Spelling test looming? Shift your focus from spelling to reading

With my 6-year old Olivia in first grade, I am experiencing the “joy and excitement” of weekly spelling lists and tests. I am not here to discuss the validity of spelling lists and spelling tests in our schools, I am here to share a breakthrough Olivia and I have had over the past 4 weeks with this kind of homework.

Are you ready? Here it is: I completely shifted our focus at home from writing/spelling the words to reading the words.

About a month ago, I was paying my daily visit to one of my favorite teaching Facebook groups about Comprehensible Input / Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (CI/TPRS) when I spotted a thread about a teacher using the TPRS philosophy with her  own elementary-age kid.  I thought: “DUH!” Why did I not think about this earlier?

So instead of having Olivia write, spell, unscramble, etc. the words, I do what I do with my own beginner French students, we read stories and see these words in context as many times as possible. Before I switched our focus, Olivia was getting 70-80 on her spelling tests. Since the switch, she has been getting 98-102.


I receive the spelling words list on which Olivia will be tested that Friday: typically 5 words, a pattern, and 2 challenge words related to the theme they are working on at the moment. spellingwords

I create, type-up, and print a story with as many reps as possible for these words. Bear in mind I only have about 10 min to do this before my one-year old and my six-year old start coming after me, so my stories are not outrageously original and crazy; I try to keep my story at a level where my daughter can read it with ease. Also bear in mind that I did not get to choose these structures so while “going”, “must” or “make” are frequent verbs, it gets tough at times to fit non frequent words such as “forever” into a story.

Here is an example of story with the March 18th spelling list.

  1. Olivia reads the story out loud to me and we talk about it if needed. I am just making sure she comprehends it.
  2. I hand her the lists of words and she hunts for them in the story. She has to circle them all, even if they are inside another word (like “some” in “sometimes”).
  3. She reads the story out loud to me again.spellingwords_circling


  1. Olivia reads the story out loud to me.
  2. This time I give her cut out sentences and she has to put them in order to recreate my story.
  3. She reads her recreated story out loud to me again. I am not anal about whether she has the exact right sequence as long as the story makes sense because guess what? All I care about is that she is reading the story again.


To think that my students have been doing all of these post-reading activities (and more) while I was forcing spelling drills down my own child’s throat!



  1. Olivia reads the story out loud to me.
  2. I don’t always do this because I am by myself but when my mom visited us, we threw in sounds effects. (A la Martina Bex: basically we assigned a sound effect to a word and made the sound each time Olivia read the word in the story. So fun!)
  3.  After removing all her spelling words from the story, I ask her to fill in the blanks, armed with her purple list.
  4. She reads the story out loud to me.
  5. Wednesday is the first time I do a quick spelling check, just to see where she is at with her words.


  1. Since the test is the next day, we actually practice spelling on Thursday. E.g, if there were words she did not spell right the day before during the quick final check, I write them on the board and we try to come up with a sentence with these.

As a Comprehensible Input teacher, I know spelling drills will not do much for long term acquisition of words, at least for Second Language Acquisition. I wonder if there is similar research on First Language Acquisition. My personal experience with Olivia seems to indicate similarities.

spellingtest3 spellingtest4

Good job Olivia!

The best part is that Olivia asked me to tell her what happens next: will a monster actually move into her bed if she does not make her bed everyday?

If your child is like mine and has difficulty with spelling, I strongly recommend shifting from spelling to reading. And even if your child is good with spelling, still shift to reading!




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