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Just say no to spelling tests!

When I was in elementary school, I started to get extreme headaches. My headaches would occur frequently (especially on Fridays) and were such a problem that my mom took me to the doctor because she was so concerned. I had children’s pain medication on hand in the nurse’s office for headaches that came on while I was at school. Years later, I finally figured out exactly why I was getting these debilitating headaches…Spelling Tests.

Every Friday, as far back as I can remember, I had to take weekly spelling tests. This is not uncommon, and most people can relate to this. Weekly spelling tests are a common education practice across the country. A list of spelling words would come home on Monday. We were expected to practice the words in different activities, and then take a test on those words at the end of the week. A lot of people would never think back to these Fridays and start immediately tensing up, but I do.

I don't ever remember getting 100% on any spelling test. Usually, my tests would bleed red from errors, and my grades would regularly fall in the 60% or less range. Many people would say, “Well, you just needed to practice more.” (I’m getting fired up just from writing that sentence!) I did practice. I practiced a lot. I always did my homework and, usually, I would do extra work to practice more. Despite my efforts, however, I would still fail. I would fail because I am dyslexic, which means I do not have a strong visual memory for words. It did not matter that I wrote each word 10 times, used them in sentences, wrote all the diacritic marks, or made flashcards and drilled in every spare moment. When it came time for the spelling test on Friday, I would not be able to remember the way most of the words were spelled and I would fail the test.

I can’t tell you how damaging this was to my self-esteem. I regularly came up with ways to hide my horrid spelling abilities from the people around me. My handwriting gradually got messier and messier, because if the words were illegible, no one could tell I misspelled them. As soon as I hit high school and teachers wanted everything typed, I used spell check like it was my right hand. I also had my mom edit everything. There was hardly a paper that was turned in that she didn’t see and edit first. Basically, I learned to cope. Despite all the spelling exercises my elementary teachers sent home, I never learned to spell well using those techniques. All the work I put in studying for those spelling tests was a waste; a waste of time, energy, and happiness.

A child’s life should not be filled with debilitating headaches, especially over something that is so trivial and unbeneficial as a spelling test. There isn’t any research I am aware of that shows weekly spelling tests are the best way to test spelling ability. The majority of the spelling practice work I see from students is not beneficial for them either, just as it was not for me. Seriously, our kids are wasting so much time and energy on spelling practice that just does not work. Let’s stop the madness!

Instead of the archaic, unbeneficial spelling practice currently being used in so many classrooms, let’s use strategies that are actually beneficial.

  1. Make sure students have good phonemic awareness skills. If a student cannot orally separate sounds and syllables in words, he/she is going to have a very hard time spelling.

  2. Teach students to tap out the syllables in the words, and to spell each syllable sound by sound.

  3. Teach the spelling rules. There are 96 spelling rules in the English language, and most Orton-Gillingham based programs teach all 96 of these rules. The Barton Reading and Spelling System even has picture cards for each spelling rule that really help students remember the rules.

  4. Test spelling in low-stake ways. This can be through the students’ day to day writing. These types of practices will really tell teachers and parents if a child knows the spelling of words verses just memorizing the spelling for an isolated test.

  5. Allow students to correct their spelling mistakes. So many dyslexic students need to first concentrate on the sounds in the word; then, they can go back and apply spelling rules to make sure they used the right letters to spell each sound. Also, many students won’t even realize they spelled the word incorrectly until they are gently led to discover their mistakes for themselves.

  6. Practice sight words in a multisensory manner using sight, sound, touch and pictures. Flash cards do not work.

  7. Accommodate with assistive technology like individual spell checkers, and word processing software with spell checking capabilities.

  8. Above all, remember this: DO NOT DRILL AND KILL

It is my hope that no child has to ever feel physical pain due to the stress of spelling.

Thank you for reading,

Laura Busby

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