Curriculum Corner - Spelling in Context - So What Does It Mean?

​​The infamous Friday spelling test. A staple in many classrooms. I can remember practicing my spelling words all week as a child. I even slept with my spelling list under my pillow once or twice, hoping that by osmosis, I’d remember the words better for the spelling test. (Yes, I really did.) And I  don’t remember that I aced a single spelling test. Quite the contrary. I struggled through them more than anything. But, I decided I was a bad speller based on my test scores. And so did my teacher. The opposite could also have been true. If I aced each test, I would have been deemed a good speller. And there are those kids who do. They are considered good spellers because of that perfect score on Friday’s spelling test. Then Monday comes…and the same word they aced on the test is misspelled in their writing. 

Some of the questions that swirl around in my brain are:

  • Did the child really learn how to spell each word?
  • Do spelling tests really do any good at teaching kids how to spell?
  • Just because a child can memorise and regurgitate information, does that mean they have learned it well?

And each time I ponder these questions, the answer I always come to is a clear “No.”

​Research has consistently shown that spelling lists don’t provide students with an understanding of why words are spelled certain ways, which would help students figure out how to spell the new words they encounter. English is possibly the most difficult language our students will encounter. Our spelling rules and “sounding out” strategy don’t always work! Take the word “was” for an example. This cannot be sounded out without it sounding absurd nor does it fit the usual spelling rule. This is just one example of hundreds of words in our English language. Lists can easily confuse the young spelling student, making the subject of spelling seem difficult and unlearnable.

​Our children need multiple and meaningful exposure to concepts of words for it to “stick”. Just one time through (like memorising words for a spelling test) does not give them multiple, nor meaningful exposure to the words. Most children need to read the words, write the words, and interact with the words, in a context, through hands-on spelling activities or word study to really know the word. When we say “spelling in context”, it means that students are using words within a meaningful context to them which is most often the literature text of which the classroom teacher is using.

​The ability to spell does not develop naturally. Like reading and writing, it needs to be taught explicitly. Based on the assessment and observation of children’s writing and reading, teachers can build a profile of the knowledge and strategies being used by students. In modelled, shared and guided writing contexts, then, teachers demonstrate ways to work out how to spell words, how to use various resources to help with spelling, and how to proofread or check spelling. Students can observe and listen to the teacher, as a model of a proficient writer, as they use the knowledge and strategies necessary to problem solve the spelling of familiar and unfamiliar words.

​So, in our classrooms, you will not see a Friday spelling test. But, you WILL see our students being held accountable for their learning and our students engaging with words constantly within a context that is meaningful to them.