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  • wnelson20

How Do You Spell...

I have always been a good speller. When I was in the 8th grade, I made it all the way to 3rd place in the King/Snohomish County Regional Spelling Bee. If I had bothered to study and prepare, I might have gone even further.

I don't have any good explanation for why spelling came easily to me. Maybe my brain is good at seeing patterns. Regardless, I never stressed over spelling tests at school, but I know a lot of students who really struggle with them.

A student's mother recently asked me whether or not her child, who has a lot of difficulty with spelling and reading, should be taking spelling tests at school. My answer, of course, was "it depends."

Spelling is an important part of reading and writing. When reading, we look for patterns in words to help us decode them accurately. When writing, if we misspell a word, there's a good chance that others won't be able to understand what we wrote. So how does that inform the choice to take spelling tests or opt out of them?

It all comes down to how the spelling words are being chosen. Some teachers will assign words based on the current reading assignment, picking out a selection of words from a book chapter or article that all relate to the topic being discussed. I would argue that this is the wrong way to test spelling. Most students will simply memorize the words for the test and then forget them as soon as it's over.

A better way to choose spelling words is by the letter patterns in the words. For example, choose a list of words that contain 'ng' at the end, like king, rang, long, and sung. This way, the students are learning a common pattern that they will encounter multiple times when reading. More advanced students might receive a list of words with the long 'a' sound, like rake, rain, and play. As they are exposed to the various ways to spell the same sound, they will begin to orthographically map* those spelling patterns and recognize when a word is spelled correctly or not.

If you're trying to decide whether your child should be taking spelling tests, ask their teacher how the words are chosen each week. If the spelling list is fairly random or topic based, I recommend opting your child out of the tests, or at least reducing the number of words they are responsible for. Simply regurgitating a list of words on Friday, only to completely forget them by the following Monday, is not an effective way to learn spelling.

If, on the other hand, the list is pattern based, then your child has an opportunity to truly learn the words, and they will be able to spell any word that follows the same pattern, whether it's on the spelling list or not. Plus, they'll experience success on their spelling tests, which should be the goal of any good teacher.

Please comment below with any questions you have about spelling or reading.

*Orthographic mapping refers to how the brain connects sounds with the letters that represent those sounds in words.

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