Spelling Tests Don’t Work

Is spelling the worst taught subject? tinysptepsmakebigstrides.com

I really hate spelling lists, you know the ones when the words come out on a Monday and a test is on a Friday.  The ones that have badly spelt words from the previous week or they are from some list that was concocted from a high frequency words list or worse still a topic vocabulary list!

I have been a teacher for 20 years —  three countries later and three children later —  and the teaching of spelling doesn’t seem to have changed much!    Of course, there are schools that teach spelling as it should be taught- but they are few and far between. Research goes on — we know what works — so why don’t our schools teach in a systematic way that will benefit all children.

I just love the poem above because it highlights how without a whole vision about spelling – it can all go horribly wrong.   Spelling isn’t about vocabulary lists about space or the farm because that is the topic of choice for the term.  They should not come from a high-frequency word list either.  High-Frequency words are a post for another day.

Spelling lists should be about pattern.

Effective spelling instruction will always emphasise:

1. The Sounds Of The System – There are 44 sounds – give or take depending on accent, that are broken down into numerous spellings.  Knowledge of sounds, syllables, patterns and meaningful parts of speech are crucial for developing the ability to spell well. See NFIDI article below for more information

2. A Multisensory Approach – Using two or more senses when learning a new skill is vital for effective learning.   To do this children need to experience playing with sounds and words in ways that are meaningful to them at their stage of learning. In the beginning, children need to be playing in the sand scribing letters, making them in play dough, moving around letter cards, stickers or magnetic letters and other fun activities that put learning into context.

Children need time to hear the sounds roll out of their mouths, feel the sounds in their hands and see the sounds.

10 amazing resources for beginning readers - tinystepsmakebigstrides.com

Find more ways to playfully learn with letter sounds here.  Writing on endless worksheets is as Ken Robinson says just low-grade clerical work that results in very little learning taking place. See Article from Learning Wales for more research in this area. 

3. Patterns – There are many patterns of the English language that can be systematically learned, so an effective spelling list should just focus on one pattern that can be played within the classroom and home to effectively engage children in purposeful learning. Check out 10 ways to make spelling fun here. 

10 Of The Best Low Prep Spelling Activities That Really Work - tinystepsmakebigstrides.com

Generally speaking, most children need a systematic cumulative approach for them to fly with all aspects of literacy.  Yes, there are those kids that just get it but they are few and far between.  We love the Sounds Write Lexicon a very helpful tool —  Click here

4. Individual Writing –  Sounds and words need to be played with and activities need to build skill.   To begin within the early years children just need to get some marks on the paper. Flow, creativity and motivation can be all stifled if the mechanics of language are always the focus.   100% correct spelling when writing is the goal, however, correcting everything all the time will only confuse and demotivate children.  The focus should be on correcting one or two spelling patterns, in discussion with the student.  Explaining how language works develops phonemic awareness and comprehension strategies over time.

5. Semantics –  What do the words actually mean?  To truly understand what words mean they need to be used in context.  The poem above highlights this beautifully.   Using a specific set of words in an activity is a great way to get children to comprehend the meaning.  Take the words flour and flower, without there being a context you might never know they mean different things.

So what to do…

If words given on a Monday are tested on a Friday and that is where they stay, no real learning can come from this.

A better approach is to take a group of similar sounds (e.g. /ae/ sound as in acorn, age, mail, play, vein, grey, sleigh, sorbet, break) and use them throughout the week in play, writing and reading activities to immerse children in the learning.   As the children participate, informal assessment of their reading, writing and activities will inform of who gets the spelling system and who doesn’t.

If you really have to have a test- as all schools are data-driven, make it fun — ask children to finish your sentence e.g. The fourth month of the year is… APRIL.

Give them a riddle – It is cold, it can be fruity, it is a yummy dessert…SORBET.

Make it a fun quiz and the results are not the be all and end all.  Ask interesting questions and pretend you are a quiz on the TV e.g. What colour does the sky become just before a storm? Not only can this spark conversation, it also makes kids think about the context of words as well as the spelling.

So many children are able to score highly on a test, yet they don’t spell the words correctly when they freely write.  If children are not transferring their knowledge — did any learning really occur?

Not only will this be fun, but so much more learning and critical thinking will come from finishing sentences, answering questions and riddles and being involved in the process.

This article is the first in a series on the importance of teaching spelling.  Check back next week for fun activities that develop a positive spelling culture.

Let’s bring on a #spellingrevolution 

Research-based articles about the importance of teaching spelling correctly.


Teaching spelling - tinystepsmakebigstrides.com







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