The One-Size-Fits-All Spelling List

Shea and I had the distinct joy this past weekend of analyzing first grader’s spelling tests.  These weren’t, though, just any spelling tests.  They were inventories designed to give educators pointed cues regarding each student’s distinct spelling developmental stage.  I’m not going to lie.  It was FASCINATING to see the range of ways that students made sense of word rules that they had explicitly been taught or implicitly absorbed from text exposure along the way.  I found myself rooting for every kid.  “I know that looks like a b but they definitely meant d . . .I know they did!” There were significant patterns of similarity, and there were also a few outliers in every class.  

We didn’t just do this for kicks, although I certainly did get kicks.  This practice is part of a new program we are piloting with 1st, 3rd, and 4th grade this year called “Words Their Way.” It begins with figuring out where each child is, and then provides them targeted practice (called “word sorts”) at the stage and with access to the skills that they need.  The program has one thing noticeably absent from its many resources: the one size fits all weekly spelling test.  It instead asserts that regular practice with immediate feedback at kids’ just-right-fit level (ahem zone of proximal development, thank you Vygotsky) is the most effective way to help children internalize and apply spelling patterns in their own writing.

Of course weekly spelling lists and Friday spelling tests have been as much a part of the rhythm of our 1st-4th graders’ experiences as Friday morning chapel, May Day, and class plays.  Though their function may not echo as romantically as our lower schools’ sweet-voiced rendition of “This is the Day the Lord has Made,” they have been a crucial lynchpin in the literacy progression our students make from their chubby-faced entrance into the first grade hallway until they wrap that May Pole as longer-legged fourth grade pre-adolescents.  And while spelling well may not be a marker of every fifth grade student that moves on to north campus, most are relatively adept at encoding words to page by the time they reach middle school. Why, then, fix what isn’t broken?

Just because something isn’t broken doesn’t mean it can’t be better.  And while all of us giving weekly spelling tests that are one-size-fits-all in nature have been operating with the BEST of INTENTIONS (subtle nod to theme), I think we can serve our children better by addressing the knowledge (and the gaps in understanding) that they bring to our classrooms.  There are also other unanticipated ripples from the weekly spelling test.  Many children see spelling as the most important part of the curriculum since it feels like the most consistent “high stakes/formal” test they encounter throughout their years.  Kids that do well can absolutely thrive with the weekly test, and they look forward to their weekly time to shine and the inevitable positive reinforcement at home they get when they bring home that “M” the following Monday.  However, some of these same youth already know the patterns of the spelling words they are given each week, and the time could be better spent challenging them at their more advanced level. Worse, our kiddos that really need the spelling instruction the most can begin to internalize the test as an insurmountable, stressful, anxiety-inducing task, and they can begin developing (negative) self-narratives about their own identities in relation to academics.  I know both versions of this story from my own experiences as a St. Andrew’s momma.  In all cases, my kids’ teachers were absolutely incredible.  They provided support when needed and challenge when they could.  But they too were operating within a system that existed decades before they began teaching at the school.  

I think we can do better, and I hope this new program is one step closer in that direction.  But I am not so naive or confident to say that Words Their Way will be our spelling silver bullet.  My guess we will fall prey to NEW unanticipated consequences, despite our best intentions in adopting the program. But I believe we will all learn a thing or two along the way: about each child, about the preconceptions we bring to instruction, and about the ways all of us fall into teaching rhythms for sometimes-good, sometimes-less-good reasons, and most usually a blend of both.

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