Spellings 1: The Problem with Spelling Tests

Although spellings take up time each week in most classrooms, the time spent testing spellings often exceeds the time spent teaching them.

Spelling tests are a weekly ritual in many classrooms around the country. I administered them for years as a teacher and as a child in primary school I did one each week. So important were spelling tests to one of my teachers that she used to display our weekly spelling scores on the classroom wall, and the coveted achievement of a full score was highlighted in red pen.

Spelling tests are so ingrained in the culture of schools that few question them; parents expect them and if you decide not to observe the ritual, you may have to explain why.

The idea is simple: each day from Monday to Thursday children are asked to memorise a selection of spellings at home.

Teachers may teach children a strategy for learning spellings. One popular strategy is
• look at a word
• cover it
• write it, and
• check it.
Each step of the strategy should be practised by the learner, including focusing on the word at the “look” stage and at the end checking the word and noticing what’s right, partly right, or wrong about the attempt.

On Friday, the teacher asks the children to write the spellings of some or all of the assigned words. For each word the teacher will typically say the word, put it in a sentence to show context and repeat the word as follows: “Station. The train pulled slowly into the station. Spell station.”

The problems with the current system are that every child learns the same spellings, the spellings are not tested in the context of children’s free writing, and the focus is on testing spellings rather than on teaching them.

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