Spelling Lists: An Antiquated Waste of Instructional Time.


Spelling Lists: An Antiquated Waste of Instructional Time.

I must begin this conversation by saying of course DON’T PANIC. I do believe that spelling should be addressed in schools. I must also disclose that in my first year of teaching (admittedly a short time ago) I too thought the students must memorize spelling words each week. What I discovered that year and through subsequent research (including the article No More Friday Spelling Tests? by Kelly A. Loeffler) was that I was only teaching what was taught to me. I asked myself if memorizing spelling words, one week at a time, was actually working. The answer was no. Students who spelled every word correctly on the Friday test were misspelling those same words the following week in their daily writing. So why was I wasting time. I was wasting time printing the lists. The students were wasting time studying words at home, doing busy work like writing them three times each or alphabetizing them. I was wasting 20 minutes a week giving the test and another 30 minutes scoring it. All this led to frustration at why the students weren’t getting better at spelling. Then I remembered a familiar quote from Anthony Robins: “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” I studied spelling lists for my entire elementary career and I just now had trouble spelling the word career. Spelling lists didn’t work then and continuing to use a faulty strategy is poor or lazy instruction. It is the 21st century and it is time for a new model for spelling instruction.

Let me introduce you to New Spelling. No lists. No memorizing. No tests. What is it then? Well I believe that spelling words correctly should be done within the context of writing. A student should be able to spell the words correctly that he uses frequently. However, if a student does not know how to spell a word, he must have a system of strategies set in place that will allow him to in-the-end spell the needed word correctly.

This system begins with the student being able to identify either automatically or intuitively that he has misspelled a word. I utilize the traditional ‘circle the word if you know it is misspelled’ axiom. At this point the true teaching and learning occurs. I teach my students five spelling strategies (which Ms. Loeffler outlined in her article).

These problem solving strategies are:

  • Ask a friend
  • Sound out the word slowly by using sound boxes or finger tapping.
  • Use a dictionary (either a printed copy or digital edition)
  • Use similar words to help spell the troublesome word.
  • Use a spell-checker (either a handheld device or pulling up a word processing program)

By the time the student has completed as many of the strategies as needed, he will have discovered how to spell the needed word correctly. And chances are, he has taken more ownership over a word that he discovered the spelling to, instead of a meaningless word supplied by his teacher. As the student continues to write and discover how to spell new words, his personal word bank of correctly spelled words will grow (thus achieving the goal of teaching the student how to spell words correctly). As I will discuss in a further post, these strategies do not take the place of vocabulary instruction (which is not spelling word lists). I will conclude by admitting freely that I have not giving a Spelling Test in over three years. Am I the only teacher in my school not giving Spelling Tests? Yes. Can my students still spell? Yes.

If you are a veteran teacher, you may see this “as clinching proof that the whole of known creation has finally gone bananas.” I feel that change is inevitable (I just used 2 strategies to spell inevitable). We must educate our students to solve problems using logical strategies. Spelling is important. Being able to regurgitate a list of 20 words on any given Friday is not a life-long skill. So please, teach them the process for discovering how to spell, not the process of how to cram during lunch on Friday for a meaningless test. Until next time. So long, and go out and teach the kids.

Find the article No More Friday Spelling Tests? by Kelly A. Loeffler as a direct download here: