Recently, I came across this article which discusses why spelling tests, and the “spelling test” model of teaching kids how to spell, isn’t as effective as we may think. It reiterated everything I learned when taking one of my favorite courses, “Teaching Writing,” in graduate school. Spelling tests teach memorization; there are over two hundred and fifty thousand words in the English language, and between 10 and 20 words on a typical spelling test…so we’d need a lot of spelling tests to churn out great spellers through rote memorization!
Furthermore, many spelling tests operate on weekly word lists. The students who learn the weekly words move on to the next week’s list, as do the students who only learned half. It would seem that some kids are simply naturally good at spelling, or at least memorization, while others struggle endlessly. Why? Because the English language is basically a complex system of codes and patterns, many borrowed from other languages. Teaching kids these codes and patterns, which are far less numerous than teaching all the individual words themselves, allows kids to learn to spell whole groups of words effectively.
Now, the article was interesting to me because it reinforced something I knew to be true: teaching kids how to spell is most effectively done with a combination of phonics and word study. What came as a surprise to me were the comments that followed the article on the Facebook page through which it had been “shared.” So many parents were chastising “lazy teachers” for letting their children come home with writing containing misspelled words. Teachers were insisting that while good old-fashioned spelling tests weren’t fun, they were a part of life, and kids should learn to “deal with” unpleasant things like spelling tests. I was shocked!
First, if you’re a parent (and there’s a good chance you are if you’re here,) do not panic if your child’s drawing of him on the ferris wheel is captioned by “I M ON A FRS WEL.” This kind of spelling, which has many names (invented spelling, kid writing, phonetic spelling, etc), shows that children are learning that letters represent sounds in speech. They are listening so closely to the words they intend to write and hearing as many sounds as they are able to identify. While they’re spelling isn’t yet correct, having a teacher sit and feed them each letter would teach them to simply ask someone else how to spell; not to hear the sounds and write them down. Your child’s teacher is not lazy; she is teaching students to learn the rules of our written language so they can write independently.
Secondly, if you’re a teacher, give word study a try. It is very different from the “old” way of following a list of preselected words and certainly more labor-intensive in the beginning, but it leads to huge gains in conventional spelling showing up in written work more consistently. Spelling tests still certainly have their place to show where students may need further instruction, but they aren’t the sole focus of the spelling curriculum.
Move over spelling tests, and embrace kids learning to write through phonics and word studies!