The only way to determine whether students have learned to spell a word is to have them write it from dictation. This way, they draw on knowledge that exists in their minds.

Multiple-choice tests that present several versions of the same word, only one of which is spelled correctly, sow confusion and reinforce misspellings.

A spelling test that reinforces misspelling.
An example of a spelling test question that reinforces misspelling.

To test spelling, follow this three-step process:

  1. Say the word.
  2. Use the word in a sentence that makes the word’s meaning clear.
  3. Say the word again.

Note: Do not stop to repeat a word in any of these steps.

The sentences used to put the word in context require some thought to avoid ambiguity.

To give context for a word like friend, a sentence like Jack is my friend is adequate.

Words that have homonyms—words spelled differently but sound the same—like piece and principal, need something more specific than “I want a piece” or “There’s the principal.”

Similar-sounding words, like accept and except, also need thoughtful sentences that make the meaning clear.

Here is a sample spelling test.

  1. eight—My brother is eight years old.—eight
  2. principal—The principal announced a snow day for tomorrow.—principal
  3. real—Joan of Arc was a real person, not a fictional character.—real
  4. weight—The horse pulled a heavy weight.—weight
  5. manner—That actor has a pleasant manner of speaking.—manner
  6. friends—David and Jonathan were close friends.—friends
  7. forty—He wrote a check for forty dollars.—forty
  8. accept—The fireman refused to accept the medal. —accept
  9. site—We visited the site where the new school will be built.—site
  10. piece—Please cut me a piece of cake.—piece

A test with more than ten items may be justified to establish reading level, as with the Morrison-McCall spelling scale. In ordinary circumstances, ten words at a time are enough.

NOTE: The Morrison McCall spelling scale is not a test. It is a diagnostic instrument that can give the teacher an idea of a student’s reading level. It is very long.

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