Why Spelling Tests Are Ineffective (for most!)

As an English teacher myself, you’d think that I would love spelling tests along with any other literacy based homework. But I don’t. I hate spelling tests. I find spelling tests are ineffective and here’s why.

For a week, each evening after school we sit and go over the spellings in Isabella’s little red book. I always start by asking her to just try her best so I can see where she’s at before we begin. Inevitably, at just 6-years-old, lots of the spellings are wrong and so the grind begins. We look for patterns in the words, we use phonics to help spell out the words we try highlighting the part of the word she struggles to remember and by the end of the week, we’ve done it. We’ve mastered the 15 spellings on the list and Isabella will come home feeling triumphant that she’s great at  spelling.

What’s Wrong?

However, this morning after our final ‘pre-test’ before her actual test in school today (where she got all 15 spellings correct), I asked her to write some sentences using the words we’ve been tirelessly learning. She was jubilant at the idea and quickly began writing in her diary.

After 5 minutes, I was beckoned over to read through the sentences she’d lovingly written. Why were the spellings wrong? I looked at Isabella and smiled. “Great effort, darling,” I said. “But how do you spell ‘thought’?”. She stared back at me and giggled, “t-h-o-u-g-h-t”. My reply, “So why have you written ‘t-h-o-g-t’?”. Her reply was “Oops!” before she quickly changed it.

My point being that simply giving children 15 spellings to learn each week and write down in a list, isn’t actually helping them to learn the spellings as effectively as you might think. Although they can regurgitate these words in a list from week to week, the longevity of remembering and actually learning to spell these words just isn’t there.

This doesn’t mean that I think spelling isn’t important. It is. In fact, I am trying to encourage Isabella to learn more spellings as it’s something I struggled with hugely as a child (and still do to a certain degree). I just think we need to look at different ways of helping children to learn their spellings. They need to be exposed to spellings in reading, through writing and in more hands-on spelling activities.

What Can You Do Instead?

To try to get your children to learn spellings, exposure is the best option. Choose books with particular words or word patterns in that you are going to focus on. As your child is reading, get them to point out certain words in the text. Talk about the meaning of the word with them. Then get your children to write imaginatively using certain spellings. Try to make learning spellings fun!

You can make word search puzzles with the words in (include a few red herrings too!) You can use phonics and sound buttons to help your child learn the sounds within the words. You can use white boards and coloured pens to clearly show the different sounds (this is especially good for sight words which don’t follow certain patterns.

There are so many different ways you could help your child to learn their spellings yet rote learning still seems to be the most popular method.

Have you tried any other strategies to help your children learn to spell? What do you find works the best?

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