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Outrage at banning spelling tests

By Jay Mathews

J. Martin Rochester, Curators' Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is our guest columnist. He is a close student of the evolution of American education practices, and often warns of the deterioration of standards.

By J. Martin Rochester

The documentary “Waiting for Superman,” is yet another call for K-12 school reform aimed at closing the gap between academic achievers and non-achievers and promoting what an assistant superintendent in my school district once oxymoronically labeled “mass excellence.”

The problem is that school reformers are not really serious about raising the bar. After all, they continue to dumb-down education – adopting the slogan from the Chris Farley movie Tommy Boy, “If At First You Don’t Succeed, Lower the Standard” – while claiming to be smarting up. How one can do higher-order thinking in math, social studies, or any other discipline while clueless about lower-order knowledge and skills remains a mystery to those of us who are not in tune with the latest best practices in K-12.

The latest example of dumbing-down while pretending to be smarting up is the trend toward eliminating spelling tests. The evidence I report here comes from a couple local school districts in the St. Louis area. (Stay tuned for this development in your own district if it has not already occurred.) In a September 18 St Louis Post-Dispatch article by Aisha Sultan, “Coming to the Defense of Spelling Tests,” the writer notes that two of the largest, best school districts in Missouri – Parkway and Rockwood – “have completely phased out spelling tests from their elementary school language arts curricula.”

Asked by astounded parents how this could be so, the Parkway coordinator for elementary communication arts replied that “we were developing a lot of Friday morning spellers.” Likewise, the Rockwood coordinator said “we’re really trying to work on self-regulation,” that is, getting children to develop their own strategies for becoming good spellers.

The districts say they will continue to teach lessons about spelling and may even hold students accountable for spelling certain words correctly, but spelling is a skill that will be embedded in student writing routines. The bottom line is that educators say spelling tests are not authentic assessments.

On the surface this sounds reasonable, but let’s understand what is actually going on:

1. Many kids cannot spell (due to dyslexia, or laziness because they do not read, or because they are just plain stupid, or whatever), and it is true that no amount of spelling tests are going to get them to spell. But many kids can spell or at least could spell, and spelling tests undoubtedly work to help many of the latter through the important function they perform in terms of drill, reinforcement, and motivation to learn to spell.

It certainly worked for me in my own schooling! Am I alone? Any number of experts have pointed out the utility of drill and practice as a pedagogical method, most recently those cited in the September 19th New York Times Sunday Magazine article “Drill, Baby, Drill.”

However, given the reigning orthodoxy in K-12, since some kids cannot do well on spelling tests, then no kids should be allowed to take spelling tests. It is about self-esteem, avoiding failure, some learning styles (e.g., inability to memorize) not being served by such tests, etc., but is rationalized as “inauthentic assessment” in the pretentious jargon of the profession.

I do not give a darn about authentic/schmentic assessment. Use whatever assessments you want, but at the end of the day I want to see progress. Show me that “authentic” assessments do anything to improve spelling. You can bet that the educators behind this fad will not be able to demonstrate such. I spoke to a Parkway high school English teacher who shared my skepticism. So the question remains, what harm do spelling tests do that they need to be banned?

This is just another case of K-12 progressive educators devaluing the basics, putting down spelling tests (because in truth they don’t care if kids can spell) just as they put down computation skills (because they don’t care if kids have automaticity with math facts), rationalizing all the while that schools should focus on developing (sniff, sniff) “higher order skills.”

Part of this is ego on the part of K-8 educators – they now consider it beneath them as “professionals” to get their hands dirty administering spelling tests (and multiplication table exercises) – but mostly it is something more damning : it is not so much that the reformers don’t care about these skills but rather they do not have enough faith in kids to succeed at mastering them. The dark secret the reformers will not admit is that the basics are hard and they have thrown in the towel on things like spelling.

This is what is going on in Parkway and Rockwood, and throughout much of the country. The banning of spelling tests is a metaphor for a much larger phenomenon. The bottom – the lowest achievers – are now setting the standard and defining school routines.

