Most teachers are aware of the issues associated with the traditional weekly spelling test, yet we continue with this method of spelling assessment. Perhaps because it’s the way we learned, and it worked for us, perhaps because we don’t know how to implement the better solutions, or the adopted curriculum doesn’t supply the necessary tools to do otherwise. As a teacher I do as I’m told, and that is to implement the core curriculum with fidelity; however, there is usually time to work in some best practices to insure my students get the best education that I can offer based on the outcomes of research and my personal reflections.
So even if you can’t ditch the Friday spelling test here is some food for thought. The alternative assessment strategy is to use qualitative spelling inventories. Qualitative spelling inventories have carefully selected words that reflect the taxonomy of written English. They allow you to assess where your students are on the Spelling continuum and therefore give you the knowledge to teach to their instructional levels.
Recently I tested my kids one-on-one. You can give spelling assessments in large groups, however, my students have attention and processing deficits so the only way I can get accurate results is individually or in groups of no more than three. The results were that three of my students had advanced beyond the first spelling level, which is CVC words, and were ready to learn digraphs and blends. About five of my third graders were still struggling with CVC words, and the others were having difficulty recalling how to write letters from dictation.
Given this diverse group, I’ve decided to change my strategy.
1. I will continue to administer the weekly spelling test and put the results in the districts data collection system. I will continue to do this because the curriculum is very good. The problems are three fold, a lock step methodology for instructional delivery that assumes each kid is at the same level, recommends re-teaching strategies of the same curriculum and doesn’t provide for assessments at the various instructional levels found in my classroom.
2. I will formulate three groups of students and direct teach the small groups for about 30 minutes daily at their instructional level. Now that I know their instructional level I will focus on letter and sound recognition in isolation and context for the first group, word family sorts for the second and third group at the CVC level for group one and the Digraph/Blend level for group 2.
3. I will draw examples from the core curriculum during direct whole class instruction that addresses each of the three instructional levels.
Here is a bit of research to back this strategy. At one point in time research has found a spread of at least three grade levels in spelling achievement in virtually class in grades 1-6. Four third grade and two fifth grade classrooms were all students received the same instruction at the same pace from the same grade level spelling curriculum regardless of their prior spelling accuracy. At the end of the year the students were tested on their mastery of curriculum based words. The top third of each grade could spell most of the curriculum-based words. Undifferentiated whole group instruction was ineffective for the low-achieving spellers. The bottom third could not spell half the words correctly.
In contrast, low achieving spellers in seven third grade classrooms were instructed differently. Half of these low achieving third-graders were instructed in a second grade speller (the intervention group) while the other half used the third grade speller (the control group). The intervention group scored higher on the second grade post-test and nearly as good as the control group on the curriculum based assessment and higher than the control group on the third grade transfer test. In other words, they were better able to transfer what they learned to the third grade level than those students that studied outside of their instructional level.
These research studies and more are found in the reference noted below.
Invernizzi, M., Hayes, L., (2004) Developmental –spelling research: A systematic imperative, Reading Research Quarterly; April-June 2004; 39, 2; 216-228