I loved spelling tests when I was in elementary school. I was good at spelling and didn't even have to study to get good grades. So when I began teaching elementary school, I followed the lead of those who had been teaching that grade level for many years as well as what I remembered from my days in elementary school. We followed the spelling list in the Teacher's Manual for reading. The kids wrote the words down on Monday, wrote it several times in their spelling book for homework that night, wrote a sentence with each word the next night, alphabetized the list on Wednesday, and studied for the test on Thursday night. After the test on Friday, parents waited anxiously for the tests to be returned, and we had happy kids or sad kids, depending on how they did. Sometimes, parents would say, "We studied all night long, and he knew how to spell the word last night. I don't understand why he missed it."
I began to question the value of spelling tests. I was concerned that students were scoring 100% on Friday, yet they were misspelling those same words when they wrote in their journal or responded to a question the following week. When a parent shared that he'd promised to take his son to Toys 'R Us if he scored 100% on his test, I realized that I needed to rethink whether spelling tests were that important.
So I changed what I was doing. On Monday, the students would take a pre-test, and if a student scored 90%-100%, he/she was exempt from taking the test on Friday. They still did the homework, but these students didn't have to write the word several times in their spelling book. At least I was differentiating, I thought, but really, those spelling tests still bothered me. I also noticed that some students felt defeated; they were working so hard but still not getting the kind of scores they wanted. "Is spelling so important?" I asked myself. It would have been so easy to abandon spelling altogether and take the heat when parents questioned why. In the back of my mind, however, I knew that to be an effective reader and writer, a person needs to be aware of spelling. Knowing patterns and rules does help to decode words and to make connections between letters and sounds which then lead to fluency in reading and writing.
Then I bought a book on teaching spelling, and my biggest "aha" was that spelling is developmental. (I wish I still had that book because it changed my thinking about spelling.) The book contained lists for each grade level, and teachers could determine a child's developmental stage by how they spelled the words. I found it so interesting that how a child spelled a word could determine their developmental stage and influence what and how I taught those children. Recently, I found the "Monster Test" that I remember giving to my students a few years ago. It was a simple way to give students a short test and determine their approximate developmental level for spelling. As I recall, it was really quite accurate and helped me to understand what level students were at and how I could help them get to the next level.
After that, the way I taught spelling changed in my classroom. We used manipulatives, looked at patterns, and played with words. One of my favorite memories is when we were thinking of words with "_ar" as the final syllable. (I was teaching first grade at that time.) I would give a clue, and students had to spell the word with their magnetic letters or write it on their whiteboard. For example, I said, "This is something you can ride in," and students excitedly spelled out "car." After spelling "far" and "star" and "war," I asked students if they had a riddle for a word that ended with _ar. I called on Lauren, and she whispered a word in my ear. "Okay," I said, all the while wondering what her riddle would be. "This is a place where daddies go after a hard day at work," she proudly shared. The students had no problem spelling out "bar!"and here I was, thinking of "bar of soap" or "gold bar."
It was those kinds of activities that made a difference for my students. They began to look forward to the short spelling lessons and for homework, students made lists of words with the pattern we were learning. Students were delighted when they contributed a word to the list that other students might not have thought of! Students corrected spelling words in a paragraph or did other fun activities based on the pattern we were studying that week. We also had a word wall, and students had their own personal Quick-Word Handbook. They didn't have to worry about spelling for their first writing draft but they knew that self-correcting their spelling was part of the writing process, and they had tools they could rely on if they needed help.
Oh, one more thing . . . we did take spelling tests, but now, they weren't taken every Friday. Sometime during the week when I thought the students had internalized that spelling pattern, I assessed them, and I added in some bonus words for those who wanted a challenge. The students almost always spelled the words correctly, and if they made an error, they were able to self-correct their mistake. Most importantly, though, was that their subsequent writing assignments reflected that they had truly learned the spelling patterns of the words we had studied.
In this age of Spell-Check, is it important for students to learn to spell correctly? Yes, I believe that spelling still has a place in the classroom. Being an effective communicator and a quality producer means that the reader's understanding and enjoyment of a piece of writing is not hindered by poor spelling. How we teach spelling, however, does not have to be mundane or boring.