Why daily copywork can replace spelling tests

Remember your weekly spelling test as a child? I do. I also remember trying to juggle my own children’s spelling lists when they were still attending school a few years ago (along with homework, cake rotas, PE kit days and much more!). The weekly spelling test is a fixture in most primary school classrooms around the world, but is it the only way to learn to spell? Is it even the best way?

Soon after we started home educating in 2018 I discovered the Charlotte Mason method and was delighted to learn that children need not take regular spelling tests; they need only do daily copywork, and when they reach ages 10/11, a weekly exercise in studied dictation. Obviously all children are different, and certainly children with dyslexia or other learning styles may need a more tailored approach, but as a general rule, if your children undertake daily copywork (and lots of reading) you can say goodbye to spelling tests.

Does it work? Yes, it really does.

I’ve heard countless home educators testify to this truth, but I can now say with confidence that I am seeing this process work for my own children.

With copywork, children slowly and carefully copy out a passage of writing. Oftentimes, they will be writing high frequency words which they are used to reading all the time. Every now and then they will encounter a word they are not familiar with, and they won’t be guessing how to spell it; they will carefully look and see – creating a visual imprint in their imagination of how this word should look – before they take pencil to paper. The very first time they write this word (and all words if they are copying carefully), it will be spelled correctly. They will have no memory of an incorrect spelling, only a correct one. They will also intuitively learn which homophones (two words that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings) should be used, based on the context of the passage.

Here’s a story from this week:

This morning I noticed my eight year old son Jonathan had drawn a picture of a robot from a book he had been reading*. He labelled all the parts and I was surprised and encouraged to see that he had spelled everything correctly (except for one word). He had correctly written words such as: security section, camera, underground, weapons, golden, instant, setting, enemies, automatic, computerised system, armour plating, stream and fire. I asked him if he had copied any of these words from the book or if he had written them of his own accord. He tells me that he copied the word ‘immobilised’ but he ‘knew’ how to spell everything else himself.

To put this in context, when it comes to writing, my son only does 10 minutes of copywork a day, one page of cursive handwriting practice per day, and that is it. I don’t ask him to write creative stories or poems or anything else. He does however read a lot, do a daily recitation and orally narrate back many of the books he reads each day. Sometimes he chooses to write spontaneously of his own accord (like he did today). We won’t start studied dictation for another two years; in the mean time we’ll just keep going with daily copywork as part of the holistic Charlotte Mason philosophy.

And spelling tests? Never again.

(Jonathan is currently using Level 1, collection 3 from Copywork Cave, but he typically completes two pages worth of exercises in one sitting because his stamina for writing has developed a lot in the past year (just from doing copywork). I print 2 pages per sheet. I could have started him on Level 2 but I wanted to expose him to all the great words, poems and phrases in Level 1 first.)

*Zac Power – Undercover, by H. I. Larry.

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