The History of Spelling Tests and Teaching Methods

15 July 2017


Just hearing the words spelling test has caused students to groan in despair for hundreds of years, yet spelling tests are a hugely valuable learning tool which don’t have to be a chore.


Literacy skills are interrelated, with reading, spelling and writing all influencing each other; if one is aspect neglected, then all of them suffer.


Teaching methods for literacy have changed over the decades, with the emphasis shifting between the different skills and testing practices.


The most prominent type of spelling test in the modern day is probably the spelling bee, which not only receives national television coverage in the U.S., but supports a huge industry offering scholarships and cash prizes to competition winners.


Spelling bee tournaments show the glamorous side of spelling, but for most students, spelling tests can be a real struggle.


So how can parents help their kids develop this important skill?


The first step is to find out what’s really going on our schools, how teachers teach spelling and what educators really know about this essential subject. 


So let’s take a look at the methods and history of teaching and testing spelling, so that you can make an informed decision about your child’s needs.



Types of Spelling Test:



There are four main types of a spelling test, each of which focuses on a different skill:


Oral test:


Students are given the word by the teacher to spell out loud. This is the format we’ve seen in spelling bee competitions and requires students to spell each word individually, often in front of an audience.


This puts a lot of pressure on spellers, especially on those who lack confidence, as mistakes are very public.



Aural test:


Students listen to the teacher read a word, and then write it down. Typically, the teacher will just read a list of individual words that a student has to spell, although they may also choose a read a dictation passage to include full sentences and punctuation in the test.


Proofreading test:


Students are given a written text to read, with mistakes in the spelling. As they read the passage, students are required to correct any spelling mistakes they find.


Proofreading tests aim to present learners with language in context, and often rely on passive acquisition of spelling skills, focusing on reading ability rather than direct spelling techniques.


Multiple-choice test:


Several alternative spelling options are presented for a word, with students made to choose the correct one. These tests are often based on a reading text, and can be useful to check knowledge of homophones, where students choose the right spelling of two words that are pronounced the same way but differ in spelling and meaning.


Nevertheless, they don’t require a student to apply spelling skills actively and again focus more on reading, with only an indirect spelling component.


Development of Spelling Tests over Time


Literacy education for the masses is a relatively new development in human civilization, with only about a century or two of history.


Despite this short time span, approaches to teaching reading and writing have changed significantly over the years.


Just like any other industry, schooling is subject to fashions which come and go.


Methods for teaching and testing spelling are no exception, with parents and educators starting to question modern theories and turning back to traditional approaches.


Let’s have a brief look at the development of spelling education over the last hundred and fifty years:


Memorization and Rote Lists


Much of the formal spelling education in the 1800s and early 1900s was taken from spelling books which contained lists of words for students to memorize.


One of the first and most influential books for teaching spelling was the “Blue-backed Speller,” created by Noah Webster, author of the classic Webster’s Dictionary.


Such texts aimed to teach pronunciation, grammar and reading as well as spelling.


The major drawback was that the presented vocabulary wasn’t graded or tailored to different reading levels, so that beginners were faced with high-level and complex vocabulary even before they had mastered the basics.


Words were arranged in seemingly random lists, or listed in alphabetical order, with no regard to a student’s prior learning.


Learners were asked to memorize words by rote with the demanding task of learning grammar, meaning and concepts at the same time as trying to memorize spellings.


Lists Arranged by Word Frequency


While Webster continued to revise his spelling books and eventually came to arrange his lists by frequency of use and spelling patterns, it wasn’t until the 1930s that a serious effort was taken by educators to somehow arrange words by difficulty and the learning level of students.


The trend of arranging words in order of the frequency of use became more popular, with students able to develop their spelling ability for core vocabulary items rather than being forced to learn obscure and complicated words that they would hardly recognize let alone apply in their daily lives.


Changing Study Methods


Up until this point, students had simply to learn spelling patterns by writing, repetitive re-writing and rote memorization of vocabulary, but that changed as new theories emerged about the best way to learn how to spell a word.


To meet the individual needs of each child, teachers asked students to create their own notebooks to record words they needed or had misspelled in the past.


Another approach was to ask students to write words exactly three times in order to create a visual memory of the letter forms and overall “shape” of the word.


It was found that any more than three repetitions at a time for each word was actually discouraging for students and counterproductive to learning.


It was during this era that the famous “look, say, cover, write, check” study method was invented.  


