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3 Reasons Why Spelling Tests Don’t (Always) Work


What’s wrong with this traditional, time-honored method? Short answer: it may not work.

Does this sound like your spelling instruction, either from your own experience or with your kids?

Monday: Receive list of about twenty words; take pre-test.

Tuesday-Thursday: Interact with words on list through various activities (writing them ten times, sentences, word searches).

Friday: Take final test. And then, maybe even if you got 100% on the test…

Following Monday: Need to use one of the words in a sentence. Spell it wrong.

So what’s wrong with this traditional, time-honored method? Short answer: it may not work. At least, if the goal is to internalize proper spelling into long-term memory so kids can write clearly and effectively, it may not.

And isn’t that the goal of learning to spell? As an adult, I can count on zero fingers the number of spelling tests I’ve had to take.

3 Reasons Why Spelling Tests May Not Work

They Emphasize Short Term Memory

Quick, tell me what was on your grocery list from March 23, 2007. You can’t? Well, of course not, even though you could possibly have recited it the next day, or even a week or two after if you’re really good. But item list memory goes into short-term memory. That means once you don’t need it any more, it’s gone, erased to make room for more list items. That’s why your student aces their spelling test but can’t recall the proper spelling when they want to use the word in their writing. Which leads us to the next reason…

They Take Words Out of Context

When words are linked to meaningful context, the brain is more likely to transfer them to long-term memory. Contextually interesting passages at an appropriate reading level gives students something meaningful to connect the words to—creating linkage—which allows words to make it into long-term visual memory. (How many times have you written a word a few ways until it “looks” right? That’s long-term visual memory.)

English Has No Hard and Fast Spelling Rules

When we learn a “rule,” it’s almost always followed with a list of the exceptions to that rule. Traditionally, spelling lists are grouped around one spelling “rule” – a certain combination of letters that make a certain sound. Because English is a conglomeration of different languages – Germanic, Romance, Slavic, as well as words appropriated from virtually every spoken language in the world. This is why phonics is not our only friend when we get beyond consonant-short vowel-consonant (cvc) early reading words. There are many, many words that don’t follow spelling rules that need to be automatically available from our brains when we write.

Have You Heard About Spelling You See?

Spelling You See is a different (not difficult!) spelling curriculum that provides the tools to help students develop confidence in spelling through an effective, engaging, low-stress learning experience that looks very different from most other spelling programs.

Contact us below and get a free, no-obligation consultation from our experts.

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