The Need for Collaborative Schooling and Spelling Tests

Find out why Back to School Night turned into a nightmare.

Posted Sep 05, 2013

This year’s back to school night was a nightmare and “No spelling test!” was the tip of the iceberg. When administrators at back-to-school night said “spelling is not important enough to be tested"; “kids can just use spellcheck"; “we use ‘word study'"; and “we can’t meet the needs of a gifted child,” it was time to homeschool! What about the collaborative schooling option?

This post started with an insightful COMMENT on one of my former PT posts from Lisa Yankey, a frustrated parent who describes her recent journey from “back to school night” to mid-career interruption for forced home schooling along with my response (and we invite yours) to her concerns.

Lisa Yankey’s Comment

(Posted on my post, “New Standards Demand Higher Expectations for Spelling.”)

A couple of weeks ago I attended back to school night at what is considered one of the best elementary schools in our state. My oldest child is in first grade. We had a great kindergarten teacher who had high standards herself, and I thought we would have no problem.

The problem. . .

There is a big problem, and spelling was my first clue.

I learned that according to the teacher and principal, there would be no spelling tests, and that I should not use any supplemental spelling tests at home with my first grader. The principal informed me that spelling is not important enough to be tested, and that kids can just use spellcheck anyway. I was told that "studies show" that some children do not learn with spelling tests, and therefore no children should be given spelling tests.

[Gentry: In fact, a pretest—study—posttest methodology is supported by spelling research. [1] [2] A comprehensive and influential study just out this year, Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology, found practice testing and distributed practice, which are both aspects of pretest—study—posttest spelling methodology, to be highly useful classroom techniques. [3] Parents should have access to the “studies” being cited by the administrators.]

I inquired as to how my first grader would learn conventional spelling of irregular words, as required by the state standards.

"Word study," they said.

I said, "Word study is great for learning phonetic spelling patterns, yes, but how will he learn irregular words?"

"Word study," they said.

I said, "Yes, but exactly what will be done in word study to explicitly teach spelling so that children can learn irregular words and complex patterns, and how will this be accomplished without including traditional memorization and spelling tests?"

[Gentry: In referring to “traditional memorization” Ms. Yankey seems to have a legitimate question: “Without weekly spelling tests, how will you know what my child has learned?” Of course teachers should teach spelling—not simply give out lists of words to be memorized. But "word study” doesn’t vitiate the need for spelling tests or for monitoring progress. [4] Parents have a right to accessible information and plain language that communicates their child’s academic success.]

"There will be many activities. Irregular words are in books, and books will be read," they said.

"Like what kinds of activities?"

"Good activities—with word walls."

"But you are asserting a fact without providing evidence, and you seem to be telling me that the children will just somehow mysteriously absorb the irregularly spelled words..."

[Gentry: I agree with the parent. Children do not “catch” expert spelling from reading. [5] Even participants in the National Spelling Bee study word lists and engage in memorization, self-testing, and repeated practice. They use a test-study-test model. Their primary means of studying is not the word sorting model often associated with “word study.” Spelling alone is not enough. Contestants are now required to know the meaning and use the word properly. We need both vocabulary study and spelling instruction in schools. I am aware of no independent empirical studies that prove that “word study” is an appropriate substitute for explicit spelling instruction or for a grade by grade spelling curriculum. Studies in support of “word study” are often theoretical popularized by whole language or constructivist ideology. In districts—even some of the better school districts—where high stakes testing seems to be driving educational decisions, basic skills such as spelling and handwriting are being pushed out by administrators because these basic skills aren’t on the third- or fourth-grade state test. Yet many studies including some of the latest reports from cognitive neuroscience support explicit teaching of foundational skills. [6] [7].

Reassurances Are Not Reassuring

[Ms. Yankey] They had no answer, but assured me that "studies show" word study will work, and that spelling isn't important anyway. When I pointed out that I won't hire someone who can't spell, [Gentry: You are not alone. “Misspelled words” is the most frequently cited reason for tossing out job applications and resumes.][8] I was told that the children would be able to spell even though spelling will never be explicitly taught!

I verified all of this with the Curriculum Director for our school district. She repeated the same "reassurances," which I did not find reassuring.

