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Districts make a mistake in dropping spelling tests

Districts make a mistake in dropping spelling tests

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Our teacher dropped the bombshell the night of Open House.

There would be no more spelling tests. More than once, I asked the mother sitting next to me: "Did she say no spelling tests?" Surely, I misheard. In fact, both Parkway and Rockwood school districts have completely phased out spelling tests from their elementary school language arts curricula, as part of a review process that began a few years ago.

"We were developing a lot of Friday morning spellers," said Lisa Merideth, coordinator for elementary communication art in the Parkway district. She is referring to children who could recall the words properly for a weekly test but failed to transfer correct spelling of the same words into their "authentic" writing, like journals and other daily assignments.

Kathy Ryan, the language arts curriculum coordinator for Rockwood, said the district reviewed the research and came up with certain "accountable words" per grade level that students would be expected to spell correctly throughout all their writing. Teachers continue to teach weekly lessons on word principles and patterns to help students understand how conventional spelling works, she said.

I sympathize with the challenge these educators described. I'll be the first to confess: I am an insecure speller. I aced most of those elementary school spelling tests. And to this day, I wish I was a better speller. But killing the weekly spelling test is more likely to worsen the problem than improve it.

First of all, a substantial portion, roughly 25 percent, of English words are spelled irregularly. These rule violators must be memorized.

And, while I am smitten with the pedagogic concept Merideth explained to me — teachers would track each student's spelling weaknesses in their writing and address those mistakes individually — I wonder how effectively this can be implemented in a class of more than 20 children.

Yes, some teachers will be able to individualize instruction to such an extent that high learners are still challenged and those struggling have help to catch up. Those instructors are rare. What is more likely to happen is that the low bar of "accountable words" becomes the minimum acceptable standard. And, although new spelling principles are introduced, there is no formal test to assess — systematically — how each child is grasping each pattern.

"We're really trying to work on self-regulation," Ryan said. They want children to have strategies to be able to spell words on their own, which is a worthy goal. But an exercise such as spelling requires discipline and repetition and direct instruction. And, while tests are frequently maligned as wasting valuable class time, a recent New York Times story about effective, research-based study techniques cites Washington University psychologist Henry L. Roediger III, who speaks to the inherent value of testing.

"Testing has such bad connotation; people think of standardized testing or teaching to the test," he is quoted as saying. "Maybe we need to call it something else, but this is one of the most powerful learning tools we have."

The Times report explained that a reason cognitive scientists see testing itself — or practice tests and quizzes — as a powerful tool of learning is because the process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.

"Testing not only measures knowledge but changes it," Roediger said in the story. It moves learning in the direction of more certainty, not less.

Those spelling tests are another way to hardwire the words into our children's heads. It should not be the only way. And, judging by the way teens and young adults spell 'shud" and "wat" and "fone" on their Facebook pages, clearly a better, more holistic approach to spelling is warranted.

Educators get caught up in an idea (I'll refrain from using the word "fad"), and it evolves into an either/or paradigm. Either you are for whole-language reading instruction or you are for phonics. Either you believe in math drills or you believe in applied problem solving. You're either with us on authentic "word study" or you're against us. Actually, the best approach tends to incorporate both ends of the learning spectrum.

Here's an idea: Continue having students study spelling principles and patterns every week. Students should be held accountable for certain words in the rest of their writing. But, continue to use the weekly spelling test to reinforce and measure their progress. If teachers can manage to individualize instructions to the extent that this approach requires of them, then surely, there's room for a 10-minute spelling assessment once a week.

Schools ought to be reinforcing life's realities: Grades matter. Testing matters. "Accountable words" sound nice in theory, but without a test, accountability has no teeth.

And, here's the most startling idea of all: If so many children can master a weekly spelling list without mastering spelling, then perhaps the spelling words should have been more rigorous in the first place.

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