Spelling test time can be one of the most anxiety provoking parts of the school day.
Especially for those students who naturally struggle with spelling.
The English language is a complicated one since English spelling cannot be learned by logic.
The fact that there is no consistent connection between the phonemes and graphemes in words makes spelling a difficult concept to learn and to teach.
As we are moving into the twenty-first century, ever changing technology and outdated methods for teaching spelling mean we as teachers (and as parents) must change the way we approach spelling with children.
Spelling and Students
As an elementary teacher, I have had the pleasure of teaching students from many different backgrounds and with a range of learning abilities.
Some of my former students could pass a spelling test before they were ever given a list.
Others would fail their spelling test even after they had studied the words for days.
Some students find taking online spelling tests challenging while several liked to type out their words.
I definitely prefer online spelling tests as a teacher since they are easier to read (no messy handwriting) and much quicker to grade.
Interestingly, some of my students were weak in spelling but very strong in other areas.
Others however, struggled with the English language as a whole.
There are many reasons why spelling is such a tough concept for students and a few of them will be addressed below.
But knowing the whys behind English spelling test trouble isn’t enough.
As parents and educators, we have to know and how to help children improve their spelling skills so that anxiety is reduced and the children can excel.
Why English Spelling is So Difficult
The English language is one that makes no sense at times.
There are many oddities that are found in English that can be confusing to both Native and ESL speakers.
For example, there is no ham in a hamburger and the word “set” has 464 definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Learning to speak English can seem difficult, but learning to spell may feel impossible.
So why is it that English words are so hard to spell out? The information below may provide some insight.
The English Language is a Melting Pot
The English language is a linguistic melting pot, made up of words from many different languages.
Of the 171,476 words in current use, most are derived from Old and Middle English, Old Norse, Dutch, Greek, Latin and French.
Some of our words come from other or unknown languages and some are actually derived from the names of people and places in history.
There usually is no link between topic or subject.
For example, ‘kindergarten’ is a German word while the term ‘book’ comes from the Greek word “Byblos”.
Because English is so blended, in the early days of the English language (before the inventing of the printing press), there were many acceptable ways to spell a single word.
For example, ‘violence’ was once spelled ‘vyolence’ and ‘between’ could be written as ‘bytwene’ or ‘betwene’.
The word ‘beauty’ had at least six acceptable spellings.
Various ways of spelling made it difficult to establish any English spelling system, leaving our early ancestors very lax about how to spell a word.
In fact, there was a time when spelling didn’t matter at all!
There Are No Real Rules
So, it makes sense that with so many different origins of words, there are no traditional spelling rules that can be applied across the board with the English language.
Even the rules that most of us were taught in school like “i before e, except after c” don’t apply all of the time.
What about the word ‘neighbor’ or ‘weight’ or ‘weird’?
There are so many exceptions to the rules that I’ve often wondered as a teacher if it’s even worth teaching these “rules” at all.
Because of this, most English spelling test words have to be memorized, which can be difficult for many students.
Same sound, different ways of spelling
Another thing that makes correct spelling difficult is that there can be several ways to spell not only the same word, but the same sound.
Well-meaning teachers often dictate sentences to students for them to spell with no background knowledge or discussion of same-sound differences.
This can lead to even more spelling confusion.
Take a look at the sentence “We will wait to take a break until after we sell eight cupcakes at today’s bake sale.
” Though this sentence seems simple enough to read, the “long a” sound is spelled five different ways here.
Talk about confusing!
How We Can Help Struggling Spellers
As a teacher, I’ve often wondered how I can really ‘teach’ students to spell when it is a concept I’ve never been taught myself.
I’m a naturally good speller (though I only placed 5th in my elementary spelling bee).
It’s difficult to teach students a concept that doesn’t have a process to follow.
For several years I did what my teachers did growing up.
I sent home a spelling list on Monday and expected the kids to know the words by Friday.
Trying to shake things up a bit, on Thursday I would give an “early” spelling test and if a student didn’t pass it, I would send home an updated list for study.
Some weeks I got real “fancy” and had students write their words over and over again in different color markers.
When they struggled, I would help them “sound it out”.
But some of my students still failed their tests and brought their papers home in tears.
I wish that I would have realized sooner that ‘this’ is not teaching.
The English language has 26 letters, these letters have about 44 sounds, and there are hundreds of ways to sound out these sounds.
Since only 50 percent of English words have a predictable sound.