At the same time, the reformers claim every kid is a potential genius – Superman – even if they cannot spell “its” vs. “it’s,” “their” vs. “there,” or “Superman” vs. “Souperman.” In our pursuit of mass excellence, we continue to throw the baby out with the bathwater, abandoning traditional if imperfect practices in favor of new unproven ones. Meanwhile, it takes a layperson to point out what PLCs (“professional learning communities”) seem unable to grasp – in the words of the Post-Dispatch writer and parent, “killing the weekly spelling test is more likely to worsen the problem than improve it.”

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | October 31, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  J. Martin Rochester, better to learn to spell naturally while writing, spelling tests banned, this means dumbing down English classes.  
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I would caution Mr. Rochester on his assertion that this policy shift is in part due to the "ego" of K-8 educators. Instead, it may be due to administrative decisions, spelling programs, or the school's/district's focus of having students spell phonetically.

I am from the school of "learn to spell words correctly," however, in the big picture of language, "Superman" could one day become "Souperman." Maybe Mr. Rochester should read "The Mother Tongue" by Bill Bryson. A pretty interesting take on the evolution of language.

If that is too light hearted, maybe the journals of Meriwether Lewis or the works of William Shakespeare would be of interest. Mr. Rochester may enjoy counting their various "misspellings."

Posted by: holland21 | November 1, 2010 5:21 PM | Report abuse

My apologies to those who tried to post comments here earlier today and found that it was closed to comments on the first day it appeared. It turns out there was a glitch caused by the system being unused to me setting up a blog post two weeks before its publication, which was necessary because i was going on a two week vacation. They told me they have fixed the problem. Comment away.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 1, 2010 7:37 PM | Report abuse

Good point, Holland21. But the misspellings of Meriwether Lewis are far less egregigious (and confusing) than those of the average eighth grader who's been the victim of the "incidental learning" approach to spelling. At least with spelling there's no consistent strong connection between general aptitude and spelling proficiency, so students who struggle are not considered to be slow. I was always an excellent speller, but had a hard time with penmanship -- another skill that is hard to correlate with intelligence. So let's stipulate that the poor spellers and the clumsy hand-writers
may well have other talents, but insist that they both learn to spell and to write cursive.

Posted by: jane100000 | November 1, 2010 8:01 PM | Report abuse

Good point, Holland21. But the misspellings of Meriwether Lewis are far less egregigious (and confusing) than those of the average eighth grader who's been the victim of the "incidental learning" approach to spelling. At least with spelling there's no consistent strong connection between general aptitude and spelling proficiency, so students who struggle are not considered to be slow. I was always an excellent speller, but had a hard time with penmanship -- another skill that is hard to correlate with intelligence. So let's stipulate that the poor spellers and the clumsy hand-writers
may well have other talents, but insist that they both learn to spell and to write cursive.

Posted by: jane100000 | November 1, 2010 8:01 PM | Report abuse

Good point, Holland21. But the misspellings of Meriwether Lewis are far less egregigious (and confusing) than those of the average eighth grader who's been the victim of the "incidental learning" approach to spelling. At least with spelling there's no consistent strong connection between general aptitude and spelling proficiency, so students who struggle are not considered to be slow. I was always an excellent speller, but had a hard time with penmanship -- another skill that is hard to correlate with intelligence. So let's stipulate that the poor spellers and the clumsy hand-writers
may well have other talents, but insist that they both learn to spell and to write cursive.

Posted by: jane100000 | November 1, 2010 8:02 PM | Report abuse

Oops; make that "egregious."

