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The content was challenging but fair and I was really pleased with the outcome, and colleagues were very impressed with the content
Donna Nelson, Year 6 teacher, St Joseph’s Catholic Academy

New Group Spelling Test: Assessing spelling to support SATs practice

St Joseph’s Catholic Academy is located on the edge of the Tunstall in Stoke-on-Trent. The area where the school is located is one of high social deprivation:  26% of children receive pupil premium and 16% are from traveller families. However, support for these children was praised by Ofsted when, in its 2014 report, the school was rated ‘good’ in all categories.  Reading was highlighted in the same report as being taught ‘exceptionally well’. Children enter school with below average skills and knowledge but attain standards which are above average in reading, writing and mathematics at the end of Year 2 and Year 6 and many make higher than expected progress.

The school took part in trialling the New Group Spelling Test (NGST) with all year groups from Year 2 upwards.  Year 6 teacher, Donna Nelson, explained that throughout KS2 pupils have a spelling lesson every morning from 9.05 to 9.25. Crosswords and word searches are used to make spelling fun and to engage the children. Each week a new spelling rule is introduced and words are practiced throughout the week and then there is a test each Friday. Repetition of spelling rules is very important so that the pupils remember them and don’t forget them once they move up a year. A certain rule is often refreshed if most of the class has found it difficult. The school use weekly spelling tests with Years 2, 3, 4 and 5 and use the words from the new curriculum list to create their own weekly tests for Year 6.

Children needing additional support and given precision teaching in the afternoon – this allows them to re-learn spelling rules and practice them until they are secure.

Donna would like to include a test like NGST as part of the school’s spelling assessment programme: ‘It’s really important especially now that spelling is tested as part of SPAG in the Y6 SATs that we know that children are working at an age appropriate level – gauging ‘spelling ages’ every six months is essential.’  The new style SATs were very challenging for some of the St Joseph’s children last year – the lack of sample material particularly hindered preparation and it can be hard to keep stress levels down.  ‘We encourage the children to do some fun things over the weekend before SATs week and certainly do not revise up to the last minute – everyone is looking forward to the camping trip we take immediately afterwards!’

One consequence Donna has noticed about the focus on spelling in particular is that some very able writers are limiting their vocabulary to only words they know how to spell – this, of course, then impacts on the quality of their written work.  Keeping an emphasis on reading for pleasure is also difficult but each class spends a thirty minute period once a week in the school library and can choose what to read.

Donna recognised that the NGST featured a range of words that made the test accessible to the majority of children even those with weaker spelling who were able to attempt some words. ‘The content was challenging but fair and I was really pleased with the outcome,’ says Donna, ‘and colleagues were very impressed with the content’. As the school trialled paper versions of the test this accessibility will be enhanced in the digital, adaptive version.

Having the final assessment on a tablet was also appealing.  Donna explained that many of the pupils find an assessment on an iPad quite fun and almost like a game and they are much more receptive to this in comparison with a traditional paper test and this was particularly true for boys and pupils with SEN. iPads work far better than PCs for the school.

Overall, pupils at St Joseph’s find spelling in context far easier than spelling single words. It was clear that some students had performed slightly better in the spelling in context section and Donna explained that their weekly spelling tests are always made up of sentence completion tasks. Pupils at St Joseph’s are asked to write out the full sentence in their spelling tests as this helps with their handwriting.

Looking at responses from the Year 6 pupils it is clear that some rules and some exception words have been master by the majority (invention, attached, lamb, plough, primrose, preview, thought, for example) and some words were difficult for just about all pupils (correspond, controversy and accommodate stand out).  The majority of children did better in the spelling in context section and this is the case for weaker and stronger spellers.

Kyle is a weaker speller but was able to apply phonic knowledge to at least attempt some of the words: charicter, profeshan, atached, dowte, for example; and like his classmates performed better when a word was given in a sentence: achieve, observant and desert, for example.  However, in this section Kyle wrote ‘aloud’ instead of ‘allowed’.

One of the stronger spellers is Abi who was one of three pupils to spell binoculars and controversy correctly.  It is likely that these words, especially binoculars, are unfamiliar to children in Year 6 and those that achieved them were able to apply the correct rule or had come across the words when reading.

Daniel is also a stronger speller who achieved binoculars but not controversy. Daniel was able to spell curiosity and leisure which most of the other pupils didn’t achieve.