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Spelling and Letter Grades in Kindergarten

Gifted and Talented Expert Advice from Mary Ruth Coleman, Ph.D.

Q: My five-year-old son is in kindergarten. During reading lessons, the children are now having spelling tests along with words they sound out. On the last two tests, my son received F's, getting none of the words right. However, he does try to sound them out, and what he writes makes sense in light of this (e.g., "tnn" for "ton"). He is above average in all other areas -- in fact the teacher says he gets bored because he's so smart. He's getting very frustrated, comes home really sad, and says he's stupid because he has F's on his papers. However, when I ask him to spell the words at home, he gets them all right. I think it's ridiculous to have letter-grades for kindergarteners, but how can I encourage him and help him?

A: Wow. This is a first for me. I have no idea why your son is taking spelling tests like this in kindergarten. First, talk with the teacher; let her know that the grades are really upsetting your son. Ask why this is being done. What is the goal? Phonetic spelling is good ("tnn" for "ton") and age-appropriate for your son. Can the teacher give feedback that is less negative than letter grades? How are the other kids dealing with this? In the meantime, pass on reassurances to your son: usually spelling tests are for older kids; that he gets to do them at all means he is very smart; these tests are only practice for later and the grades are not real grades. Also, focus on his strengths and downplay the grades with more talk about how much he is learning and about how his own spelling sounds out his words. You could try practicing for the tests by making study games with flash cards and crossword puzzles, but this might backfire if he feels even more pressure. Good Luck.

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Mary Ruth Coleman is the director of Project U-STARS (Using Science Talent and Abilities to Recognize Students) at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Coleman has taught in both general and gifted educational programs in both public and private schools.

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