Posted by: jane100000 | November 1, 2010 8:03 PM | Report abuse

This would be laughable if it did not border on the criminal. This is NOTHING new as it was all the fashion in the 1990's Whole Language movement. Thankfully, Whole Language was replaced with sound teaching of phonics, spelling, grammar, etc. in the late 90's until 2010. Any school system eliminating spelling tests today ("getting children to develop their own strategies for becoming good spellers.") is way behind the curve. Parents should do their own research and take back the curriculum. Asking children 5-10 to "develop their own strategies..." in deference to actually TEACHING them strategies is indeed criminal.

Posted by: Woodie731 | November 1, 2010 8:15 PM | Report abuse

I am more frustrated by this post and these comments than any Class Struggle post in some time. To suggest that eliminating spelling tests means that schools are eliminating the instruction of spelling is absurd. The language arts coordinator who said, "we were developing a lot of Friday morning spellers" makes a point that everyone seems to be ignoring here. Many children spell words beautifully for a spelling test at the end of the week but can't or don't spell those words in their actual writing. Who cares if they can spell them on the test? Spelling words in authentic writing is what matters. If that is the focus of these schools I applaud them. Schools are expected to teach, assess, and test a ridiculous amount of content. If spelling tests are a waste of time, eliminate them. We must prioritize what matters and what impacts actual learning.

Posted by: Jenny04 | November 1, 2010 8:54 PM | Report abuse

Forest Hills elementary schools (Queens, NY) abandoned formal spelling instruction when my son was in first grade (2002) and did not teach spelling at any level through his sixth-grade year. This "reform," promoted by a Teachers' College graduate student with very little teaching experience and way too much time on her hands, was implemented despite unanimous parent opposition. This infuriating, utterly stupid decision has negatively affected the writing skills of an entire cohort (almost a generation) of perfectly bright -- even well above average -- students.

The "no spelling" reform is typical of the types of curricular changes I have seen across the board since Joel Klein became chancellor. Standard literature has been thrown out and replaced with "All about Me" writing assignments -- autobiographies, poems, memoirs...awful! God forbid that children read about people and experiences other than those they know first-hand. And these changes (I know they were changes because I have an older child who went through the system six years earlier and read Dickens and Bradbury and Wiesel) have been made for students who come from educated families and read quite a bit, despite the school's best efforts to turn children against reading with policies like the "just-right-books" nonsense, using a clock to time yourself reading, and every other idiocy that pseudo-professionals have declared is necessary to teach our children how to read.

Shine a harsh light on these practices before even more children are sacrificed to this pernicious ideology! I urge teachers to have some integrity and teach what they know to be excellent, meaningful content, not the latest fad.

It is very difficult for parents not to conclude that these dumbed-down "reforms" are actually intended to lower public school students' performance -- not the other way around! Is there a separate agenda here? The privatization of education for all but the poorest and neediest?

Posted by: Jennifer88 | November 1, 2010 9:48 PM | Report abuse

P.S. And to "Jenny O4" pu-leez! (Or did I spell that wrong in my "authentic writing.") Children must learn to spell and they need a way to track their learning. Structured spelling lessons group words according to phonemes and help children to gain a sense of structure, etymology, and root meanings.

Young children will and should spell "creatively." Over time they will replace creative spelling with accurate spelling, but only if they have been taught how to spell the words!

Posted by: Jennifer88 | November 1, 2010 9:56 PM | Report abuse

P.S.S. In my experience with educators at the schools my children have attended, the insistence on teaching "higher level thinking skills" invariably comes from the least intellectually curious and most incompetent teachers. New flash: Children come into this world with higher level thinking skills. They want to explore and know why, why, why?!?! The teacher's job is to explain and show the children how they can find out more and to do so in a way that makes sense and can be tracked by both students and parents so they can build on that knowledge and go even further.

Posted by: Jennifer88 | November 1, 2010 10:03 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for this column. Our school just phased out the weekly spelling test. My suspicion has been that children don't need to know how to spell in order to do well on a standardized test. That's why they aren't "wasting" their time on this important skill. My suspicion was confirmed today when my son came home with work from a curriculum called Sholastic Success With Tests. Frustrating!!!!

