Thursday, May 28, 2015

Spelling is More Than Just Memorizing

I have been boycotting standard spelling programs for a long time. Memorizing a list of spelling words to regurgitate onto a Friday spelling test is rarely helpful to students. Often students do not remember how to spell the words one week later, and they definitely can’t use those words in their writing. Instead of memorizing a list of words, students need to know how to identify key spelling patterns and word work skills. This way, even if they haven’t memorized how to spell weight, they have a chance of remembering that EIGH can make the long A sound too. This is a skill that will be very important in both reading and writing.

Additionally, when students simply memorize a list of words they rarely understand the meaning of their words, which means they will rarely use those words in their independent writing. The entire purpose behind learning to spell words is to improve reading and writing skills. If students don’t know the meaning of the word, there is no purpose in memorizing how to spell it because they can’t use the word in their writing and it’s not going to help them better understand what they are reading. This is particularly important for ESL students and students from low income homes.  These students often have smaller spoken vocabularies and so they are often asked to memorize lists of words that they don’t understand. This turns into a time wasting exercise and we wonder why their vocabularies are improving so slowly. This is why I have turned my spelling instruction into vocabulary instruction for the past few years. Students learn vocabulary, which I feel is important, but they are also doing “spelling” which many parents and administrators feel is important. Everybody wins!

Even though we teach students spelling patterns, they will still make mistakes in their writing. However, students who have been taught to look at words for possible mistakes will have built up the ability to edit their own writing more proficiently. This is why my spelling assessments are not memorized lists where students write out words that I say – a skill that will rarely be used outside of school, unless your students are planning on becoming secretaries who take dictations. Instead, my students look at typed sentences with misspelled words in them. They then correct the misspelled word. This is a skill that will come in very handy as they edit their own writing, and possibly the writing of a peer.

Two years ago I began to put together some word work/ spelling/ vocabulary packets to help my students work on spelling patterns, vocabulary and editing skills all at the same time. Of course all of my students were not on the same level, so I went ahead and created four differentiated lists for each spelling pattern. This meant that the whole class could practice the same spelling pattern while each student worked at the correct level for them. It has taken time to put together these Differentiated Word Work Packets, but I am excited to say that I have finally completed 30 packets, each with five activities for each level, and put them together into a Year Long Word Work Bundle, which is now available in my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

Whether you choose to use my bundle or another set of resources, please be sure to teach your students spelling patterns, vocabulary meanings and proofreading skills, as all of these are vitally important to applying good spelling to student writing.

Monday, May 11, 2015

What’s Wrong with Standardized Testing?

What's wrong with standardized testing - a teacher's point of view editorial piece written by Heidi Raki of Raki's Rad Resources.

Recently, John Oliver put out a great video about standardized testing and how we use the information gathered from these tests. If you haven’t seen it, you can find it HERE:



In addition, I recently listened to Jennifer Gonzalez’s interview over at Cult of Pedagogy with Anthony Cody about standardized tests in coordination with educational policy, which you can find HERE.


These two resources made me start thinking about standardized testing much deeper. Being out of the classroom this year and having my own children homeschooled, we don’t have to deal with standardized testing much.  I never liked standardized testing when I was in the classroom, and often simply didn’t put much emphasis on it,choosing to do research projects instead of test prep during testing season. However, I’ve also never had my job depend on my students’ test scores.  I didn’t leave teaching or take my kids out because of testing, but now that we are out, I am seeing so many benefits from not having testing as a driving force in our learning environment. If they were to go back into a public school environment, I would definitely be opting them out of the test.

Here are the reasons why I don’t agree with standardized testing:

1.) Tests often occur four to six weeks BEFORE the end of the school year. This means that teachers are required to be done teaching all of their content at least a month before the end of the school year. Not only does this mean that curriculum is rushed through, it also leaves the impression with students and parents that when the test is done, school is done, which means the last six weeks of school can be a major classroom management nightmare. 

2.) Students and teachers NEVER get to see which questions students got right or wrong. Part of the reason for assessing is to know what students haven’t mastered, so that we can cover this material better. In my classroom, all in class assessments are reviewed in detail with students so that they can make corrections to their thinking, or even their test taking strategies. However, standardized tests are never reviewed, so they are there simply to judge students, not to help them.

3.) Standardized tests are often more of an assessment of a students’ background knowledge than of the content or skills that they are learning. This is why low income students traditionally score lower on these tests. They have different background knowledge and approach problems differently. It can also be a problem for kids on the other end of the spectrum. Students who are extremely well read and exposed often over think test questions because they know that things aren’t generally as simple as test questions want them to be.

4.) Current policies put so much pressure on students and teachers, that these tests are now taking center stage when learning should take center stage. I don’t do test prep if it’s not forced on me, but I have never had my job depend on my students’ test scores. I can completely understand how test prep has become a focus of our schools. I don’t think test prep helps students, but I can understand why it is so predominant now.

5.) All children do NOT learn at the same rate or with the same activities. Standardized testing is taking away individual learning. It doesn’t matter if Student A loves to read and learns to read quickly, but lags behind in math skills while Student B enjoys numbers and learns math and exceeds in math, but doesn’t enjoy reading fiction stories. Both students – all students – are expected to be at the same place at the same time, even though we all know that no children, and no adult for that matter, grows and changes at the same rate as other people their own age. Instead of embracing the differences that make us all unique, the testing push tries to stamp us all into the same person.


Portfolios should replace standardized tests - an editorial piece written by Heidi Raki of Raki's Rad Resources.


Portfolios should replace standardized tests - an editorial piece written by Heidi Raki of Raki's Rad Resources.Now I do understand the need for assessment and to show teachers and students that growth has happened over the course of a school year. I think that every students should have a portfolio – paper or online – that travels with them through their school career. This portfolio can be compared against “student norms” to see if students are below, on or above level in different subject areas. It can be used to create an instructional plan for students. It can allow for different students to excel in different areas and to be their own unique selves.

When I was teaching at a private school in Morocco, I started an online portfolio system with my 2nd –5th graders where students created their own portfolios. At the end of each school year, the portfolios were added on to in order to show student growth. The students had certain requirements, including a writing example from each genre and links to completed science and social studies projects. Then the students presented their own portfolios to their teacher and parents. These portfolios showed true growth and understanding over the course of a year, whereas test scores simply gave a snapshot of a single point in time. If you’re interested in using my Online Portfolio Format, you can find templates and instructions on Teachers Pay Teachers.

Heidi Raki of Raki's Rad Resources