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January 11, 2019

Spelling Is More Than a Test

Chances are, many people learned how to spell principal the way I did: “The principal is your PAL.” I can still remember my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Donhoff, teaching me that little mnemonic device. However, what I can’t remember are any of the hundreds of words I had to memorize for my weekly spelling tests.

Many years later, when I became a principal, one of the biggest concerns parents expressed every year was over spelling. They were convinced that our school did not teach spelling because their children did not have weekly vocabulary lists or spelling tests. And every year, I would respond:

Teaching spelling should not be confused with spelling tests. Spelling is a critical part of literacy that we should teach with intention and assess with a purpose.

In this article, we’ll look at how spelling instruction has changed for the better and how you can leverage existing literacy, reading and writing, and assessment techniques to reinforce good spelling strategies.

The Evolution of Spelling Instruction

Like most parents and teachers, much of my writing instruction in school involved copying paragraphs, diagramming sentences, and identifying parts of speech. Spelling and vocabulary instruction were usually done separately and almost always focused on memorizing lists of words that came from an obscure list in a textbook. (Incidentally, textbook writers, not educators, were the ones who developed these word lists.) There seemed to be little connection between effective writing instruction and our weekly spelling tests.

According to Dr. Richard Gentry in his book Spell It Write!, strong spelling instruction engages students in the entire spelling process: finding words, inspecting words, mastering words, and developing good spelling habits.

Over the years, reading and writing have permeated every content area and every grade level. Therefore, every teacher in the building has an opportunity to help develop students’ spelling skills. Effective reading and writing instruction includes spelling as an integral part. Connecting spelling strategies with these other skills will put spelling in a greater context and help students remember these skills as I remembered the “principal” pneumonic device.

Now let’s take a closer look at how you can integrate spelling into existing instruction and practices.

Literacy-Rich Classrooms

Literacy-rich classrooms are ones where teachers encourage students to write about topics that interest them and that focus on a specific purpose and audience. No matter what students are writing about, the process is always the same: brainstorming, drafting, revising, and then editing. And what does editing involve? Spelling! When students see spelling as an integral part of writing about topics they care about, they will be more likely to make connections and remember key spelling strategies.

Content-specific classrooms, including math, social studies, technology, and sciences, can (and should) be literacy rich as well. As you introduce content-specific vocabulary, don’t just give a definition and move on; instead, point out the word’s spelling, origin, meaning, and usage. Putting a word’s spelling in this broader context will help students make critical connections. Once again, it’s not about memorizing a set of vocabulary words and their definitions, but instead showing students how words and their meanings apply to the content they’re learning and the greater world.

Reading and Writing Instruction

Although we can sometimes assume that reading and writing are naturally connected in students’ minds, teachers must make concerted efforts to help students see the connections between these skills. Effective reading and writing instruction involves practices such as:

  • Have students write daily to learn to spell. Spelling is the skill of constructing words, not memorizing them.
  • Have students read daily. If students read regularly, they will see standard spelling and, with the right guidance, begin to apply conventional spelling to their own writing. Better readers tend to be better spellers.
  • Use specific strategies such as:
    • Match sounds with letters (especially for young children).
    • Study words and word patterns (word walls, rhyming words, etc.).
    • Learn how a word meaning changes when you add prefixes or suffixes.
    • Learn the meaning of a word. For example, “please” and “pleasant” have the same vowel combination even though they have a different pronunciation. It’s the meaning that gives you the correct spelling, not the sounds.
    • Incorporate spelling rules into daily reading and writing.
    • Apply strategies that writers use as they write, spell, proofread, and edit.


Should you assess spelling and vocabulary? Of course! However, assessments shouldn’t focus on the number of words or definitions students got correct.

Instead, spelling and vocabulary assessments should happen within the context of students’ reading and writing. When you’re reviewing students’ writing, look for patterns of errors to see which spelling strategies you might need to teach or reinforce. Then you can give individual, small-group, or large-group instruction on these issues. When students learn or review spelling rules in the context of their own writing, their overall reading and writing abilities will become stronger.


So what does this all mean? If you’re not giving students a weekly spelling or vocabulary list to memorize and to take a test on Friday, that doesn’t mean you’re failing your students. In fact, it’s probably evidence that you’re using best practices in spelling and vocabulary instruction.

When you use techniques like the ones in this article, you’re teaching processes within the context of authentic reading and writing experiences, and these are skills students can use beyond the classroom. You’re equipping your students with ways to find and construct meaning in the real world. Real life is not based on a memorized list, but on the application of learned strategies to interpret and make sense of the world.


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