Posted by: marieinct | November 1, 2010 10:59 PM | Report abuse

I believe this article is honestly really true. As a current student, I know repetition and continually practice really make a difference in learning. Not only in spelling, but also in learning multiplication facts as well. Without true practice, you will get nowhere in learning or in life. I believe taking away spelling tests in schools would really hurt students. I think learning vocabulary is extremely important but learning the study skills like repetition is even more significant.

Posted by: cunninghaa3 | November 1, 2010 11:12 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Rochester, you brought up several thought provoking points in your article and I mostly agree with your overall assessment. That said, I must tell you that I was offended by your declaration that some students cannot learn to spell because they are “just plain stupid.” What does that even mean? Would you seriously defend that contention as a statement of fact? If so, would you please explain what the exact criteria for what “just plain stupid” is? It surprises me that someone as concerned as you clearly are about the “dumbing-down” of processes would then go and write an article for a major website using such obtuse language. I understand that it is easy to make broad generalizations about the vulnerable (and sadly many in our public education system are exactly that). However, I would ask you to remember that these are our children, and to maintain a modicum of respect when address them and their challenges.

Posted by: Nkuedu | November 1, 2010 11:52 PM | Report abuse

It saddens me that so many Americans truly believe in this authoritative approach towards education. This concept of receiving, memorizing, and repeating is only requiring students to "become Friday morning spellers" as stated above. Do they even know the meaning of the words they are spelling? Could they even use that word in a sentence? We as Americans are forgetting the true value of school and that is a notion of developing students to be critical thinkers. Now, I completely understand that at a very young age such things as phonetics, etymology, etc...are quite important since a basic foundation of language must be developed so that the student can grasp higher levels of language proficiency, but a spelling test is far from the right solution. Students in today's classroom are not stupid, they know how to play the game and by throwing spelling tests down their throat, there will be no long term benefit, but instead a generation of kids who know how little effort they need to put forth to "succeed". Positive, life experiences are what build language skills, with spelling as a bonus. When I was a student, spelling tests did nothing for me in regards to "creative writing or language development" (and I was very good at spelling before you make your assumptions). It wasn't until I started actually writing that I developed a sense of language that has stuck with me through my life. I applaud this movement for its boldness to step away from the norm (which is obviously not working in today's educational system) and its willingness to allow students to become applied writers instead of mindless robots that may or may not remember the words they had just learned for their previous spelling exam. Jennifer...who are you to say that this "reform" has "negatively affected the writing skills of an entire cohort (almost a generation) of perfectly bright -- even well above average -- students"? Have you asked everyone whether or not they're below average in regards to language proficiency due to nonexistent spelling tests? It is this narrow minded approach towards education that is stalling the progression of knowledge instead of assisting it.

Posted by: jahnc1 | November 2, 2010 1:21 AM | Report abuse

This is by far the best thing Jay Mathews has posted in recent memory. The Pol Sci professor is entirely right, and I'm sure he's spent much time reading poorly written papers from "successful" straight-A high school students in his freshman classes.

Posted by: physicsteacher | November 2, 2010 3:38 AM | Report abuse

physicsteacher - Does poorly written mean badly spelled? Those seem like completely different things. I'm married to a college professor and I do hear some complaining about the quality of papers. But not about the spelling. It seems like we should spend more time teaching students to write well and less time with spelling tests. There is a finite amount of time in school and the great majority of educators do some serious thinking about how to spend it.

Jennifer88 - Everything you are saying is possible without traditional spelling tests. As a fifth grade teacher my students had word study notebooks. We looked at words (patterns, structures in language) and we spent time identifying words each child had trouble with. They knew they needed to focus on those words to improve. But I assessed that learning in their actual writing, where it mattered. I didn't ignore spelling but I chose to spend my time wisely as a teacher.

