Educational Theory, Recent + Research-Based

Saber-Tooth Spelling Tests

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By principle, I’m more of a “middle way” type of teacher in that I see the value in tradition, as I see the value in progression. This may stem from the fact that I tend to analyze my own learning and my own schooling a bit more than normal, and I tend to think of my own experiences as a student when I read about new instructional strategies (does this make me vain?). In my own schooling, I was a Montessori student, learning to read somewhat independently and had a fair amount of freedom in the classroom with respect to what I learned and at what rate. I transitioned to public school in 3rd grade and was consistently ahead of my peers in most things, except for systems of organization. My classmates had things like folders and trapper keepers, whereas, my sweet Montessori mind was used to drawers. However, Montessori was not all exploration and free reign. I remember studying for spelling tests in a rote manner. Spelling was just something you practiced- a root skill- and you didn’t excel at it unless you practiced (at least for me). By excelling at spelling, I grew as a reader. And as a reader, I developed other skills (like critical thinking, making predictions, creative problem solving, etc.).

So, let’s put this all in context with an article I stumbled upon was assigned to read from 1939. Why not, eh? Since adapted as a PDF, the Saber Tooth Tiger Curriculum is an article written by J. Abner Peddiwell from the text “Saber‐tooth Curriculum, Including Other   Lectures in the History of Paleolithic Education” (be sure to check the extensive editorial reviews on Amazon).

Are spelling tests a saber-tooth tiger? Probably. Spelling, even writing by hand, is considered a bit archaic. Yet- I may have to agree with the old men in the cave on when they say, “We don’t teach tiger‐scaring to scare tigers; we teach it for the purpose of giving that noble courage which carries over into all the affairs of life and which can never come from so base an activity as bear‐killing.” Ok, ok– spelling tests don’t impart noble courage, but I will say that the slow process of learning to spell opens up many more doorways, as I mentioned above with my own experiences. Maybe removing spelling makes room for coding or an inquiry-based project in the classroom. But, should it?

This reminds me of a saying one of my early teaching mentors said to me– that students needed to be heads-on before they were hands-on. If we put them in front of a mountainous landscape and ask them what happened, is this the best use of our time? Is this the most effective way that we can inspire wonder or curiosity? Might we first equip our students with context and then ask them compelling questions? Looping back to spelling, might we be able to foster a higher degree of literacy in our students and then introduce them to more challenging texts and thus, more challenging questions and ideas? To me, the wise men in the cave and the radicals outside the cave might work together (as state curriculum developers and independent schools, for instance, might be able to better work together and nudge each other towards new and bold ideas).  

[Photo by Justyn Warner on Unsplash]