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Do we really need to know how to spell? The answer to that is yes. But what is the best way to learn it? Do we really need lists and tests?

Spelling is one of the mechanics of writing (the others being capitalization, punctuation and abbreviations). There is considerable weight on whether or not someone can spell. Education has put strong emphasis on it – using spelling lists and spelling tests, even Spelling Bees. 

Do we really need to know how to spell? The answer to that is yes. There are many different thoughts on whether or not we really need to know proper spelling. 

Some reasons are:

  • It is good for our brains
  • Correct spelling makes us look smart (or smarter)
  • It helps in our writing to convey ideas
  • Spell check on computers can only do so much
  • Spelling correctly is still important in our culture

But then some will say big tests like the SATs or other standardized tests don’t penalize spelling errors. To that I will say, we can’t just hold these tests up and say “because of this then it throws everything else out”. So, the SATs or other tests might not penalize, but a future employer might. 


letters

WHY DO WE FOCUS SO MUCH ON LISTS AND TESTS IN YOUNGER GRADES?

Going through primary school I remember the weekly spelling list and the Friday test. They honestly didn’t bother me because learning these words and then doing the test was easy. Maybe it is because I am a visual learner and seeing the words written down cemented them in my mind. Maybe it was because I have always been an extensive reader and saw how words function together. But I do remember how stressed some of my friends got about these weekly tests. 

At university we still talked about the weekly test, but it almost seemed like it was what you did because that was how it had always been. 

Do you remember the way that you had to learn them? Write them out 3 times each. Use them in a sentence. Maybe there was a word jumble. Find them in the word search. Break them down into syllables. Group them according to sounds. So many different ways but it usually came back to the same thing – go over them, write them out, spell them out loud. Then test. Did you get 10/10??

I have used several different curriculum, and I have come to the conclusion that, for many students, this is not the best way to teach spelling. It is great for some, but not most.


boys learning spelling

CAN WE TEACH SPELLING WITHOUT WEEKLY TESTS?

Yes, we can. It is about finding ways to use words in a logical way. Separating and just giving lists doesn’t help to see how groups are formed, how sounds are formed, etc. 

There are several problems with spelling tests. One being that spelling tests do not indicate if someone truly is a good speller. They may just be good at memorization. And rote memorization often just stays in short term memory. It doesn’t translate and stay long term. Also, when you learn spelling in isolation, you may not see how it relates to the subject, or you may not be able to use it properly while writing.

How to Teach Spelling Without Weekly Tests

  • Choose a spelling system that uses logical progression with logical groups.
  • Investigate spelling in context. Use spelling words from your science lessons, or history lessons, etc. 
  • Regularly assess ability through writing activities.
  • Create a word wall or a personal dictionary
  • Play word and spelling games

letter blocks

WHAT ABOUT THE RULES?

There are definitely some great spelling rules out there. But there are also some we teach that we should just question why……like “i before e, except after c”. This rule does not work all the time. There are too many exemptions.

Here are some helpful rules:

  • Plurals: when making a noun a plural you usually add S or ES. But, if a word ends in a Y what do you do? It is not normal. How do you know when to change Y to ies? Look at the letter before the Y to find out. If it is a vowel, then add S.
  • In English, Q is never alone. It likes to pair up with U. 
  • Use -CK after a short vowel. Use CK immediately after a short vowel, such as with duck, sick, or tick. Otherwise, the word should end with a K, as with silk, balk, beak, or peak.
  • Bossy E or Silent E. This bossy E at the end of the word makes the vowel say its name. 

I do think that it is important that our children know the helpful rules. But context is so important. We have words like wind/wind and then there are homophones, and we can’t forget about -OUGH (see Lucy video). 

7 Ways to Say “ough”

  • though (like o in go)
  • through (like oo in too)
  • cough (like off in offer)
  • rough (like uff in suffer)
  • plough (like ow in flower)
  • bought (like aw in saw)
  • thorough (like a in above)

Why can’t we just change to phonetic spelling?

Sometimes I wonder why we don’t just change to phonetic spelling. Have you noticed how all children go through that phonetic spelling phase, especially if they are learning to read phonetically and not just whole language?

In 1906 the Simplified Spelling Board was formed in the attempt to have a simpler and more unified language. And it started out with a lot of support. But it never took off and it was abandoned. Language keeps changing, spelling keeps changing. Look at what texting language has contributed. 

But to change to phonetic spelling would be a monumental undertaking. So, alas, we are left to try and figure it all out, and hope that spell check understands what we are trying to say. 


Spelling is important but we don’t have to be bogged down by it.
Do you know the other mechanics of writing? Check out this video.

Michayla Best

For over 30 years I have worked with children in a variety of capacities, whether as a teacher or tutor, a babysitter, a camp leader, or family advocate. I have always found a way to connect with children, to help them understand themselves and the world around.

I am Mummy to trinational twincesses who keep me on my toes with their questions, their commentaries, their shenanigans and acts of spontenudity.

Wife, world traveler, musician, crafting queen and self-proclaimed nerd; I love to take what I see, glean, know and help families to find their groove and be successful.

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