Posted by: Jenny04 | November 2, 2010 6:11 AM | Report abuse

To Jahnc1 and Jenny 04 -- No one, least of all me, is arguing for rote learning only. A previous commenter noted that the standardized tests don't measure spelling, so teachers don't want to "waste" their time on it. But we allow young children to practice writing their letters and repeating the alphabet in song because it's all part of the process of actually learning. Obviously, a strong approach to education requires a variety of strategies. Btw: The research shows that spelling instruction is vital to building vocabulary and grammar. As for the students in my son's school, including my son, they all went on to top high schools because they can think and perform well on those tests you mentioned JennyO4, but this column is about how they write and how they spell. Compared to their suburban counterparts, the answer would be: quite poorly! Finally, in NYC the better schools (e.g., the Anderson Program) teach spelling.

Posted by: Jennifer88 | November 2, 2010 7:06 AM | Report abuse

As far as this post, I feel I am 50/50. I believe that spelling test are a good tool to use in the class, but not the best. I think there are other ways to have students learn words and spelling without the traditional spelling test technique. I am not big on memorization, yet I know spelling is usually based on that for test time. I think the children need to use critical thinking and really understand the word. I can remember when I was younger and I had spelling test. I would study study study the night before and memorize as much as possible. After the test, I would not even think about the words again and they would be lost in the vocabulary. My point is, they memorize them and do not learn them. Along the lines, some words stick, as most words will never be used (directed toward later years in school with vocabulary).

I am not arguing either sides through the post. I can see that spelling instruction would be important toward grammar and vocab. I believe you can easily acquire spelling more when you begin to write and use the words in meaning. Either way, take individual needs and focus on what each student needs more help with... assessments.

Posted by: canfieldg1 | November 2, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

My son learned the importance of spelling when a history teacher marked "Bearing Straight" wrong, when the correct answer was "Bering Strait". Words matter, and spelling that is indecipherable (or the wrong homophone) makes writing unclear.

Posted by: munn5 | November 2, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

I would just like to know what is wrong with giving spelling tests? Where does it hurt? I agree with what Rochester is saying. We are too worried about hurting a child's self esteem or hurting their feelings. They can still take these tests and learn how to spell in their own ways. This is just another ridiculous way of dumbing down the system and not holding students accountable. We are having the students run the school and dictate the curriculum when it should be the other way around. Why is it all of a sudden a problem to have spelling tests?

Posted by: fangmane1 | November 2, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

I can see both sides of this argument. I understand why some say it is bad to ban spelling tests because it's traditional learning and to be a good speller you need to practice. I also understand why people think that it isn't as helpful because people learn differently. My own opion about this is that maybe they should keep spelling test but just do them in different ways. Maybe they could not have a "test" but an activity that is graded similar to a test. Every child learns differently and I think it is the teachers job to figure out how each other his or her students learn as individuals then base his or her lesson plans around that.

Posted by: williamst8 | November 2, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

I'm an old teacher, and I've been fighting this battle or some variation of it for the last decade. The most important part of Mr. Rochester's column is when he talks about "progressive educators devaluing the basics." He's absolutely correct, and it drives me nuts! Most of those "progressive educators" somehow end up in positions of authority, touting "higher order thinking skills" over "basic rote memorization." Mr. Rochester was spot on with the "sniff, sniff" attitude of these folks. Please understand--from someone who has extensive training in "higher order thinking skills"--ELEMENTARY STUDENTS ARE NOT MATURE ENOUGH TO PERFORM TRUE HIGHER ORDER THINKING SKILLS! Bloom didn't intend for his taxonomy of higher order thinking to include elementary students. Elementary students, as one commentator pointed out, ask "why" questions all the time. They're supposed to--but those aren't "higher order." Those are basic and VERY necessary knowledge questions. That's lower order thinking--lower is simply a term of order, not a term meaning lesser in quality. A student has to know something-- a lot about something-- before he can begin to do anything in a higher order level. True higher order skills come in around 8th grade, when a child moves toward adulthood and formal reasoning. I actually sat through a meeting where Kindergarten teachers were told to come up with a higher order thinking skill for Kindergarten students learning the alphabet! After 15 minutes of discussion, the well-paid, highly respected expert came up with, "Which do I like better, big G or little g?"

