Spelling Instruction: Is a weekly spelling word list and test effective?

Spelling Instruction: Is a weekly spelling word list and test effective?

‘Cord’ is different from ‘word’;

c – o – w is ‘cow’ but l – o – w is ‘low’;

‘Shoe’ is never rhymed with ‘foe’.

Think of ‘hose’ and ‘whose’ and ‘lose’,

And think of ‘goose’ and yet of ‘loose’,

Think of ‘comb’ and ‘tomb’ and ‘bomb’;

‘Doll’ and ‘roll’ and ‘home’ and ‘some’;

And since ‘pay’ is rhymed with ‘say’,

Why not ‘paid’ with ‘said’, I pray?

We have ‘blood’ and ‘food’ and ‘good’,

Wherefore ‘done’ and ‘gone’ and ‘lone’?

Is there any reason known?

And, in short, it seems to me,

Sounds and letters disagree.

Author Unknown.Found in: Anderson, P.S., & P.J. Groff (1968).Resource materials for teachers of spelling. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess.

Recently, the topic of teaching spelling became a discussion in our family. My grandson, who is 8 and in third grade, has been struggling with the spelling lists that have come home.  Each night he and his mom both come to tears trying to study the 15-18 words assigned for the week. It is impacting their relationship and he is not achieving a passing grade after studying each night. First of all, I am a proponent of standards-based/referenced grading.  I do not believe students should be graded with a letter grade for these assessments. That is a whole other discussion for another day. I decided to do a little research into the effectiveness of teaching spelling using a weekly spelling list and test. Here is some what I found in the literature:

I thought I would find research that suggests that weekly spelling lists/tests are not effective.  What I found instead is that weekly spelling word lists/tests can be effective because they are separated from linguistic distractions and students can focus on the pattern of the word (Schlagal, 2002).  

There are some caveats though. Weekly spelling lists are only effective if. . .

  • . . . when introducing irregular words, there are no more than 3-5 per week (Moats, 2005).

My grandson’s list is usually 15-18 words long. Not all words are irregular words, but some are. I question whether that is too many words a week for a third grade student.

  • . . . they share a single common orthographic principle. Merriam-Webster defines orthography as, “the art of writing words with the proper letters according to standard usage”. For example, long a words (fate, same, pay, way) show that –ate with a silent e can be in the middle of a word and –ay is usually at the end of a word (Templeton and Morris, 1999).

What I have seen on his spelling lists are multiple orthographic principles in one list. It does not provide him with a chance to do the comparisons mentioned above. It also seems like a lot to remember for an 8 year old.

  • . . . they are scaffolded according to spelling development.

They probably are scaffolded for general spelling development for third grade students but what about the students who are struggling readers/spellers?    

  • . . . they are not “one size fits all”. Students should be given lists at their instructional level rather than their frustration level to improve retention (Newlands, 2011). If the list is at the frustration level, students are not prepared to internalize the pattern being taught, not having gained the prerequisite skills. “When in more developmentally appropriate lists, low achieving spellers respond to instruction given them, retaining the majority of what has been taught and at the same time generalizing patterns and principles learned to similar words not studied” (Schlagal, 2002, p.52). In addition, it does not help the students who already know how to spell the words.

My grandson’s class all receive the same list. I can see where this may be too challenging for poor spellers and not enough of a challenge for strong spellers. I know that it takes more work in teacher planning, but it would be better to give a list to each student at their instructional level.  I believe the lists that have been given thus far are at my grandson’s frustration level given the tears at night.

  • . . . they are scored qualitatively – pattern usage rather than number of words spelled correctly (Geshmann & Templeton, 2011).

My grandson gets a percentage grade very Friday for the number of words he spelled incorrectly.  I’m not sure the teacher knows what patterns he knows unless she is doing some assessment of that during the school day.

  • . . . they are not the only data used to assess spelling. Isolated spelling tests may give a false impression of a student’s spelling skill (Rymer & Williams, 2000).

I don’t really know what other data they use in my grandson’s class to determine spelling skill. I am a big believer that one data point is not enough to make instructional decisions.  Triangulating data give a more realistic idea of what a student knows and can do.

  • . . . there is also explicit spelling instruction and exposure through reading and writing.

I am assuming this is happening (although you know what they say about assuming). There is a fair amount of research about the connection of spelling to reading and writing.  It also give some context to the words in the spelling list.

Spelling word lists and weekly tests are effective if done correctly. It is not as simple as giving one list to all students in the class. There should be a comprehensive spelling instruction program that includes instruction of strategies and differentiation of spelling word lists. This means more time planning for teachers but the time spent will be worthwhile for student success.

Geshmann, K., & Templeton, S. (2011). Stages and standards in literacy: Teaching

developmentally in the age of accountability. Journal of Education, 192(1), 5- 16.

Moats, Louisa C. (2005). How Spelling Supports Reading. American Educator,

Winter 2005/06, 12-43.

Newlands, M. (2011). Intentional spelling: Seven steps to eliminate guessing.

Reading Teacher, 64(7), 531-534. doi: 10.1598/RT.64.7.7

Rymer, R., & Williams, C. (2000). “Wasn’t that a spelling word?”: Spelling

instruction and young children’s writing. Language Arts, 77(3), 241-49.

Schlagal, R. C. (2002). Classroom spelling instruction: History, research, and

practice. Reading Research & Instruction, 42(1), 44-57.

Templeton, S., & Morris, D. (1999). Theory and research into practice: Questions

teachers ask about spelling. Reading Research Quarterly, 34(1), 102-112.