‘What lesson have you next?’
‘Spellings – we have a test. I hate spellings’.
‘When I was at primary school forty years ago, we were given sixteen spellings each Monday and we were tested on Fridays, and if we got them all right we got a gold star and if we got fifteen out of sixteen, we got a silver star’.
‘We still get sixteen spellings and we still get tested on Fridays and we don’t get any stars’.
‘It doesn’t seem to have changed much in forty years’.
It seemed always an arbitrary system. Why sixteen spellings? Perhaps the intention was that we would learn four each day in preparation for the weekly test, but that wasn’t the case at High Ham Church of England Primary School. We were given slips of paper, as small as a sixth or an eight of a page in size, and each Monday afternoon copied from a textbook called Word Perfect the spellings for the week. The memory remains of the slip of paper, folded and folded again and stuffed into the trouser pocket, but not lost; spellings were too serious a matter for the paper to be lost.
In the time between the transcribing of the words and their being the subject of the test at the end of the week, there must have been time spent learning them; time even of someone taking the slip of paper and asking the spelling of each word in preparation for the weekly anxious moments. It is odd that such moments have disappeared entirely beyond recall, perhaps they really did create such a mood of anxiety and apprehension that the recollection of what must have been many hours of effort has become repressed by the subconscious.
Forty years on, and pondering the hatred for spellings of the eleven year old in this morning’s class, a question occurs that never occurred before. Why are a set of spellings from Monday tested on a Friday? Wouldn’t it make more sense to test them the following Monday, allowing them more time to be absorbed? Or wouldn’t it make more sense to test them less frequently, maybe once a month? Aren’t things quickly learned quickly forgotten? Certainly in undergraduate days, exams became a matter of a couple of weeks cramming into the memory as many things as possible, in order to recycle them on the examination paper and then to forget them.
Undoubtedly, there are forceful educational reasons for the system, but judging from the written work, it doesn’t seem to be working so well. After forty years, might there not be a better way of doing things?