This is the same group of people that don't want me to drill my students on multiplication facts ("All they need to know is how to find the answer!), or spend time teaching spelling or handwriting--after all, everyone will use a computer with spell check.

We're producing students who have little basic knowledge, spend time doing higher order thinking that's not really higher order thinking, and when all is said and done, these students will not be have either skill set--basic knowledge or higher order thinking. Elementary students should be doing developmentally appropriate work, setting a solid foundation in basic skills, so that they can move on to higher order thinking when they are developmentally ready!

Posted by: inthetrenches1 | November 2, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Personally, I think that Grammar is one area which is lacking in education right now. Basic and so called “simple” spelling is one area which professionals, teachers, and adults do expect kids to know by the time they are in high school and college. So many times, I have seen college students use incorrect usage of its vs. it’s and there vs. their. I read one paper the other day and every other word was capitalized, and the beginnings of sentences were in lower case. This just shocks me. I think that spelling tests, especially in elementary school, are extremely important. I agree that different strategies may need to be explored either in testing spelling or general assessment, but “banning” spelling tests would just de-emphasis the importance of spelling and grammar altogether.

Posted by: twithorn | November 2, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Personally, I believe Mr. Rochester lost all qualification (and my respect as a future educator) to write an article that focuses on the education and bettering of our country’s children when he referred to those who cannot spell as being “just plain stupid, or whatever.” At the beginning of his article he mentioned that it was two of the largest, BEST school districts in Missouri that have made the decision to discontinue the use of spelling tests as a way to measure students’ abilities. He then continues his article by stating that those same districts are responsible for “dumbing down” America’s education system by eliminating spelling tests. Did he not just refer to those districts as the “best?” Obviously the teachers and administration at those schools know what they are doing, so why not allow them to try something new? I was also offended by Rochester’s accusation that progressive teachers “don’t care if kids can spell.” What evidence does he have to promote that statement as a “truth?” If you are going to make such a generalized statement about such a large group of educators, please provide information or at least some ‘Do You Care if Kids Can Read’ survey data to back your words up. Finally, how can you claim that reform needs to take place, but then put down the people who are trying to make it happen? If you are so sure that these school districts are making wrong decisions, please provide us with the right ones.

Posted by: mckinneyc11 | November 2, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

This article seems extremely biased to me. Statements such as "The problem is that school reformers are not really serious about raising the bar" and "Many kids cannot spell (due to dyslexia, or laziness because they do not read, or because they are just plain stupid, or whatever" are not only completely unfounded, but are stated in a way that they appear to be fact rather than opinion. To suggest that school reformers don't care about raising the bar is like saying a Washington post columnist doesn't care about his columns. It is just plain stupid, like the students who can't spell apparently. The title of this article is also very misleading. The schools in question did not ban spelling tests. That implies that any teacher caught taking off points for spelling on a paper will be disciplined. An obvious but very well done attempt to mislead the reader into agreeing with this opinion. They simply don't spend time handing out words at the start of the week to be tested on at the end of the week. Spelling tests were easy in high school. I learned how to spell several words that I wouldn't have known how to spell correctly without looking it up. There are several thousands of words I would probably spell incorrectly unless I looked them up to this day. When in life will I write something with an obscure word that absolutely must be spelled correctly with no chance to use a dictionary? Most likely never. There are more important things that never get taught to high school children like how to spot predator credit lenders, or how to spot misleading articles that state opinion as fact, and that bend the facts that do exist to their favor. With phonics kids can spell almost anything.

