Spelling tests - a necessary evil?

 by elginwx http://www.flickr.com/photos/92239147@N00/462868700/
Spelling test! What do the words ‘spelling test’ mean to you? They strike fear into some people, boredom in others and smugness in those who are confident spellers. But probably the most widespread opinion is that spelling tests are a necessary evil. Are spelling tests necessary? And are spelling tests evil? Why do teachers give them? How could they be better?

Why give spelling tests?
Spelling tests (I'm talking here about the weekly type that test how well a list of words has been remembered) seem to be very commonplace in the teaching of children and sometimes with older learners too. Why do teachers give them:
  • because that's what teachers have always done?
  • because the institution demands it?
  • because parents / sponsors want them?
  • because they know spelling tests are the best way to improve their learners' spelling?
What's wrong with spelling tests?
You would hope it's for the last reason, but looking on online forums and teachers' blogs I see so many teachers saying that they know that weekly spelling tests aren't useful. Why?

  • They result in 'Friday spellers'  - the many learners who do well on the tests but cannot spell the words within their subsequent writing. After the test they seem to clear their brain of those words to get ready for the next week's list.
  • Some always do well, others always do badly and the ones who do badly have often spent far longer trying to memorise the words and stressing over them. The strong ones aren't being stretched and the weak ones are taking a weekly bashing.
  • The learning and testing of these words takes up so much time that could be spent doing other more useful (and enjoyable) things, like reading ... or learning to really understand spelling and love words.
  • Research confirms that spelling tests are largely ineffective.
So should teachers carry on giving spelling tests?
Some teachers have stopped giving the weekly spelling tests. Others carry on because they are pressurised to do so or just can't think of an alternative. Teachers who have stopped giving them say they notice no difference at all in the spelling that their learners produce in their writing.

But there does seem to be a backlash from parents and the media. I've read comments like,
"If spelling tests were good enough for us, why aren't they good enough for children now?"
And headlines like this: "Outrage at banning spelling tests"

Most of the criticism completely misunderstands the issue. Many think that getting rid of spelling tests means getting rid of spelling instruction. No, no, no! It's making room for instruction, which should be about helping learners to understand the systems of English spelling and learn useful strategies for dealing with spelling that they don't know.

If teachers must give spelling tests, here are some suggestions for making them more effective:
  • Be sure of your aim and how you will use the results;
  • Make sure the words are related in some way (topic, spelling pattern, lexically, etc);
  • Introduce them within texts or use words that have arisen from classwork;
  • Include words from previous tests. Warn learners that you will do this but do not tell them in advance which ‘old’ words will be tested;
  • Give surprise mini-tests on words from previous weeks so learners know that they can't afford to forget the ones they have learned.
  • Consider letting learners choose the words they are tested on from the ones given (they each choose, say, three words and these are all added together for the test);
  • Test strategies as well as knowledge;
  • Teach learners strategies for learning words and let them share the ones they use (for example my free, deluxe Look Say Cover Write and Check template);
  • During the test give words in sentences. They write the whole sentence. Alternatively, with a stronger group, say the word and they have to write the word in a sentence themselves. To make it more challenging, give them a topic for the sentence so they can’t just learn a complete sentence by heart;
  • Avoid tests which deliberately present learners with wrong spellings (they might stick better than the real spelling!);
  • Learners who struggle are not expected to get 100%, but they are expected to do at least as well as they did on the previous test, aiming for some improvement. If possible, differentiate the test, so that it’s easier for weaker learners and more challenging for stronger ones. Words could have some given letters for weaker students;
  • Encourage learners to keep progress charts of their spelling scores (there'll be one in my forthcoming book, Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners).


  1. I refuse to give spelling test, to everyone's chagrin [you know, I always pronounce that "char-grin" and always spell it wrong]. I tell my adult learners they can make up their own tests if they want, and even test each other. But I'm not wasting my time with foolishness when there's so much reading and writing to do!

    I suspect the attraction has to do with the apparent magic of tests. With spelling, as with other things, we use passed [but not "past" LOL] tests as proof of competence (or, at least, of an increased likelihood of passing the next test). Many of my learners happily turn that on its head, and demand tests repeatedly - apparently hoping that if they can pass one, they will have learned to spell or add fractions or whatever.

    It's a bit like buying lottery tickets, I suppose.

    It could be that teachers use the tests to present clear and socially acceptable evidence that they are doing their jobs by setting children curriculum-based learning tasks and measuring the outcomes with hard numbers.

    It might not make for better spelling, but it gives you some cover when your employer knocks on the door.


  2. Couldn't agree more, Johanna, and with what Wendell says. Tests don't teach, they're an easy way for teachers to show their employer that they are "professional", because they have "evidence" of learning. The point you make about "it was good enough for me..." I think perpetuates all of education.

  3. hi johanna, im flattered to know you've come accross my blog, i really appreciate it. you have an interesting website. i hope to keep a good blog relationship with you....

  4. This issue has been bothering me since we started to home school our first grader. My first teaching experience was tutoring adults in ESL and I never worried about giving spelling tests since our face to face learning time was so limited. Perhaps that is why I don't make up lists of words for weekly tests now. This post validated what I suspected. However, since my son continues to write using invented spelling, I worry that his method reinforces incorrectness. After he writes a sentence, I instruct him to correct each misspelled word by looking it up. When he reads, I have him write down every word that he's unsure of. I'm going to take advantage of your Look, Say, Cover, Write method. Thank you for sharing this very helpful and informative post.

