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Diagnostic Spelling Assessment

Don't Teach Visual Spelling

Spelling Is Not a Visual Skill

As an MA Reading Specialist and educational author of seven spelling books, I thought I’d pitch in to help teachers do a little  reflection on their spelling programs. Despite what many teachers have been taught, spelling is not a visual skill. Poor spellers do not necessarily have visual processing problems. If you have taught spelling through the shapes of letters, know that no orthographic spelling research supports this practice. Additionally, if you have taught spelling as individually-memorized sight words, best practices would certainly not suggest this practice. Finally, if you “teach” spelling by requiring students to spelling weekly vocabulary words correctly, please don’t.

Instead, teach the spelling system. It’s not perfect, but it does apply the alphabetic code. Learning the sound-spelling patterns will help your beginning and remedial spellers immensely, because spelling is primarily an auditory skill, mapping the sounds to letters.

Effective spelling programs match the nature of the English spelling system. There is a “rhyme and reason” to our spelling system; however, because our spellings have derived from a wide variety of languages and historical influences, several instructional approaches are needed to learn to spell well. Your students may have mastered some approaches, but be deficient in others. Therefore, a cookie-cutter curriculum may wind up re-teaching much of what your students already know, instead of focusing on what they do not yet know.

Good Spellers Aren't Good Always Good Readers

Good Readers Aren’t Always Good Spellers

Plus, despite what you may have heard, older students certainly can learn to spell. No orthographic research suggests that only primary age students learn to spell as developmental readers. Administer the free Diagnostic Spelling Assessment provided at the end of this article, and use the corresponding resources to teach to the assessment deficits. Your students can catch up while they keep up with grade-level spelling instruction.

Poor Spellers Are Not Born That Way

Spelling is Not Genetic

Last, but not least, let’s get rid of the fallacy that good spelling or bad spelling are genetic predispositions. People were not born to be good or bad spellers. No brain research exists to suggest this conclusion. Even the worst spellers can learn with the proper resources. Spelling need not be a lifelong impediment for your students.

So, how should we teach spelling? A comprehensive diagnostic spelling assessment will help you choose the appropriate instructional approaches and resources. If your students know it, they will show it; if they don’t, they won’t.

But, which diagnostic spelling assessment? To compare the more popular Words Their Way® spelling inventories to my Diagnostic Spelling Assessment, I’ve put together a four-minute video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aczs81Jhcz8 to compare test items and determine which assessment provides the most teachable data.

Here’s What You Get in This FREE Spelling Resource Download:

  1. The Diagnostic Spelling Assessment (Includes Audio File)

This comprehensive sound-spelling diagnostic test has 102 spellings, unlike random sample spelling inventories. Along with a sight-syllable spelling assessment and a non-phonetic high utility words assessment, this Diagnostic Spelling Assessment will give teachers the data they need to plan effective spelling instruction. Plus the download includes an audio file of the assessment. Simply tell students to take out a piece of paper and get their pencils ready to spell.

2. The Diagnostic Spelling Assessment Mastery Matrix 

Record the results of the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment on the The Diagnostic Spelling Assessment Mastery Matrix and analyze your students’ strengths and weaknesses. Match instructional resources to address the diagnosed deficits. Set specific learning goals and monitor progress as your students work toward mastery.

3. Weekly Grade-level Instructional Scope and Sequence

Check out the continuity of our 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 spelling programs. See how each year reviews previous spelling patterns and adds increasingly rigorous spelling patterns.

4. Weekly Grade-level Spelling Pre-tests, Spelling Worksheets, and Post-tests

Administer the pre-test on Monday; students self-correct and create a personal spelling test of missed words, spelling errors you’ve marked in their writing, and supplemental word lists (provided); students complete a one-page spelling sort on the weekly spelling pattern and self-correct; and post-test and self-correct with peer partners on Friday. Efficient and effective. Students only study spellings that aren’t yet mastered–so much better than simply post-testing the same words from the pre-test.

5. Differentiated, Individualized Instruction with Spelling Pattern Worksheets

Set aside some class time for students to complete and self-correct Spelling Pattern Worksheets, which correspond to their spelling deficits as indicated by the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment. You only correct the formative assessment and mark student progress on the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment Mastery Matrix.


Mark Pennington, MA reading specialist, is the author of the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment and accompanying grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 spelling programs.

Differentiated Spelling Instruction is a complete grade-level spelling program (4, 5, 6, 7, and 8) built upon conventional spelling rules and developmental spelling patterns. Plus, the program includes all resources teachers need to individualize instruction. Developing a weekly spelling plan that differentiates instruction for all of your students is a challenging task for even the best veteran teacher, but help has arrived! There is no better spelling program for your grade level students, GATE students, special ed, ESL/ELD, and below grade level students. Perfect for RtI. The program is easy to teach. We even provide a YouTube training video to ensure your success! In addition to the above resources for these full-year programs, you’ll get these supplemental resources:

Spelling Teaching Resources

  • How to Study Spelling Words
  • Spelling Proofreading Strategies for Stories and Essays
  • Syllable Rules
  • Accent Rules
  • Outlaw Words
  • The 450 Most Frequently Used Words
  • The 100 Most Often Misspelled Words
  • The 70 Most Commonly Confused Words
  • Eight Great Spelling Rules, Memory Songs, and Raps (with Mp3 links)
  • Spelling Review Games
  • Formative and Summative Spelling Assessment Mastery Matrices

Here’s what teachers are saying about the Differentiated Spelling Instruction programs. Don’t worry, the free assessment follows!

This is an excellent resource – very thorough and detailed. I love that it’s set up for students to have individualized lists. The lists are carefully curated so they follow various word patterns allowing students to learn rules of spelling rather than just memorizing words lists week after week. 

Kristen M.

I work with a large ELL population at my school.Through my research in best practices, I know that spelling patterns and word study are so important. However, I just couldn’t find anything out there that combines the two. The grade level spelling program and remediation are perfect for my students. 


This is EXACTLY what I needed for my spelling/vocabulary instruction! I teach ELD and GATE kids, so having the means to differentiate was very important to me. Totally worth the purchase, and I’ll probably end up buying the 8th-grade book as well for my really high kiddos.
Rating: 4.0

Kim Cruise

I have tutored children who are struggling in school for the last 36 years. Using raps and songs to help children remember spelling rules is wonderful!

Cheryl Merrick

Easy to implement!

Elizabeth R.

A great supplemental source for struggling students.

Rachael H.

The differentiation activities and worksheets have made spelling instruction effortless!

Casey W.

Get the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment, Matrix, and Sample Lessons FREE Resource:

Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary , , , , , , , , , , ,

  1. Terry Leppien
    March 21st, 2017 at 11:26 | #1

    Hi Mark-
    I would love to see/use your spelling assessment.The link on this page is not “hot”. Would you mind linking it. I greatly appreciate it.

    Terry Leppien

  2. March 21st, 2017 at 18:56 | #2

    Fixed it!

  3. Rina Maurer
    September 3rd, 2020 at 07:38 | #3

    Is there a charge to subscribe to the newsletter?

  4. September 12th, 2020 at 14:17 | #4

    No charge:)

  5. Mel M
    September 27th, 2020 at 15:50 | #5

    Hi there, I’m completing the diagnostic with my own child who has struggled with spelling. We’re completing it in smaller chunks due to attention difficulties. My questions for you is, once I mark things on the matrix, does one begin instruction with where the first error occurred? Thanks Mark!

  6. October 1st, 2020 at 10:48 | #6

    Yes, in numerical order.

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