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The Pre-Test: A simple but EFFECTIVE AFL strategy

My daughter's 7th grade English teacher at Andrew Lewis Middle School uses a time-tested easy-to-apply simple AFL strategy that motivates my daughter to work, helps her to learn, and ensures that her grade is an accurate reflection of that learning.


Every Monday the students are given a pre-test on that week's spelling words.  If the student spells 100% of the words correct on the pre-test, then the grade is recorded in the teacher's grade book, and the student does not have to take the post-test.  All other students will take a post-test on Friday of that week.


Simple but effective.  Students receive feedback on Monday.  They now have the rest of the week to work on improving.  More importantly, though, is that they know exactly what they need to do to improve.


I'm going to brag on my daughter, Kelsey, for just a moment.  She is a terrific speller, and almost always scores a 100 on the pre-test.  Knowing that she can get out of having to take the post-test is a wonderful incentive for her to prepare for the pre-test.  When she occasionally misses a word on the pre-test, she becomes a very focused and motivated studier when preparing for the post-test.


However, her teacher uses the pre-test in a more powerful way than just as a motivator.  Since Kelsey almost always scores a 100 on the pre-tests, the rest of the week's focus on spelling potentially could be a waste of time for her.  However, her teacher turns the better spellers into spelling tutors during the week.  This gives Kelsey a much-needed opportunity to be a leader.  It allows her to have fun serving her peers, and it helps her peers do better on their spelling by providing one-on-one assistance that a teacher would have a difficult time providing during a busy school day.


Most teachers in America have probably tried pre-tests.  This is not a ground-breaking strategy.  That's the beauty of AFL.  To be a good AFL teacher doesn't mean re-inventing the wheel.  It means taking the best of what you already do and focusing your purpose toward providing meaningful feedback that gets used by both the teacher and the students.


One word of warning: You can completely mess up the benefit of this AFL strategy by the way you grade.  Please do not ever average the pre- and post-tests together or allow the pre-test to factor into the grade at all unless the student reaches the desired benchmark on the pre-test.  Otherwise, allow the post-test score - the one that reflects the outcome of the teacher's instruction - to be the one that is recorded in the grade book.

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Comment by Scott Habeeb on July 14, 2014 at 2:50pm

Mark - wow - thanks for the response.  I'm sure that will help some individuals out there.  You might consider posting that as a separate blog post on here.  I could then send it out to all members.

FWIW - for my daughter specifically, the opportunity to tutor others was HUGE.  As a young person with Asperger's, social interactions are difficult for her.  Her teacher was intentionally providing her with an opportunity to interact with her peers and be a classroom leader.

Comment by Mark Pennington on July 14, 2014 at 11:07am

Each of my three sons routinely scored 20/20 on the Monday pretest, just like Kelsey. 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.

Your daughter’s teacher was certainly wise to give her credit for her 20/20 on the Monday pretest and to exempt her from taking the Friday posttest. However, assigning her to tutor other students resulted in the same outcome as with my sons. She learned zilch about spelling from this instructional practice.

Now, I’m sure your daughter learned valuable social skills and enjoyed the tutoring process. Peer tutoring is not my beef. What is misguided is that both instructional procedures make 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 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.


Comment by stephen owen kitchen on May 13, 2011 at 7:58am
Very effective and excellent way to measure growth and achievement.

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