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The Monday spelling pretest. It's as American as apple pie. Each of my three sons routinely scored 20/20 on the Monday spelling pretest throughout elementary and middle school. They were required to …

The Monday spelling pretest. It's as American as apple pie. Each of my three sons routinely scored 20/20 on the Monday spelling pretest throughout elementary and middle school. They were required to “study” and “practice” these words with an obligatory worksheet, crossword puzzle, or write-the-word-ten-times assignment. They were then tested on these same words on Friday. They learned zilch about spelling from this instructional practice.

Fair to say that this common instructional plan makes no use of the teacher as an informed practitioner. The first task of an informed teacher is to determine what students already know and don’t know. The second task of an informed teacher is to make use of the diagnostic data to differentiate and individualize instruction.

So, how can an informed teacher make sense of the Monday spelling pretest to differentiate and individualize spelling instruction? Simply follow these five steps:

1. Prepare

Create Supplemental Spelling Lists for each student.

A. First, administer a comprehensive diagnostic spelling assessment to determine individual mastery and gaps. (Avoid qualitative inventories which do not clearly identify spelling patterns.) Grade the assessment and print grade-level resource words for each of the spelling pattern gaps.

B. Second, find and print these resources: For remedial spellers−Outlaw Words, Most Often Misspelled Words, Commonly Confused Words. And these: For grade level and accelerated spellers−Greek and Latinate spellings, Tier 2 words used in your current instructional unit.

C. Third, have your students set up spelling notebooks to record the spelling words which they, their parents, or you have corrected in their daily writing.

Now you’re ready to teach.

2. Pretest 

Dictate the 15—20 words in the traditional word-sentence-word format to all of your students on Monday. Of course, the words do matter. Rather than selecting unrelated theme words such as colors, holidays, or the like, choose a spelling program which organizes instruction by specific spelling patterns. Have students self-correct from teacher dictation of letters in syllable chunks, marking dots below the correct letters, and marking an “X” through the numbers of any spelling errors. This is an instructional activity that can be performed by second graders. Don’t rob your students of this learning activity by correcting the pretest yourself.

3. Personalize 

Students complete their own 15−20 word Personal Spelling List in the following order of priority:

-Pretest Errors: Have the students copy up to ten of their pretest spelling errors onto a Personal Spelling List. Ten words are certainly enough to practice the grade-level spelling pattern.

-Last Week’s Posttest Errors: Have students add up to three spelling errors from last week’s spelling posttest.

-Writing Errors: Have students add up to three student, parent, or teacher-corrected spelling errors found in student writing.

-Spelling Pattern Errors: Have students add on up to three words from one spelling pattern deficit as indicated by the comprehensive diagnostic spelling assessment.

-Supplemental Spelling Lists: Students select words from these resources to complete the list.

4. Practice 

Have students practice their own Personal Spelling Words list.

A. Use direct instruction and example words to demonstrate the weekly spelling pattern.

B. Have students create their own spelling sorts from their Personal Spelling List.

C. Provide class time for paired practice. Spelling is primarily an auditory process.

5. Posttest 

On Friday (or why not test every two weeks for older students?) tell students to take out a piece of binder paper and find a partner to exchange dictation of their Personal Spelling List words. Now, this makes instructional sense—actually using the posttest to measure what students have learned! But, you may be thinking...what if they cheat? For the few who cheat...It would be a shame to not differentiate instruction for the many to cater to a few. Truly, they are only cheating themselves.

Mark Pennington is a middle school teacher and educational author. His focus on assessment-based instruction led to the development of his just-released Teaching the Language Strand (of the Common Core State Standards) Grades 4-8 programs.

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Comment by Mark Pennington on July 25, 2014 at 10:43am

Thanks for the compliment, Liz. BTW, I've refined the linked spelling assessment to cover the K-8 spelling patterns for my curriculum referenced in the post. Here's nice Grades 4-8 instructional scope and sequence for spelling patterns I developed to try and make sense of the Common Core L.2. Spelling Standards.

You rightly point out the constraints of time. Working as a district reading specialist, I worked with a group of twenty or so elementary teachers to refine the instructional spelling procedures outlined in my post. Our goals were two-fold: 1. Design an assessment-based instructional procedure/class management plan that allows students to "catch up, while they keep up" with grade-level spelling instruction 2. Ensure that the procedure takes minimal class time. It worked well. BTW, I'm back in the classroom and use the same procedure with my seventh-grade ELA classes.

A bit more on instructional differentiation/individualization of spelling deficits that the spelling diagnostic will no doubt help you discover with your full inclusion students and others... I developed remedial worksheets for each spelling pattern including spelling rule, example words, spelling sort, rhyme/search activity, word jumble, writing application, and a brief formative assessment. Students complete a worksheet, self-correct, and then meet with me to take a sentence dictation formative assessment to see if they've mastered the spelling pattern. Students love to chart their individual progress on the spelling matrix. Principals and parents love to see the measurable growth. 

Comment by Liz Phillips on July 25, 2014 at 8:15am

Oh, I forgot to say that the diagnostic spelling assessment that is linked to this post is excellent.  These are the patterns my students need to master if they are to show growth in assessment (formative or summative).  I'm going to try this one!

Comment by Liz Phillips on July 25, 2014 at 8:12am

Fantastic!  Thank you for posting this.  As a literacy specialist who teaches in a full-inclusion classroom setting for seventh-graders, I have to say the steps listed and the reminder that the traditional spelling pre-/post- test method is faulty are timely since the first day of school is just around the corner.  My school is moving to block ELA classes this year, doubling the time students will receive instruction and participate in activities.  There have been so many things I could not give full coverage to, spelling in a sensible, methodical way being one of them.  I use Words Their Way for Struggling Readers and Vocabulary Their Way on a regular basis.  Block schedule will make it possible for students to improve their spelling (with teacher guidance and peer-collaborative practice). With so much content in the curriculum, spelling often goes on the back burner; older students argue that all they have to do is a right click if a word is misspelled. Teaching spelling patterns in context and why we spell the way we do helps middle school students become better spellers, readers, and writers--regardless of where they are on the spelling continuum. It doesn't matter if the format is on actual paper or digital.

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