition

hands on paper and book
Students use paper or cards to help guide their eyes as they read. (from blueberry-centre.co.uk)

Davis Spell-Reading and Sweep-Sweep-Spell are important because they build a vital center for reading in the brain. Beginning readers often rely exclusively on phonetic decoding strategies for all words, a process usually centered in the mid-temporal lobe of the left hemisphere, where letter sounds are connected to words. This is a workable means of decoding words, but it is slow ­ and it is particularly difficult for most dyslexics.

Training the Brain

masked reading

Spell Reading and Sweep-Sweep-Spell are exercises for the eyes and brain. They are designed to train the brain to develop the instantaneous, visual word recognition system that non-dyslexics acquire naturally. These techniques are not intended to entirely supplant other strategies. Ideally, the student will only practice Spell-Reading and Sweep-Sweep-Spell for 10 minutes at a time. Practiced daily, this will reinforce the important neural pathways that the exercises build.

Many students are tempted to use their sound-it-out phonics skills at this time. However, the use of phonics at this time defeats the purpose of the exercises. As explained in The Gift of Dyslexia, if the student starts using phonetic strategies, the helper should say:

“You don’t need to sound out the word. Only say the name of the letters one at a time. All we want is for you to name the alphabet letters in the order they are written. Then you say the word after I say it.”

The problem with adding phonics to the mix is that it sends the brain down the wrong path. We are training the brain to use a vital short-cut that is the hallmark of all good readers. An efficient reader is able to recognize a familiar string of letters and match them almost instantaneously to a known word. This skill is sometimes referred to as “orthographic knowledge”.

Every time the brain takes a detour to another path, we reinforce the pre-existing mental habits, and fail to build the mind’s ability to rapidly recognize familiar whole words. This is the reason why dyslexic children schooled heavily in phonics have such difficulty transitioning to fluent reading. Their phonic knowledge is strengthened and reinforced again and again, but this undermines the opportunity to develop the mental shortcut that ordinary readers generally develop at around age eight.

Davis Spell-Reading and Sweep-Sweep-Spell are primarily strategies for training the brain to visually scan the letters of words from left-to-right, and retain a memory of the letters in their correct sequence. Although this will build whole word recognition skills, we do not use these techniques for study of word lists or as a means for learning sight words beyond those encountered in the course of practice. Instead, we use Davis Symbol Mastery, which builds a strong mental connection linking the way a word sounds to what it means and the way the word looks. The clay modeling is a more effective and permanent strategy for mastery of an essential reading vocabulary.

Read more:

For an in-depth analysis of the brain science that supports use of the Davis Reading exercises, see:

Citation Information
Marshall, Abigail (2009) “Davis Reading Exercises: Spell Reading & Sweep-Sweep-Spell.”  Davis Dyslexia Association International, www.dyslexia.com

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  • Eldon

    So you are saying that decoding strategies are not good to use? because they confuses the brain? so what is your solution to teaching reading? sight word method? the most a child can “memorize” is about a 1000 words that’s it! Phonics methods that use a systematic and building methods are SRA reading mastery that incorporate Direct Instruction in a well researched program that has been tested on literally used on millions of children in the united states. if the child can sound out the word, the chances of reading the word correctly dramatically increases.

    • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

      These are exercises that are used to build reading fluency and automaticity. These ar exercisese done at a different time than other types of reading practice, usually in one or two 5-10 minute sessions during the day. You might draw an analogy to practicing scales on the piano — that’s not the time to also try to play melodies. Of course the child can use other strategies for reading decoding and comprehension both during other lessons (at school or if home-schooled) or during independent reading — it’s just that the phonics should not be used during the spell-reading and sweep-sweep-spell exercises because the purpose of these particular exercises is to build up the habit of visually scanning the letters in the correct sequence, and also associating the letter sequence with the whole word.

      Eye tracking studies with dyslexia show that most dyslexics do not visually track the letters in the same sequential manner as typically-developing readers, so this is simply a matter of building up an important skill. All readers need to build up a large reserve of words that are automatically recognized on sight. The process to do this is called orthographic mapping. On average, competent adult readers have a sight vocabulary of about 30,000 to 60,000 words.

      Here’s a good article about sight words and orthographic mapping from another website:

      And here’s an article from our blog explaining what the Davis techniques add to the process that are often stumbling blocks for dyslexic learners:

  • Ella

    Is there any books to start with? I mean I am looking for dyslexia friendly books and so far I couldn’t find something.

    • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

      For purposes of the reading exercises described on this page, any book that is appropriate to the learner’s age, interests, and starting reading level is fine. It doesn’t have to be “dyslexia friendly” because the learner would not be reading independently — instead, these exercises are done in sessions of about 10 minutes, during which the parent or tutor is supplying any word that isn’t recognized immediately. It is probably helpful to pay attention to print size and layout – larger print is better – and also to use a book that can be opened so the pages are flat on the table. It would also be fine to print out selections from any online source.

      Because the reading exercises are focused on building up visual (“orthographic”) skills without any effort at phonetic decoding, it is not necessary or helpful use books that have restricted vocabularies geared to teaching phonetic decoding. So it is fine if the text has words that have irregular spellings. (For example, words like “light” or “school”).

  • Nicolette

    Is this method the same as Linda mood bell’s method of visualizing and verbalizing?

    • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

      The Davis Reading Exercises were developed by Ron Davis at his California center, and are not tied to or drawn from any other commercial program. The exercises described on this page – Spell Reading and Sweep-Sweep-Spell — are designed to build visual-perceptual skills, visual scanning ability, and visual memory of the order and sequence of the letters in each word.

      There is a third exercise, called Picture-at-Punctuation, which you can read about here: https://www.dyslexia.com/davis-difference/davis-tools/picture-at-punctuation/
      This is geared to building comprehension and uses mental visualization and imagery, but unlike other approaches, it is tied very specifically to reading sentences and clauses. The goal is to build the habit of forming the images immediately during the process of reading.

      The use of visualization and mental imagery to build comprehension skills is actually a widespread and well-established educational practice — you can read more about that and will find a research reference list here:
      https://www.dyslexia.com/research/articles/visual-imagery-for-reading-comprehension/ So it is not surprising that you would see similarities between the Davis technique and other approaches which also use or encourage visualization.

      The Davis tools are very simple techniques that can be learned quickly, and are designed to be implemented and practiced on a regular basis, but in very short sessions, during follow up work after an initial Davis program. They can be used with any type of reading material, and do not rely on any sort of textbooks, workbooks, or other prepared material to implement.

    • KB

      It is not. I have read Davis’ book The Gift of Dyslexia and own the homeschool version of Visualizing and Verbalizing. As I understand it thus far the Davis’ method focuses on symbol imagery mastery, Lindamood-Bell’s Seeing Stars also addresses symbol image mastery, but not in this way. Visualizing and Verbalizing addresses gestalt imagery weakness–that is, creating a mental picture of the meaning of a word, phase, passage. V&V trains the brain to see pictures, starting with pictures. the other is training the brain to see the letters and words made up of letters.

  • Kori J

    Are these techniques (sweep sweep spell and spell reading) shared in the book The Gift of Dyslexia or are they a boxed type program that you work through?

  • rena

    How do sweep sweep spell and spell reading differ…

    • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

      Sweep-sweep-spell is a more advanced version of the exercise, done as the student gains confidence. It helps the student move from visual decoding of words (by focusing on individual letters), to building the habit of visually scanning words left to right for word recognition.