  5. I'm having a huge dispute at the moment with my principal and the head of KS1 because of their views on marking spelling tests....I feel that half marks should be awarded to give a true indication of whether the child has developed an ability to learn and spell or if a child has no idea whatsoever.

    For example:
    Child one: 1.cut 2.fhs 3.bto 4. aslpe 5.ktn = 1/5

    Child two: 1.cut 2.fsh 3.potatto 4. aslep 5. cuting = 1/5

    Yet child two is 95% better at spelling than child one even though he did not get all the words correct.Both children get 1/5 and the assessment is not a true indication of child two's abilities.....

    However, the head of KS1 and the principal ( a Math teacher) say ''there is no grey area in spelling, no half marks, it's right or wrong''

    oOOOh I'm about to pull my hair out!
    Oh did I mention that I am an English teacher with 20 years experience, and the child two in question is my son....lol.the other two people in question are both non native speakers......

  6. I agree with you. Though I guess you'd need a pretty watertight system to decide what gets the point and what doesn't. If it's any consolation, it looks like your son will be getting full marks before the other child!

    But it also worries me that these kids are given tests that seem far too hard for them. 1/5 is a very discouraging score for anyone.

    But if you've read my post you'll know that I think we could spend the time much more usefully than giving tests anyway.

    Thanks for taking the time to write and I hope the situation gets sorted.


  7. An interesting question. I'm not a big fan of spelling tests - as you say teaching spelling and having word walls and encouraging students to ask questions about a word if they are writing it and not certain how to spell. I remember many years ago when I taught using the words from subjects we were studying - like gastrocnemius - for spelling words to learn and the children loved doing that. Of course all these years later, who knows if they could spell that on a test ;-).

    I referenced this article as a blog for parents to read and comment on in my blog entry tonight - http://cgeprincipal.blogspot.com/2011/11/monday-monday.html and will be interested to read any comments that come my way.

  8. Thanks for your comment, Bob. It's interesting that I find myself thinking it's OK to test words like gastrocnemius. They're so specialised that if permanent learning doesn't occur, it doesn't blight children's lives. And you can do lots of work on wordbuilding too of course.

    Thanks for mentioning my blog on yours. I'd be interested to hear what parents (and other teachers) think.


  9. It seems to me that you are a teacher who is thoroughly interested in whether your students are learning. As a soon-to-be parent, and a long time Uncle who helps with homework at home, I think there is an issue you may be overlooking.

    There seems to be a growing mistrust of teachers, and of school administrators as well, reinforced by stories of 50% graduation rates, social grade promotion, and students graduating secondary school while still functionally illiterate. A spelling test gives a hard, unmistakable gauge of what the student is capable at that time. The teacher cannot say "Oh, Johnny tried hard, he gets an A."

    I have a niece who can hardly spell anything correctly. When she writes, I have to work exceptionally hard just to understand what she is saying. She is in middle school. This terrifies me.

    Having taken many spelling tests as a child, I remember that they were often a tool for teaching, just as much as for determining mastery. When the word list was full of similar words (-ough, or -eigh or -ght words for example) it not only tested the words, but reinforced their learning.

  10. i like your subject as whole and agree that " spelling tests - a necessary evil " as it's very important,but at the same time it is very difficult .

  11. I love how you spelled "pressurised"- maybe you should learn to spell before you write a spelling blog. Jesus.

  12. Dear Jesus*,
    I'm British and 'pressurised' is the British spelling. If you would like to know more about British and American spelling look here: http://thespellingblog.blogspot.co.uk/2009/06/british-and-american-spelling-spelling.html
    But do let me know if you find any real mistakes.
    (*I'm assuming this is your name. It could have been an expression of exasperation, but without an exclamation mark, I was unsure.)

    1. Excellent reply!

    2. Great answer. I'm British too. Just love your response to Jesus.

  13. My daughter is in year 1, 6 years old in australia. Her school had them doing a pretest on monday and a proper test on Friday. This caused her an enormous amount of distress and made her feel like a failure. At my request she no longer does the Friday test and is given an alternative activity which at the moment is sorting the words alphabetically. She is much happier. We have always read to her a lot and her reading is good.the idea of a test where young children receive a grade doesn't seem right at this age. Assessment is fine. I would much prefer that they write stories perhaps using a word or words suggested by the teacher. The words also need to be words that they are likely to use. We had squirrel on a recent test. Given we don't have them here it seemed to me a fairly pointless word to include. Has anyone else withdrawn their child from testing?

  14. I have a son with dyslexia. His reading is fantastic. However, his spelling age was 4 when his reading age was 19 (he was 8 at the time). Nobody in school ever picked this up as dyslexia. Test after test showed his spelling to be very poor but rather than see is as possible dyslexia, they saw it as him not listening or learning, because his reading ability was so high. It took him being expelled and ending up in a PRU where, within half an hour of meeting him, his new teacher phoned me to request permission to have him assessed.

    Perhaps if teachers looked at spelling tests as more than just a list of words learned, more credence would be given to them.

  15. Thank you very much for this comment. how awful for your son to have to go through so much angst before being diagnosed as having dyslexia. Yes, spelling tests are bad enough, but if teachers give them (or have to give them) then the results need to be carefully analysed and help given to those who are struggling.