Assessing spelling - how diagnostic guidance informs effective teaching

With the advent of so many automated spelling devices, such as electronic spelling checkers, it might seem easy to assume that spelling is no longer an important part of literacy. So, why is it important to learn to spell?  

For one, the ability to spell a wide range of words quickly and correctly is part of being able to write fluently. It’s also worth bearing in mind that spell checkers are only useful up to a point, as they may not identify whether or not the spelling of a word is accurate for its intended context (e.g., the spelling of homophones: words that sound the same but are spelt differently, such as there/their/they’re). 

In schools, the assessment of pupils’ spelling can provide teachers with valuable information about their progress. It is crucial that any spelling assessment is closely linked to what pupils have been taught and that the outcomes of the assessment are used to determine what the next steps should be to support individual pupil development in this area. 

Are spelling tests formative or summative?  

Spelling tests can be either formative or summative, depending on how they are used to help inform future teaching and learning. Standardised spelling tests, such as those developed by NFER, offer a structured way to help teachers support pupils’ spelling progress in line with the national curriculum. For example, the sets of spelling tests for years 3, 4, 5 and 6 include target words that have been mapped to the national curriculum programme of study for spelling. NFER Spelling Tests can be used as a summative assessment to evaluate pupil learning at the end of a unit of work or period of teaching. If used at different times during the school year (e.g., termly), the tests can be used formatively to help to monitor pupil progress and inform future teaching, too. 

Of course, the number of words that a pupil spells incorrectly in a given spelling test is only part of the story. The most important point about assessing pupils’ spelling is that close attention should be paid not only to the number of incorrect words but also to the type of spelling errors made by the pupil. This is vital, because the nature of the error can reveal a pupil’s misconception about the spelling of a word and, in doing so, provide helpful clues about what the pupil’s next steps in learning need to be. Words in NFER Spelling Tests are presented to pupils in contextualised sentences, with coverage of a wide range of spelling rules and exception words to help highlight patterns of error.  

The importance of diagnostic guidance in spelling assessments 


This is where a diagnostic commentary can come in useful. As part of the development of the NFER spelling tests, the spelling errors that pupils made were analysed in detail. By doing this, it became possible to pinpoint the pupils’ typical misspellings of the words in the spelling tests. The NFER teacher guides take a close look at these error patterns and offer an enriching tool that can help teachers to plan future learning, mapped to the requirements of the national curriculum. This diagnostic information is placed at the heart of the NFER spelling test teacher guides, with the aim of helping teachers to make best use of the information from the spelling tests to support and improve their pupils’ progress in spelling. 

For example, one of the words in the year 3 set of spelling tests is invention. This word is mapped to the national curriculum’s years 3 and 4 statutory requirement for endings which sound like /ʃən/, spelt -tion, -sion, -ssion, -cian. The analysis revealed that pupils who misspelt the word invention tended to make errors with the -tion ending by finishing the word with the letters shon or shun (to produce the incorrect spelling invenshon or invenshun). The guide also notes that pupils were prone to making similar errors when writing the word nation, with attempts including nachion, nashion, nashon and nashun. In all, it reflected some pupils’ lack of awareness and understanding of this pattern, suggesting that the pupils may benefit from additional teaching in this regard. To assist with this, the diagnostic guide gives examples of other words reflecting the requirement, such as motion, operation and portion. 

In this way, the diagnostic guide supports with the identification of the statutory requirements for spelling that pupils may have struggled with, highlighting pupils’ misconceptions and helping teachers formulate the next steps in learning for individuals. This process is also useful for planning group work, as it could be employed to identify where several pupils have made common errors that can be linked to misconceptions. Teaching and learning can then be planned and adjusted accordingly, to form next steps for individuals or groups of pupils.  

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