The Problem with Spelling Tests

I was doing a little bit of research about spelling instruction to prepare for this post and I found this piece on Psychology Today by Dr. J. Richard Gentry that made me want to scream!  In this short article, he criticizes a school district in Ohio, based only on what he saw in a brief news story, because they abandoned the practice of weekly spelling tests. So what’s wrong with the humble spelling test?

Gentry equates eliminating the weekly spelling test with eliminating spelling instruction. He mentions but dismisses the district’s claim that test scores have risen since they changed their spelling practice.

But why does Gentry oppose this change? Because in the video he saw, the fifth grade students were spelling words like “yes, rest, past, like” which he calls second-grade spelling words. He’s right. I would expect fifth graders to have mastered these words and to be working on spelling patterns like adding prefixes to words or creating different forms of a word, like connecting pretend and pretentious. He has dyslexia and argues that he would not be successful without the spelling instruction he got, and notes that poor spelling can have lifelong negative effects for people.

He’s not wrong about the perils of being a poor speller, but his conclusion that the only way to do it is to give a weekly spelling test is wrong and dangerous. This is a seven-year-old article, so I can’t provide my own analysis of the clip, which appears to no longer be available.

Gentry seems to believe the same thing that many elementary school teachers believe, something I disagree with strongly: Having kids memorize a list of words and testing them at the end of the week will cause them to become better spellers. It’s like memorizing lists of ingredients to become a better cook.

Children learn to become good spellers by working with words. They need to think about the sounds in the words, identify how those sounds are spelled, and practice writing the example words and other words with the same pattern. To give children the practice they need, I prefer a word study approach like the one used in the Words Their Way curriculum. Teachers using Words Their Way begin by assessing students and counting not how many words they get right but which patterns they are spelling correctly and which they still need to learn. For example, a student might be able to spell short vowel sounds but not use the silent e rule to spell long vowels like make and pine. Armed with that information, a teacher chooses which developmentally-appropriate rule to teach and chooses a set of words to practice it. Students cut apart the words, printed on slips of paper and physically manipulate them, sorting them into groups that share the same feature and comparing them to words that do not. Throughout the week, students use the words for reading, writing and spelling, alone and with partners and groups. And at the end of the week? They get a new set of words.

But what about the spelling test? That comes at the end of the unit. After the students have studied the whole group of patterns, like all the short vowel sounds, for example, they take a unit assessment in which they spell words from their lists, or words with the same patterns that were not on their lists. This is important because it assesses whether children just memorized the words or learned the rule or pattern that enables them to spell those words for life.

Unfortunately, I see that system being gutted and used the same way my old second grade spelling book was used. Teachers are using the sorting routines but then just rattling off those words on Friday and grading how many the kids get right. So you know what the kids do? They go home and memorize the words on flashcards and have their parents quiz them, just like we did with the old spelling tests.

When nothing changes, nothing changes. And until teachers really understand and embrace what it means to learn spelling through phonics and analysis, poor spellers will continue to be poor spellers. Unless we tell kids why bread and meat are both spelled with the ea vowel digraph and help them practice when to use which sound, they will be relying on visual memory or just plain guessing when they spell those words.

So while I wholeheartedly agree that spelling instruction is critical to helping children become both good writers and good readers, a weekly spelling test and assignments like “write your words three times” are a colossal waste of powerful learning time for many students who struggle to spell.

If your child needs help with spelling, I can help. Contact me today for a free 30-minute consultation to find out how I can help with reading, writing and spelling.

Spelling tests are a waste of time and do not make kids better spellers.

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