Posted by: kleind1 | November 2, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

I hope some of America's over-supply of credentialed educators will try to correct the fallacy that learning math facts, or how to spell, or how sentences should be constructed constitutes "lower-order" thinking.
I tutor low-income second-graders and I see how the children are being short-changed by the ideology that "authentic" process is to be valued, not mastery or efficency in writing or performing math.
In my former workplace I also saw the results of poor spelling and writing instruction. Instruction has been declining for many years now. Workers in their twenties could not spell simple words used in business writing, much less write cogent paragraphs. I urge parents to speak up; you are your child's primary educator.

Posted by: calliet | November 3, 2010 8:43 AM | Report abuse

I know that teachers are being pressured to teach what's on the standardized tests. But these are our children we are dealing with. Our children are already getting behind due to the technology slang language. Now we want to stop teaching spelling, because students don't to know how to spell for standardized tests? That's crazy. What will be even more crazy is when students will be completing essays with misspelled words,text and e-mail slang!! I think I want my children to learn how t spell.

Posted by: dainczyka1 | November 3, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

I think this article shows that our education system is failing, along with the movie "Waiting for Superman." We are lowering the standards for kids because there are so many short cuts in our society today. If the kids get on Word, they can mistype a word and the computer fixes it for them. I think that our kids are getting used to the slack that they are sitting in and we need to do something about it. I feel like kids aren't learning the same things as I did when I was in high school (which was only 4 years ago). I hope that our education system can be fixed and the only people that can do this are parents and educators! Please think about this article and take a stand for the future generations!

Posted by: degarom1 | November 3, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

First, whatever you think about the value of correct spelling (and as a proofreader I am in favor of it), spelling is a talent like singing, dancing, or athletics. Some are naturally talented in it; I was the school spelling-bee champion, due to a very visual, eidetic memory that enabled me to simply read off the words as I pictured them in my head. My brother, on the other hand, with the same spelling lessons, had major difficulties with spelling and even with spell check often had to ask someone which of the possibilities he wanted. But he turned out to be a prize-winning writer. He also was a good musician, while a voice teacher gave up on me and said there are simply some people who are unable to sing on key. Some students will automatically spell correctly, some will do wo with a lot of studying, and some never will.

Second, the best way to produce good spellers is, whatever studying is done, expose them to a lot of correctly spelled words. This means a lot of reading for pleasure, which isn't part of the curriculum in most schools. And they certainly don't see correct spelling in ads or in newspapers (or hear correct grammar on local newscasts). The Internet is actually some help here, since if you misspell a search term, you may have trouble finding the information you want. It would also mean not using many of their textbooks, since it is much too expensive to correct spelling or grammatical errors before these are printed.

And Jennifer88: Your kids actually got to read Bradbury? Except for H. G. Wells, science fiction was considered non-literary when I was in school. In fact, one teacher's definition of "good literature" was something that was old enough to have been read for several generations. (Personally, I never saw too much difference between Wuthering Heights and your standard modern novel.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | November 4, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

Those of you who are obsessing about the specific spelling test issue are missing Dr. Rochester's point entirely when he says, "However, given the reigning orthodoxy in K-12, since some kids cannot do well on spelling tests, then no kids should be allowed to take spelling tests. It is about self-esteem, avoiding failure, some learning styles (e.g., inability to memorize) not being served by such tests, etc., but is rationalized as “inauthentic assessment” in the pretentious jargon of the profession." and concludes, "The banning of spelling tests is a metaphor for a much larger phenomenon. The bottom – the lowest achievers – are now setting the standard and defining school routines." This is the crime and the reason that test scores are in the crapper.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | November 5, 2010 8:49 AM | Report abuse

If the students were getting proper phonics instruction, they probably wouldn't need to have much in the way of formal spelling after that. The homophones and some of the tricky unaccented syllable words (-ible vs. -able, etc.) would obviously still need to be taught. But proper teaching of phonics would go a long way in getting kids to be okay spellers.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 5, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

I'm somewhat irritated about extreme outrage.

