New Standards Demand Higher Expectations For Spelling

Standards and state tests focus new attention on spelling instruction.

Posted Feb 25, 2013

Educators and parents, take notice! Common Core State Standards adopted by 45 states and driving curricula and state testing in American schools now require higher standards for spelling. This follows a plethora of recent research studies that call for explicit spelling instruction. After two decades of failed experiments with spelling methodology, the new Common Core Standards and state writing tests are focusing sharp attention on whether or not your child can spell on grade level.

Unpacking Spelling Expectations in Common Core Standards

Common Core State Standards establish specific benchmarks for spellers at each grade level beginning at grade 3. In the earlier grades—kindergarten, grade 1, and grade 2—students are expected to have mastered “previously studied words.” These expectations imply a grade by grade spelling curriculum. By grade 8, the standard is unequivocal: Language Standard CCSS.ELA.-Literacy.L.8.2c decrees that eighth graders should “Spell correctly.”

Correct Spelling and the State Test—Coming Soon

In recent times when it’s common for state tests to dictate curriculum in American schools, it has not been uncommon for principals who want to raise school-wide test scores to admonish teachers: “Don’t worry about spelling, it’s not on the state test!” Time in school and money for workbooks might better be spent on test prep, they say. That perspective may be changing. For the first time last spring, Florida’s state test, Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test 2.0 Writing increased scoring expectations, abandoned leniency, and counted off for spelling. Students were expected to spell on grade level. This action has national implications because Florida’s state test is viewed by many as a model for the nation.

Bring Back Spelling Books?

As the author of a popular research-based, stand-alone spelling text book/eBook, I’m tuned in to what’s happening with spelling. Last year was a record year for my spelling textbooks’ sales. We saw a surge in sales in districts that had implemented a decade of failed spelling experiments with so-called “word study” programs—often based on word sorting, games, and discovery method as opposed to explicit grade by grade spelling instruction. Many districts following another trend—watered down spelling lessons buried in the reading programs—are reconsidering standalone spelling books in a grade by grade curriculum over worksheets and lists from the reading series because they haven’t found these to be very effective.

Parents and educators should know that research overwhelming supports explicit spelling instruction in a grade by grade curriculum, learning words in a formal list-based program, spelling as a separate subject (about 15 minutes a day in elementary school), and valuing correct spelling in children’s writing. Research supports weekly pretest—study—posttest methodology. There is no research to support the failed methodology popularized by “constructivist theory” over the past two decades. Articles often cited in support of these programs are mostly theoretical.

Contemporary research-based spelling textbooks are not the old fashioned, skill-and-drill textbooks of yesteryear but offer an updated multi-strategic, comprehensive grade by grade curriculum supported by technology and worthy of consideration. Since neuroscientists report that spelling is at the core of reading and writing in the brain, explicit instruction in a grade by grade spelling curriculum is an investment in children’s reading proficiency and writing fluency in elementary school.

Children learn what we teach. If we expect kids to learn how to spell and to spell correctly on the state writing test with a grade by grade measuring stick, we will have to teach spelling explicitly in a grade by grade curriculum. Some of the authors of spelling textbook programs in the 1990’s have migrated to various popular fads largely in my view for commercial reasons. Yet spelling books are still the only method fundamentally supported by independent empirical research.

Parents and educators who want children to read and write proficiently and do well on tests in elementary school should pay attention to what children are doing with spelling. I’ve been saying it for over thirty years: spelling books—now enhanced with technology—are best practice for teaching spelling. 

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.