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Are Spelling Tests Helpful?

Spelling tests are an extremely common practice in Ontario classrooms. But are they a helpful tool in supporting children to become skilled spellers?

How do kids become skilled spellers?

Becoming a skilled speller involves the development of a set of skills that allow children to “crack the code”. This allows them to not only spell a list of words but also many new words. This set of skills includes:

  1. First, children break up a word into its individual sounds (this requires a skill called phonological awareness)

  2. Next, children connect each sound they hear to the letter or letter(s) that can make that sound (this requires skills in phonics)

  3. Last, children write each letter down (this requires fine motor skills, knowledge of letter formations and much more!)

There is a group of children do learn to do this quite easily, seemingly without much teaching of the steps, but most children need to be taught how to do this. And a portion of those children will need a high amount of supported practice and feedback to learn to do this skillfully.

It's important to point out that becoming a skilled speller is not accomplished through memorizing lists of words.

Are spelling tests helpful?

It depends. I know this isn't the answer you were hoping for. We all want a clear cut yes or no, but let's dive a bit deeper.

As a speech-language pathologist with extensive experience in literacy, I support the use of spelling tests when they incorporate the 3-step process described above in the teaching and practice leading up to the spelling test.

I do not support the use of spelling tests when:

  • They have children spelling words that are beyond their skill level (for example, if children have not been taught -tion, I don’t believe it’s fair for the word action to be on a spelling test)

  • Preparing for the spelling test encourages kids to memorize the words

  • The list of words has a high amount of words that do not follow regular letter-sound patterns before children have a strong sense of the connection between letters and sounds. These words could include: should, heart, many, what.

Spelling tests that have children memorizing words beyond their understanding can lead to: encouraging a habit of guessing in reading and writing, frustration, and even shame.

What could a spelling test look like in early grade 1?

This is only one example but a spelling list may include: pet, hop, zap, tin, quit, tug, fun, rat, ten, hot. For this spelling list, a child must be able to:

  1. Break up a word that has 3 sounds into its individual sounds

  2. Connect sounds with letters for a, e, i, o, u, f, h, g, n, p, qu, r, t, z

  3. Write those letters onto a page one at a time from left to right

Once a child has these skills, it’s time to teach children how to do this 3-step process and then provide opportunities for repetitive practice. Some kids need very little repetition and other kids need a very, very high amount of practice to be successful. Remember, this practice isn’t about memorizing words. Supporting kids to become skillful spellers is about teaching and practicing the skills to "crack the code".

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