Spelling Tests Don’t Work

Is spelling the worst taught subject? tinysptepsmakebigstrides.com

I really hate spelling lists, you know the ones that 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 qualified to teach at the end of the 20th century,  three countries later and three children later — On the whole, 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.

My children each come home with a spelling list weekly from our local primary. Once upon a time we would engage with the spelling list and I even put the lists into an app so my children could play around with the online puzzles in the hope that the fun games would help.  Why would I do this when I know what works?  I did it because my children want to do what everybody else is doing.  They are now in year 6, year 3 and year 2 and we don’t do the spelling lists anymore.  We haven’t for sometime; we now do what I know works and we are all happier for it.

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.  Just reading and writing won’t cut it, after all to little people the squiggles on a page are meaningless in the beginning.  Children need time to hear the sounds roll out of their mouths, feel the sounds in their hands and see the sounds.  To do this children need to experience playing with sounds. In the beginning if your child is not playing in the sand scribing letters, making them in play dough, moving around letter cards, stickers or magnetic letters in favour of writing on endless worksheets then they are probably not experiencing learning at all!  As Ken Robinson says, endless worksheets are just low grade clerical work. See Article from Learning Wales for more research in this area. 

Teaching spelling - tinystepsmakebigstrides.com

3. Patterns – There are many patterns of the English language that can be systematically learned.  So a spelling list could go something like this — The letter /a/ after a /w/ sound is usually an /o/ sound e.g. what, wand, was, watch, wasp, swan, swap, twaddle and also squad and squash fall into this category as the /qu/ sound is not spelt /kw/ or /cw/ .  This could be a list of 10 spellings for the week and activities in the classroom and at home could use these words and the spelling pattern to effectively engage children in purposeful learning.

4. Individual Writing – Once sounds have been played with, then is the time for writing. Rest assured though if your child doesn’t spell every word correctly it is not to their detriment.  Check out the articles below about spelling mistakes, inventive spelling and the benefits.  Obviously spelling does need to be corrected, however I would argue that every incorrect word does not need to be corrected, maybe focussing on one or two spelling patterns at the most in a piece of work.  Flow, creatively and motivation can be stifled if the mechanics of language are always the focus.   100% correct spelling is the goal, however, it will never make a poorly structured under developed piece of work shine.

5. Systematic Approach – 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.

6. 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 meaning.  Take the words flour and flower, without there being a context you might never know they mean different things.

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
 NIFDI -Implications for practice of current research on spelling.
Teaching spelling - tinystepsmakebigstrides.com
Dyslexia Help, University of Michigan -How should spelling be taught
Teaching spelling - tinystepsmakebigstrides.com
We Are Teachers- Benefits of inventive spelling

Teaching spelling - tinystepsmakebigstrides.com

Teaching spelling - tinystepsmakebigstrides.com
The Conversation – The way we teach most children to read sets them up to fail
Teaching spelling - tinystepsmakebigstrides.com
The Conversation – Why some kids can’t spell and why spelling tests won’t help!







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