Spelling Inventory

Written word knowledge is a fundamental piece of a child’s literacy ability.  Knowing common English spelling patterns and correct sequence of word organizations allow children to expand their conceptual development in all English literacy skills including the domains of reading, writing, written and oral  English-language conventions, and listening and speaking.  While theoretically, most children learn spelling rules in the elementary grade levels, many, including emergent English language students, come to secondary education without a firm grasp of the orthographic knowledge needed to comprehend higher level processing. 


Secondary English teachers can be proactive in intervening in students’ common misconceptions of spelling patterns by administering a spelling inventory at the onset of the school year.  The results from this formative assessment provide the instructor with valuable information on how to differentiate instruction and plan teaching strategies that aim at developing competent, literate individuals.


          In particular, the Francine Johnston spelling inventory can be given to students beginning in primary grade levels up until eighth grade where at this time, students should have a strong command of orthographic knowledge of both commonly used words and academic terminology.  The assessment is given orally to a class of students all at once.  Students need not study the list of words ahead of time and should be advised that the assessment results will not be given a grade but will be useful in planning instruction. Students receive a sheet of paper and number the spaces dependent on the number of words the teacher will be administering orally. 

In the Francine Johnston spelling inventory, the words are organized in terms of their relative difficulty beginning with simple words and advancing to more difficult words.  The teacher calls out the word and uses it in a sentence to activate student’s contextual understanding of the word.  A teacher may administer the full list of words or make selections from the compiled list.  In the Francine Johnston model, some of the early words include “fan, dig, wait, shine, and fright,” while more advanced words include “battle, fraction, distance, confusion, and visible” (Bear, 2000).  This particular compilation of words will demonstrate a student’s knowledge of a range of spelling decoding skills beginning with single-syllable sound units to multi-syllabic units.

Student papers are assessed according to an inventory chart or scoring sheet that breaks down misspellings according to various stages of orthographic development.  The ten stages of spelling are outlined at the top of the scoring sheet with a common misspelling for the word plotted among the stages where the misspelling is common.  For example, a student who identifies incorrect spelling for the word speck may spell it “spek.”  This particular misspelling shows mid-within word trouble with complex consonants.  The teacher would mark the spelling error and circle or highlight the error already listed on the scoring sheet.

          A more advanced student might misspell the word discovery as “discovry” which might show difficulty with late syllable juncture in using suffixes, such as dropping the “e” at the end of the word here.  Each word cannot be evaluated independently from the entire assessment because student error must show distinct patterns to properly identify the spelling stage of the student.   Therefore, an instructor must first go through the entire list of words according to the scoring sheet and mark the individual errors.  If the teacher sees a pattern among, for example, long vowel or consonant sounds in the middle of a word, this may classify the student’s orthographic knowledge as “mid-within a word” ability according to the scoring sheet.

Once  the entire class has been evaluated, the teacher can categorize her students among the most common stages found among her students and develop spelling instruction and reading activities around the stages the students need improvement.  For example, a teacher who sees students struggling with long vowel sounds might develop a list of vocabulary words and required reading that assist students in comprehending this stage of spelling.  She could create lesson plans and instructional strategies that ensure focus on this type of miscue to advance learners conceptual development.

This type of formative assessment provides teachers with a starting point to begin English language instruction for all types of learners.  If a particular group of students lags behind other students, the teacher can arrange for special small group instruction with assignments that relate to that area of difficulty.  English language learners in transitional English courses benefit greatly from the teacher’s ability to hone in on academic skills that require more attention as it relates to their proficiency in mastering all English language domains. 

          The same assessment can be administered at the middle and end of the school year to evaluate student progress.  In addition, at the middle school level, the spelling inventory assessment provides valuable insight into areas that need fine-tuning in order for more complex associations to be relevant and comprehensible to students who may be struggling. 

          As Johnston notes, “becoming fully literate is absolutely dependent on fast, accurate recognition of words in texts, and fast, accurate production of words in writing so that readers and writers can focus their attention on making meaning” (Bear, 2000).  Attending to the basic skill of spelling and decoding allows students the ability to take on higher learning activities in preparation for more demanding and rigorous course work in higher grade levels.