Because of this, having kids “sound” out the words on their spelling tests just doesn’t work long term.
Writing them over and over also doesn’t work for some students.
I knew that the key to eliminating spelling test anxiety was to help my students improve their skills.
I just needed a way to do it.
Understand the why behind the difficulty
The first thing that I realized is that why a child struggles with spelling is extremely important.
In general, spelling troubles originate with language learning weaknesses.
As the International Dyslexia Association explains, “Poor spellers have trouble remembering the letters in words because they have trouble noticing, remembering, and recalling the features of language that those letters represent.
” Children with ADHD and dyslexia often struggle with spelling as a small part of a much larger learning problem.
Some of these students will fail a spelling test no matter if it is and online spelling test, a paper one, or a spelling test that is read aloud.
This makes sense when you consider that scientific research suggests that spelling ability (or lack thereof) in inherited.
Tony Monaco, a scientist at Oxford University, believes that at least “60 percent of the variation in the ability to spell lies in our genes.
” This is because our brain’s wiring is inherited and “Some people have a stronger visual area and can easily see in their mind's eye how a word is spell” (Wighton, 2008).
Other people have a stronger phonological area which makes them better at breaking down the words into individual sounds.
The understanding that everyone's brain is slightly different significantly changed the way that I teach spelling.
Partnering with Technology
Once I realized that my old ways weren’t working, I had to come up with a better way to help my students learn to spell.
This past school year, I was blessed with twenty-four new computers for my students to use during the school day.
Access to technology has slowly transformed my teaching in all areas, including spelling instruction.
But it didn’t happen just because of the computers, a systematic change had to be made.
Out with the old, in with the New
First, I transitioned from paper to online spelling tests.
This helped my students who know how to spell the words but have trouble with penmanship focus on spelling the word correctly instead of worrying about handwriting.
Also, I began playing with test structure.
Instead of the traditional “call and write” assessments, I created tests that had different versions of a word (one spelled correctly and two misspelled) and instead of writing the word, the students had to circle the correct one.
This helps students who can “see” the word excel in spelling, even if they have struggled on traditional tests.
Knowing that they will probably do well on at least one part of the spelling test reduced test anxiety in my struggling students.
Pick up a spelling program
Another way to help students improve their spelling skills is through a technology based program.
Early on in my search, I found that there are tons of spelling games online, but many aren’t age appropriate or don’t have long-term spelling growth benefits.
It wasn’t until I began working with SpellQuiz.
com on website content that I had my “aha” moment regarding spelling programs.
What drew me to SpellQuiz is that the content was developed by professional educators who like me, understand what words spelling words are most important and age appropriate for students.
Another reason SpellQuiz is unique is its focus on building students’ ability to communicate through a self-paced phonetics learning system while reinforcing three other important skills: listening, writing and reading using dictation.
With SpellQuiz, students listen to a dictated sentence and then type their response.
It is this intertwining of language skills that helps students move from “bad” to “great” spellers (and great typists).
I also love that SpellQuiz moves from 1st grade through adult.
This means that I can differentiate within the classroom and help my weaker students as well as my advanced.
No longer do I have a “one size fits all” spelling list.
Instead, I can assign students words based on their own personal abilities and add in other assignments while they are working on the program.
For example, if I see a student struggling with a particular word/sentence over and over, I might have them take a moment to draw a picture related to the sentence and then write the spelling words inside of the picture.
This can help students make much needed connections to words.
Spelling can be a tough concept to teach.
Without background knowledge of the English language and spelling practices, parents and teacher are often left using outdated techniques that simply don’t work while the children continue to fail their spelling tests.
This can create anxiety in the minds of children who surely want to be “good spellers.”
Using a computer-based program along with differentiated spelling lists can be the key to changing how spelling looks in your home or classroom.
Wighton, Kate. (2008). Spelling bee: Bad at spelling? Could be your genes.
Retrieved from: https://www.dys-add.com/resources/RecentResearch/SpellingGene.pdf.
Mary Elizabeth Dean is a mother to four (five if you count her puppy Iris) and an elementary school teacher. She has a Bachelor’s in education, an MBA, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction. She has spent the last six years teaching all subjects (including spelling) to 9 and 10-year-olds in Louisiana. She balances her life as a mom and educator with her love for helping foster children as a CASA advocate. Her passions include writing, genealogy research, and Friday night bingo with anyone who will tag along. Summer vacations, fall football games, and afternoon naps give her life.