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.
Posted on Categories Writing

2 thoughts on “The Problem with Spelling Tests”

  1. Hi – interesting point of view for sure but I do disagree with most of it. I’m just a parent of two dyslexic children and if my oldest would have had spelling tests in elementary school there is no doubt he would have been diagnosed sooner than he did. So many words can not be spelled based on the sounds they hear. Also, how else do they learn “here, hear, to, too and two” and so many more? Spelling and vocab tests are so important. Along with a list of words on the spelling tests there should be nonsense words for them to spell – that’s how a teacher will truly know if the students have learned the concept/rule. A student will memorize how to spell “miss”, fluff” or “pill” but if also test them on a nonsense words such as “liff” or “sass”, they can’t memorize those words from flashcards. Along this same spelling rule, if you test them on the words “gas” and “bus” they should know to only use one “s” at the end and the reason why. Good spellers make good readers and writers.

    1. Hi Kim,

      Thank you for your comments. I think you and I agree more than we disagree. I am absolutely in favor of spelling instruction, and in favor of spelling assessment, including spelling novel words with the same pattern. I include spelling in all of my OG lessons, and I included it in my classroom instruction, as well.

      As I explained in this post, what I take issue with is the idea of the weekly spelling test because often, it involves giving a list of words with more than one spelling pattern and giving kids practice strategies like “write a sentence” and “write your words 5 times each” that promote rote memorization. My experience (and research) says that memorization of spelling is not the best strategy for lasting learning. As far as to, two and too, and hear and here, students need to learn the rules and history behind those spellings and they need to learn to map the irregular spellings in words to the sounds in the word. And that’s something a lot of spelling curricula (including Words Their Way, which I mentioned in this post but no longer recommend except as a supplemental resource used by a skilled teacher) don’t offer.

      Children (especially learners with dyslexia) need multiple exposures to a pattern and they need to grow their familiarity with different words that follow the pattern, exceptions to the rule, and other patterns that spell the same sound over time, and none of that is accomplished when they spell 10 words on a Friday spelling test and never see them again.

      I don’t teach spelling with nonsense words, though. It works at the early stages, but once a child knows the sound /ks/ for x and the suffix s, how would they know if a nonsense word is nax or nacks? So instead, I use continuous review over time. Sometimes I say, “This word is probably one you’ve never seen before. It’s not common. What are your options for spelling the __ sound?” and we practice reasoning through the options based on how common they are.


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