Basic Skills Still Matter

Are spelling tests valid?

The question was raised in a recent staff meeting and like many issues in education, teachers’ opinions were varied. There was no consensus.

Some argued that if you incorporate spelling into word study, focusing on vocabulary building, etymology and phonetic awareness, it’s worthwhile. They viewed spelling as an important aspect of building one’s bank of word knowledge. Time should be made for the study of linguistics. Other teachers believed that by taking the time to teach spelling explicitly, they would have less opportunities to teach more relevant curriculum expectations and higher-order (is thinking hierarchical?) skills. Spelling was not a priority. Most agreed that the traditional spelling test of randomly selected words is an inauthentic form of assessment. It lacks a meaningful context. I dislike the words ‘authentic’ and ‘higher-order’, but they’re part of educational jargon and here to stay.

Many kids have difficulty with spelling, whether it’s due to dyslexia, laziness or because they don’t read enough. Ignoring the issue or thinking that students will somehow pick up this skill on their own is problematic. Students pass from grade to grade without ever having learned the fundamentals, and in the process fall further and further behind. Teachers often assume it’s another educator’s responsibility and they fail to address these gaps. Teaching the basics is hard work, and something that many don’t want to deal with. It’s time-consuming, sometimes mundane and usually not as stimulating as teaching richer content. But it’s time well spent. The fundamentals still matter. Abandoning the spelling test is more likely to worsen the problem than improve it.

The emphasis on higher-order thinking in today’s schools is admirable and providing students with challenging problems to solve is always a good thing. We all want them to become independent, critical thinkers, but by focusing so much on the more advanced abilities, we often dismiss the fundamental skills like spelling, numeration and grammar. We ignore the truth of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. We ask students to run before they can walk.

Many progressive educators devalue the basics without realizing that they foster automaticity. Essential skills are necessary for higher-order thinking because automaticity allows the brain to, “do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details required, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern or habit. It is usually the result of learning, repetition, and practice.” (Wikipedia) Students’ cognitive capacity, also known as working memory, is overwhelmed if they lack the prerequisite understanding. Without a strong foundation in the fundamentals, students will struggle.

This concern is applicable to all subjects, not just math:

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How can we expect students to think critically in math, English or any other discipline, when they lack the necessary lower-order knowledge and skills?

We need to be careful not to abandon traditional practices such as spelling tests, just because we feel that they’re not engaging enough. Not everything taught in school needs to involve higher-order thinking. Not everything in school is going to excite students. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.

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