Posted by: marinllc | November 5, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse

What gets totally ignored in analyses like the one in this column is who exactly is being advantaged by a focus on "high order thinking." Kids who come from educated, middle to high income families may not learn to spell as well as we did when we had spelling tests, but they do learn how to spell, because they have the resources to do a lot of reading. They also have the advantage, when they write, of writing on computers, which fix spelling mistakes for you. Low income kids are the ones who are being disadvantaged (further) here-they are the ones less likely to live in homes with books around, they are the ones less likely to read a lot, they are the ones less likely to have access to computers when writing. The school system "reforms" right now are mostly focused on raising the socio-economic class barrier. Getting rid of spelling instruction/tests is just one more way to make sure that lower income kids, no matter how smart, don't succeed and take up slots that wealthier kids "deserve." (I'd also like to correct some posters here-most standardized tests do not grade spelling. The GED language arts tests, which are taken primarily by-guess who?-low income individuals, DO test spelling. And grammar. Both of which get short shrift in school curricula. Interesting, isn't it?)

Posted by: chanakf | November 6, 2010 6:28 PM | Report abuse

I believe that learning to spell is an important part of the elementary school curriculum. Perhaps there are better ways to measure a student's ability to spell than the dreaded spelling test, but it certainly helped me learn. When I was in school, however, we didn't only do rote spelling tests; we had to be able to use the words in a sentence as well. Therefore, I do believe that spelling tests encourage proper spellings, which is definitely lacking later on in schools. My freshman year of college involved some peer-editing which absolutely horrified me, because of the inordinate number of misspellings, EVEN WHEN USING THE COMPUTER. For those that argue students will be okay without learning to spell because they will be using the computer, YOU ARE COMPLETELY WRONG. Computers can't fix every mistake because they can't find every mistake. As long as a student has some kind of a noun plugged into the sentence, the computer accepts it. They aren't always correct.

I do not agree with the author of this article when he says that some kids are "just plain stupid." I don't believe that using that sort of language to describe students is ever acceptable. They may not try, but it is the teacher's job to at least attempt to get them invested in their assignments. Just because the student appears to be unintelligent does not mean that he/she is, there are many other factors in play.

Posted by: akl108 | November 7, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

Oh my gosh!! This is the most absurd thing I have ever heard. This article was so disheartening. It did affirm to me that what I felt my teaching philosophy most followed was accurate. My teaching philosophy mirrors most of the aspects of the Essentialism philosophy because it emphasizes teaching the basics. I personally feel that students need the basics taught to them, and that includes spelling tests. Let’s face it, if we don’t have spelling tests, our children will never be motivated to learn how to spell new words. Technology doesn’t really help either. Since the invention of “spellcheck” my spelling has gone downhill. I hate how much I rely on the computer to check my spelling, and it is not always right. There is nothing worse than reading something that has a bunch of misspelled words in it. It simply does not leave a good impression. I hope this is something that is fleeting and will not be implemented in all of our schools. It would be a HUGE mistake in my opinion. Now I have to hit spellcheck to make sure I have spelled everything correctly!!

Posted by: TEACHER2b2012 | November 7, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

How can students spell in daily writing if there has been no emphasis to learn proper spelling? I have never been able to retain spelling words just hearing them or writing them here and there. It is disappointing to think that just because subjects are challenging that we eliminate them … Yes, the “basics are hard” but they are worth pursuing. If my 1st and 3rd grader children were allowed to just write freely in hopes they learn spelling… they would learn the words –eventually; iIn order to really learn them, however, they need to review and study them. Yes, it is very possible we can create “Friday morning spellers” when they crammed it in the day before; what parent & student hasn’t been faced with that before trying to get all the homework done in a week? That said, and being the exception rather than the rule, students need to be reviewing these words daily at home and have them integrating into writing exercises at school. Spelling test are needed to send a message to students that spelling takes practice and just because it is challenging for parents, teachers, and students it does not mean we should give up on the basics.

Posted by: arnette1 | November 7, 2010 10:49 PM | Report abuse

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