Do Spelling Tests Improve Spelling? ( and Alternatives)

Since the first letters were drawn on a wall we have been using spelling tests with our children to test and teach how to spell words, it may have become a little more sophisticated in recent years but the trials and tribulations of spelling tests have been a regular feature in classrooms all over the world. Do they actually add anything to students skill base though?

Undertaking spelling tests does not help students develop spelling skills. There are strategies that help to improve spelling. Utilizing summative assessments with skills or phonics-based instruction can be beneficial. Rote learning or dictation tests have limited educational purpose however.

Why Don’t Spelling Tests Help?

People, parents especially often think that this is how we learned to spell and that we do a perfectly fine job now. The problem is that not everyone does. Many people who were taught using this method now complain of being terrible spellers. There are a few reasons that this occurs.

Spelling Isn’t Entirely Formulaic

Yes, there are some things that can be taught as spelling rules, but there are tens if not hundreds of spelling exceptions, one of the most cited rules with exceptions is the “i before e except after c” rule. The exceptions do not start there. I could write an entire blog post about spelling exceptions and still not reach all of the English language exceptions.

As someone who has studied grammar and spelling, I know that English spelling is a result of a mishmash of roots for our words. We aren’t entirely Latin, Germanic, Romance, or any other type of language. English is a thief language—it borrows from everyone without asking. A Buzzfeed article once looked at all the ways the English language was infuriating.

While it’s not a great news source, one thread they shared showed a user saying, “English isn’t a language, it’s three languages stacked on top of each other wearing a trenchcoat.”

Honestly, there is no better way to describe it. English is made up of so many other languages a list of words to learn to spell, even if they are related, doesn’t teach you how to approach spelling other words.

Rote Memorization Doesn’t Work

Before the mathematics friends pop in, saying, “but isn’t that how we learned times tables?” Those don’t work well that way either. Spelling needs to be taught as a system. Rather than i before e words in a list, we need our students to begin to understand how letters work together to form sounds.

One of the exceptions to that rule is “in words like neighbor, Raleigh, and sleigh,” or some group of words with an ei pattern. These letters also have a specific sound. Though Raleigh is often pronounced Rawlee in North Carolina, the original pronunciation was likely more of a Rahlay pattern.

This gives all of these an ay sound rather than ee. Though you may have done well on spelling tests, how many words do you have to look up or think carefully about now? They didn’t enter your long-term memory. They stayed in the short term for Friday’s test. If you are looking for long vowel practice you can check these out on our site as well.

What Can I Do Instead of Spelling Tests?

There are several activities you might use rather than rote memorization an spelling tests. The critical factor is to pay attention to student learning patterns and questions. Here are a few tips and you can find a few more here both theirs and ours are designed by teachers

Meaningful Learning Requires Meaningful Activities

Spelling tests with lists or multiple-choice words don’t provide much meaningful activity. First, the words are often listed alphabetically and have little connection other than spelling patterns. While patterns are essential and should be studied, they do not provide students with word contexts. The following example works well for older students but may work for some younger ones depending on their comprehension.

One of the things I use to teach about the forms of “there” is how to use them. First, THERE contains the word “here,” which indicates placement. THEIR contains the word “heir,” which is a word they do not always know. Then we talk about what an heir is.

This is someone who will inherit money or items. They have a lot of possessions. This word is possessive. Finally, THEYRE contains an apostrophe (it is bold but may be hard to see). This means that two words are smushed together because pronouns (there) only contain apostrophes when they are contractions.

This ways of explaining also leads students to often ask follow-up questions such as, “What about it’s or its?” Then I can explain that one is a contraction and the other is possessive. Your and You’re have similar explanations—if it’s OUR house, it belongs to us. If it’s YOUR house, it belongs to you.

However, YOU’RE indicates a contraction—you are. I also tell my students with your vs. you’re, “break it down into ‘you are,’ and if it makes sense in the sentence, the contraction is correct. If not, your is correct.” This helps them not just understand how to spell but why we choose each form. We are also using authentic writing. When students correct their own writing, they tend to retain it more.

Vocabulary Notebook

One thing that helps students interact with texts more is to study unfamiliar words. While you might make a list of unfamiliar words from this week’s plans, this doesn’t mean that students will know all of the other words. Also, during independent activities, they may come across other unfamiliar words. One thing that I have had students do is write down unfamiliar words as they come to them in a notebook or on a sticky note.

Then, when they get to the end of the page or paragraph, stop and look the word up in the dictionary. If it has multiple meanings, try to see which meaning would make the most sense in the sentence. If he or she isn’t sure, ask a teacher or parent for help. Then, write the definition of this word. Writing the word and definition can often help students retain the information such as meaning and spelling.

This word meant something in their day. It isn’t just a set of words chosen for them. If they choose, they can arrange their notebook alphabetically and write it in the appropriate section.

Word Studies Vs Spelling tests

Word studies are becoming more popular. They look at the spelling patterns and combinations of letters to produce better spelling. Remember when we were talking about the ei in neighbor and weigh. Well, that is a defined pattern with specific phonemic properties.

Students will then begin to study word patterns and words that are similar to other patterns. Yes, it returns classes to phonemic awareness and concepts, but this is not “Hooked on Phonics.” Phonics, phonemic awareness, patterns, and language all come together in spelling. Students will also learn more about meaning from roots and patterns. We have hundreds of phonics activities here to help with this

Final Thoughts

Spelling tests should be about more than rote memorization. You can test a student’s ability to spell through specific activities and authentic sources. Using a child’s work to teach them spelling gives them a stake in the concept. They will no longer be worried about memorizing a meaningless list, but they will be focused on spelling words that make their writing clearer.

Young students should begin using phonics, phonemic awareness, and language to learn about spelling and meaning. The more the words mean to students, the more likely they are to retain the information. They can also learn to read and spell more words because they understand why and how the patterns work.

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