Are spelling tests really necessary? Not in the affluent Solon City Schools in Ohio where fifth graders are learning to spell second-grade level words! What if these were your children? Would you support the district's policy?
Education reporter Kim Wheeler's Chanel 3 NBC Cleveland news report should make every parent cringe. It's about a school district in northeastern Ohio that gave up spelling test ten years ago. The report praises the district's move away from spelling tests and a beaming literacy specialist brags about rising test scores. Then the news clip highlights a fifth-grade teacher teaching eleven year olds second-grade-level spelling words. It disappointed me to see those poor spellers being used to glorify the very policy that failed them. It's the perfect story of fads that fail our children.
Before I share the TV clip and it's outrageous claim that a trend to get rid of spelling tests is a boon for a country where four out of ten eight year olds can't read proficiently, let me give my credentials and explain why I see something in this report that most parents and many educators are missing.
My Credentials-Full Disclosure-Expert Opinion to Follow
I understand spelling-how it works-why it's important-and how to teach it. I've conducted and synthesized spelling research for thirty years. I've written several books on spelling and I'm the author of a 21st century standalone spelling textbook that is research-based and technology driven. Interestingly, I'm a life-long struggling speller myself-a dyslexic who learned to read well with a stellar academic career beginning in first grade where my teacher was my mother, but like all dyslexics who learn to read, I still have difficulty with spelling. Life-long lousy spelling is the tell-tale sign of dyslexia and my struggles with spelling have contributed to my understanding of how the reading brain works, why the reading brain needs spelling, and why your child needs a spelling book.
Why Can't these Fifth Graders in Solon, Ohio Spell Second-Grade Level Words?
The parents of the fifth graders, who I feel were exploited by being filmed for the news report, should be upset. Their children can't spell because the district hasn't taught spelling for ten years. And now the district is bragging about it. Here's what you probably would miss. Look closely at the words the fifth-grade teacher is presenting in her "word study." She presents -vcc (vowel-consonant-consonant) versus -cv (vowel-consonant) patterns along with -ing words. Then we see the fifth graders working with words such as yes, rest, past, like, kind, put, get, ask and help (words I captured from the clip). These are first and second grade spelling patterns and words. Nowhere in the clip are any fifth graders working with fifth grade level words! In an appropriate developmental spiraling curriculum, the fifth graders in the clip would have been taught these patterns and words in first and second grade. It appears to me that the discovery method highlighted in the report didn't work for these students. If I were a parent I would want to know why my fifth grader is getting first and second grade word study.
Are Spelling Test Necessary?
Yes they are. The most efficient way for a teacher with a room full of students to find out if your child already knows a pattern or weekly unit of words is a pretest, followed by instruction (if it's needed), followed by a post test to determine if the child learned what was taught. This research-established practice is based on a grade-by-grade developmental spiraling curriculum. There is, to my knowledge, no independent empirical research to show that sorting words to "discover" the patterns in a "word study program" works for spelling. There is no study that shows that the discovery method raised test scores.
Read Excerpts from the News Report Followed by my Expert Opinion:
"About 10 years ago, the Solon School District decided to scrap the traditional weekly spelling test for what's called "word study."
My Expert Opinion: Word Study has two parts-vocabulary and spelling. Vocabulary study such as the study of Greek and Latin roots is important, but it shouldn't replace spelling. According to many neuroscientists, the neural traces of words in the word-form circuitry for storing and retrieving words in the reading/writing brain is based on spelling. Word study without a spelling curriculum produces kids like the ones in the clip who are spelling disabled and likely not very proficient as readers and writers. Regardless of the reported "high scores" in the district, any fifth grader who has to study second grade spelling patterns is unlikely to be a proficient writer.
"It's (word study) not memorizing. It's recognizing word patterns, and it has worked."
My Expert Opinion: Let's start with the last point: Scrapping spelling tests obviously didn't work for this large group of fifth graders who are studying second-grade level words and patterns. When I visit schools, even schools in affluent communities like Solon, I find too many children who struggle simply because they haven't been taught how to spell.
The literacy specialist in the clip slams "memorizing." Memorizing is not a bad thing. In fact the reading/writing brain thrives on memorization. We need more memorizing in schools because one can't get automaticity and deep level thinking without it. Here's an example: if you want your child to be a poet, have her memorize a lot of poetry. All great poets can recite a huge repertoire of poems by heart. They memorize them and that memorization helps shape the meter, sound, feeling, and concepts in the poetry they write. No one could read or write well without automatic word memory. Practice and memorizing is one important aspect of good spelling that leads to deeper levels of word knowledge.
"(Ten years ago) They found that, even after spelling tests, the students couldn't transfer what they learned to their writing."
My Expert Opinion: How will you feel if your children can't read? Excising the explicit teaching of spelling is a new trend, and that's why parents who what children who can read and write with proficiency should be worried. In 1992 when constructivist discovery methods replaced the explicit teaching of spelling in California, reading test scores plummeted. In a nation where four out of ten eight year olds can't read proficiently, we shouldn't be getting rid of the spelling test-we should be bringing it back.
So-called progressive teachers and administrators can make "feel good" cathartic statements such as "we don't make them memorize words or do a Friday spelling test" but what's most important are the educational outcomes. Do you want your child doing second grade word study in fifth grade like those unfortunate fifth graders in Solon? If not, oppose this new fad. It's a legacy for failure in our schools.
Educational Brinkmanship:"This trend is growing across the country. . ."
My Expert Opinion: Modern research-based spelling books present a spiraling developmental grade-by-grade curriculum based on patterns. Evidently this district was assigning lists ten years ago, not teaching spelling from an appropriate curriculum. Apparently they still aren't teaching spelling today. I can't explain why they report rising test scores, but the scores probably weren't produced by those fifth graders who now have to study second grade words.
Here's the clip (click on picture) featuring fifth-graders doing second grade word study in Solon:
The final comments in the clip are noteworthy:
Reporter Romona Robinson: "One of my favorite parts of school was those spelling tests."
Reporter Kim Wheeler: "I liked them too!"
(Dr. Gentry is the author of The Science of Spelling and his new book Raising Confident Readers. Available on Amazon.com. Follow Dr. Gentry on Facebook and on Twitter.)