How Not to Teach and Test Spelling

One of the casualties of Progressive Education and the Look/Guess method of reading instruction is the ability of the general population to spell common words.

Beware of Tips That Ignore the SOUNDS in the Word.
Many children bring home lists of spelling words with instructions to look at them carefully and commit the strings of letters to memory.

Many online sites run by teachers and directed at parents offer the same bad advice.
Here are two typical examples of the “eyeball” approach to learning to spell.

This one is from a site called FAMILYEDUCATION:

1) Have him say the word while looking at it.
2) Tell him to close his eyes, try to see the word, and then spell the word out loud.
3) Have him look at the written word to see if he’s spelled it out loud correctly.
4) Ask him to look at the word, then cover the word and have him write it.

This one is from a site called SPELLING TIPS:

1. Rainbow Words – Write your spelling words with a crayon. Trace over each word again with another color.
Now trace each word one more time with another color. Do not use black or brown.
2) Write the words on someone’s back (and vice versa.)
3) Write the words in sand, dirt, bubbly bath water, whipped cream, shaving cream, etc..


English is not Chinese.

English words are not pictographs. They are coded representations of speech sounds.

The pronunciation of English is a constantly shifting thing, and some high-frequency words no longer match the spoken sounds letter-by-letter, BUT enough of the sound/symbol correspondence exists in most English words to make teaching children to spell by matching letters to sounds the most effective way of doing it.

The “pictograph” approach tells a child to look at the word WORD and say the letters W-O-R-D over and over until the word is committed to memory.

The sound/symbol approach informs the child that when the letter combination or follows the letter w, it represents the sound /er/. If the child knows the or is attached to the w, the word can be learned as two sound symbols: wor-d.The element wor is a sound symbol in its own right, as are the elements th, wr, and ng.

Teaching children to recognize the letters and letter combinations that represent specific speech sounds trains the child in those “critical thinking” skills that figure so much in “education speak” these days.Teaching children to spell with sound/symbol instruction IS teaching them to think critically. Each new word learned in this way connects to other information in the child’s mind.This kind of spelling instruction empowers the child. No longer is each new “spelling word” a meaningless string of letters that can be learned only by mere memorization.

Never EVER Expose Your Child to Misspelled Words on a Test

American public education abuses the multiple choice type of test because it is easy to administer and to grade.Here are examples of two types of commonly used spelling tests:

This from a Spelling Diagnostic Test:

1. a b Sports on television give everyone incentitive/incentive to participate in a healthier life.

2. a b It is extreamly/extremely doubtful that electronic media will replace books.

This from Homework/Study Tips

Q: 1. To stun, amaze, or dumbfound:flabberghast flabergast flabbergast flaberghast

Require the child to spell the word in his mind
The only meaningful way to test a child’s spelling is to have the child write the words from dictation.A test should enable students to draw information from their minds, not play a guessing game.Making misspelled words a part of the test reinforces incorrect spellings.

For children who lack a foundation in the sound/symbol correspondences, the task of choosing between the correct and incorrect forms is not only educational malpractice, it is cruelty.

You won’t be able to prevent your children from being exposed to these unhelpful “study tips” or multiple-choice spelling tests, but you can work with your children at home, showing them how the elements in words correspond to spoken sounds.


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