Are Spelling Tests "A Waste of Time?" - | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Are Spelling Tests "A Waste of Time?"

By David Carroll

CHATTANOOGA (WRCB)- Some Hamilton County elementary teachers are spelling it out: they say their principals have told them that spelling is "no longer relevant in today's society." 

Several teachers, none of whom wish to be identified, have told Eyewitness News that principals have threatened to "write us up" if they "waste time teaching spelling, and having spelling tests."  One teacher said, "the real issue is that there is no longer a spelling portion on the TCAP test."

Some school districts around the country have eliminated spelling as a distinct elementary subject, opting out of weekly spelling tests in favor of an overall teaching strategy called Word Study that aims to teach students to understand how and why words are spelled a certain way.  Many also incorporate spelling into writing assessments, maintaining that a student's organization of thoughts is more important than the spelling of words.  And the increasing use of spell-check programs has also taken its toll on traditional hand-written spelling lessons.

Supporters of the anti-spelling movement argue that most students have learned spelling through memorization, which they say makes for good test scores, but does not lead to long-term comprehension of spelling and language.

But UTC English Professor Dr. Katie Rehyansky has a different view.  She says, "Most young people learn the bulk of their spelling through reading.  But many students are not avid readers and they learn through memorization, and there's nothing wrong with that."

District 1 School Board member Rhonda Thurman says she has received complaints from teachers for the past two months, "and the Superintendent always says he doesn't know what I'm talking about.  But these teachers are being warned by their principals, so I know the orders are coming from somewhere."

Mrs. Thurman calls the proposed end of spelling tests, "crazy, pure and simple.  Who comes up with this stuff, and why won't they come forward and defend their crazy ideas?  In our language we have homophones and homonyms, words that spell-check won't catch.  Kids need to know that."

She also defends learning from memorizing.  "That's how I learned the multiplication tables, and of course they've stopped doing that too with Everyday Math.  They're quick to take on the latest fads and trends, whatever the latest consultant sells them on, but what we need to do is stick with the basics!"

Dr. Rehyansky downplays those who say spelling is no longer relevant.  "It has always been important, and will continue to be as long as we communicate with each other in writing.  If you're applying for a job or a scholarship, you will find that spelling is important."

Hamilton County Superintendent Dr. Jim Scales provided this explanation through spokesperson Danielle Clark late Tuesday afternoon: " We have not given any schools permission not to teach spelling.  Spelling is part of our district literacy plan. However, we believe that spelling instruction should be part of the overall language arts instruction (such as reading and writing) and not exclusively taught in isolation. To this end, we have given feedback to principals and literacy leaders about this concept.

Responding to reports from some teachers that spelling would no longer be listed on student report cards beginning in the 2010-11 school year, Dr. Scales said, "We have not made any revisions to the elementary report card at this time. We are in the process of revising our Literacy Plan. As part of those discussions, the idea of how spelling is taught and reported has come up. With research indicating that spelling should be taught as part of the overall language arts program and included in writing and reading instruction, we are discussing the way the report card currently separates grades for spelling. If we revise our plan to include spelling as part of writing and reading instruction, then the report cards will be changed to reflect these revisions."

Our final question to Dr. Scales was, "Is spelling still considered important by the administration of the Hamilton County Department of Education?" His reply was, "Yes."

But Mrs. Thurman says she will not let the issue die.  "It really bothers a lot of teachers," she said.  They have nowhere to turn.  They're afraid if they're caught teaching spelling, they'll get in trouble.  Can you imagine that? I'm speaking out for them. We need to stop this stupid idea before it gets started."

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