There are a few variations of this technique, but the basic procedure is that students first look at the word, say the word aloud, cover it with their hand or a piece of paper, spell the word verbally, write it and finally uncover it to check whether spelled it correctly. 


A New way of Testing


Around the 1950s-60s, educators started to question traditional testing methods, where students had to memorize up to 50 new words per week for a quiz.


It was suggested that students should take more control of their own learning, giving them a balance of old and new words for them to practice per week.


Thus was born the “test-teach-test” approach, whereby students are tested on Monday, for example, then given time during the week to practice the material, and tested again on the same material on Friday.


This allows students to recognize their existing knowledge and focus only on the areas in which they made mistakes, as well as providing encouragement as students can clearly see their progress from week to week.


Researchers discovered that the best results were produced by several short practice sessions between tests, rather than one long lesson.



Recognizing Patterns in Language


These days it seems obvious that we can observe phonemic patterns in English whereby the pronunciation and spelling of words are related.


For example, we can look at the letter a’ and recognize both its associated sound as well as its visual shape.


While there were some early proponents of a phonemic approach for teaching in the 19th century, other educators didn’t think it should be taught at all.


A 1984 U.S. National Academy of Education report found that using such a system, dubbed phonics, improved students ability to identify words.


Although mainly intended to teach reading, students were now instructed to “sound it out” if they were unsure how to spell a word, using phonemic patterns to develop the related fields of both reading and spelling.


Phonics can be used to teach words (and letters) in isolation but also allows for the use of context and longer texts.


An Integrative System: Looking at Language in Context


From the 1980s until the current day, a new approach to literacy education has become influential, which actually dispenses with formal spelling instruction altogether.


According to this integrative system, spelling, reading, grammar and punctuation shouldn’t be taught as separate functions and in fact shouldn’t be acknowledged at all.


Instead, they should be assimilated into texts which present the information in a natural way, so that students can “absorb” these literacy skills through exposure rather than explicit instruction or study.


This theory purports that learning to spell should come from a rich engagement with language in use, with only some guidance from a teacher. 


Dispensing with standard written and oral spelling tests, students are instead given texts to proofread.


Unfortunately, research has found that proofreading is extremely difficult for students, especially if they lack a solid spelling foundation on which to build their proofreading skills.


Teachers also present “authentic” vocabulary relevant to the content of other subjects being taught, on the principle that placing “learning in context” is the ideal way to learn.


Many of these vocabulary items are low-frequency however, and will be forgotten when no longer at the center of the child’s schoolwork, suggesting that the historic focus on high-frequency words may be more useful in the long term.


While reading, familiarizing themselves with words in context provides students with a good framework to identify words, however they often forget this information without the addition of directed instruction.


Bringing back Traditional Methods


After three decades of integrative systems which seek to omit spelling from school curriculums, teachers and parents are starting to notice that children simply can’t spell.


California has been among the world leaders of integrative literacy education, even going so far as to ban spelling books from the required textbook list in 1987.


But just seven years later, in 1994, the state’s literacy proficiency scores had dropped to become one of the worst in the U.S.


Although the integrative system claims that the traditional use of spelling books “just doesn’t work,” research suggests that old-fashioned spelling work may actually be more effective than modern scholars give it credit for.


A 2010 report by the Carnegie Foundation found that direct spelling instruction improves reading ability.


Spelling educator and author J. Richard Gentry Ph.D. suggests that parents and teachers go “back to basics” and bring clear spelling instruction and testing back into mainstream education.


What SpellQuiz Has Learned from a Century of Spelling Education


Educational theories often seem to gravitate to extremes, but the most effective way to teach and test spelling is surely a combination of various methodologies.


Rather than allowing teachers to use only one approach, whether that be phonics-based, context driven, or old-fashioned memorization, the ideal spelling education must surely combine all of these methods.


To develop well-rounded, literate children and adults, it can only make sense to capitalize on every aspect of spelling and its related skills.


At SpellQuiz, we recognize the role of context in natural language forms for word identification, but we don’t neglect phonics or basic repetition.


The more times a student is exposed to a word, the more likely they remember it, and spelling success relies on the high-frequency input to build a strong foundation for later challenges.


Many of the problems related to traditional testing methods arise from inappropriate vocabulary choice, with low-frequency, difficult words chosen where a thorough grounding in more basic words would actually produce far better results.


Researchers have found that when students are presented with words of an appropriate level, their learning success improves significantly, and they become far less stressed.


The SpellQuiz system of dividing words between grade level standards provides the perfect framework for students to stop stressing and love learning to spell.



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