These administrators seem to be making a lot of bad decisions. They think "teach to mastery" math is no good. They think "The rat sat on a mat" books will motivate someone to learn how to read. They told me I should only read aloud to my son 10 minutes a day and seemed to advocate a “hands off” approach at home.  Yet my son learned to read before kindergarten, regularly reads chapter books himself, and can easily finish a short one in a day. They said that I shouldn't supplement with math study at home even though the first grade math curriculum barely gives a few problems on any concept.

Public schools can’t meet the needs of a gifted child. . .

They also told me that public schools can't meet the needs of a gifted child and that I should be glad that my child would get an hour and a half of slightly advanced reading instruction and one hour of slightly advanced math instruction per week. They did not seem concerned that he is above grade level, and they said they would forbid him to do above-grade-level work until he reaches third grade. Since he is ahead, they told me I should not worry about it and "everything will even out" by third grade. They told me when he misbehaves because he is bored out of his gourd, they will handle the "discipline problem"—as if that will foster a lifelong love of learning!

When we questioned the teaching of spelling it opened up the discussion.

I wanted to support his education at home, after public school, but my son got off the bus each day close to 4:00 PM, exhausted and cranky. I could not expect him to do three hours of work with me after being bored in school all day. During our meeting, I talked to the Assistant Principal and Principal to see if I could be allowed to send more work for him to do independently in school, but they dismissed this idea. I asked if I could even get a list each week of what words the children would be working on, but the principal flatly refused this and said that I would not get a weekly list of words from any first grade teacher in our schools. I explained that we were very happy with my son’s kindergarten teacher because she had tried to give him work on his level, and that another teacher with an academic focus may be better able to meet our son’s needs. I was told that a room change was impossible. After all this, combined with the other comments, I knew that we had reached the end of what we could do within the confines of this public school. I was completely dismayed.

I could not in good conscience subject my child to this kind of public school education.

The day after I heard the principal tell me that public schools could not meet the needs of a gifted child, I pulled my first grader out of public school to homeschool him. I am the daughter of two retired teachers. I taught elementary school for seven years before becoming an attorney and practicing law. I have decided to give up a chunk of my career to homeschool my children while I work part time. What should parents do when administrators seem to be making bad decisions? How can parents know if their child is getting a good education in public school? Is my experience typical of today’s public school experience?

Gentry: I think the voice of parents should be heard. From misinformation about spelling tests at the tip of the iceberg to poor communication and failure to collaborate with a concerned parent, there is much to be troubled about here.

The Collaborative School Option

Perhaps an alternative to forced homeschooling is more successful partnerships between educators and parents. Education writer Steve Peha has written eloquently on this topic in an article entitled “What Do We Mean by Collaborative Schooling?" [9] Here are five collaborative school goals gleaned from Steve’s article that might have led to a more desirable end to this parent’s Back to School Night experience.

  1. Discover commonly held values for what parents and teachers want children to accomplish.
  2. Help parents understand the instruction kids are receiving in school so that they can support their kids at home.
  3. Use common-sense language for monitoring progress and communicating academic achievement.
  4. Adopt a welcoming attitude for parents to participate in their child’s education including curriculum decisions.
  5. Seek compassion, and gratitude in a partnership model in place of avoidance and confrontation.

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.

[1] Allal, L., (1997). Learning to spell in the classroom. In C.A. Perfetti, L. Rieben, & M. Fayol (Eds.), Learning to Spell (131-137). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

[2] Graham, S. (1983). Effective spelling instruction. The Elementary School Journal, 83(5), 560-567.

[3] Dunlosky, J. and Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., Willingham, D. T., Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cogniitive and educational psychology. doi: 10.1177/1529100612453266. Psychological Science in the Public Interest .January 2013, vol. 14  no. 1  4-58.

[4] Gentry, R. (2004). The science of spelling: The explicit specifics that make readers, writers, (and spellers!). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

[5] Peters, M. (1985). Spelling: Caught or taught? London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


[7] Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the Brain. New York: Viking.


[9] .

Collaborative SchoolingTM is a trademark of Teaching that Makes Sense®, Inc.