By Loeffler, Kelly A.
Teaching Exceptional Children , Vol. 37, No. 4
"Is it true that you do not give spelling tests?" questioned a perplexed mother at back-to-school night. I was prepared for this question and knew that parents would have difficulty accepting that their children could learn how to spell without the weekly ritual of helping their children study for the traditional spelling test. I quickly explained to her why I changed my assessment to a spelling rubric rather than a traditional spelling test.
A traditional spelling test does not provide insight into the spelling cues that the students are using. (see box, "What Cues Do Writers Use to Spell Words Accurately?") However, a spelling rubric can measure the student's ability to find misspelled words, correct them, and use an appropriate spelling strategy. Students with learning disabilities often do well on weekly spelling tests by memorizing their lists of words, rather than by internalizing spelling strategies. They are quick to forget their weekly words when given a written assignment. Assessing my students' spelling ability was more important to me than evaluating their memorization skills. Heald-Taylor (1998, p. 405) elaborates, "Learning to spell is a complex, intricate cognitive and linguistic process rather than one of rote memorization." (see box, "What Does the Literature Say?")
Developing on Alternative Spelling Assessment
For the first 2 years of my teaching career, I assigned spelling words on Monday, provided practice throughout the week, gave a pretest, and finally administered a spelling test on Friday. No undergraduate class taught me to teach spelling this way. I simply imitated the spelling methods from my own elementary school years. In grading spelling tests, I found that students with strong memorization ability were able to score 100% on their tests each week. Students with weaker memory skills became frustrated when they earned a poor grade. However, most of my students did not generalize their weekly spelling words to their writing. Spelling lists and tests became a waste of instructional time for my upper-elementary students. I realized that this traditional method of spelling instruction did not work for my students with learning disabilities. So I decided to try a different method.
An alternative spelling assessment was in the works. I needed a tool that promoted my instructional objectives. I wanted students to be able to find their misspellings, choose a strategy to fix them, and write legibly. From these goals I devised an original rubric (Figure 1) that grades spelling within the context of student writing.
Implementing a Spelling Rubric
I use the rubric with fifth-grade students in a resource room setting. The children are excited and pleased when I announce that I do not give spelling tests. However, winning over their parents is a little more difficult. During the first week of school, I send home a copy of the spelling rubric, along with a letter describing the rationale for its use. I encourage parents to contact me with comments and questions. Parents respond well to the rubric when it is explained clearly to them.
Explaining to the students how the new spelling "test" works is much easier. During the first month of school, 1 use an overhead to model finding words that "don't look right." I show students how to circle these words but continue their writing. Continuing to write is the most difficult part for the students. Students with learning disabilities usually recognize that they are not the best spellers. They want to correct their errors as quickly as possible.
To help students detect their errors, I model a spelling self-check routine to the class. The students learn to verify that each syllable has a vowel and that each syllable starts and ends with the appropriate letters. After students circle all their misspelled words, they go back and attempt to correct their spelling. The rubric requires that students use one spelling strategy on their own. …