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Ask the Experts

My Child Has Spelling Test Anxiety

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

How can I help my fifth-grader overcome "spelling test anxiety?" When we review the words at home (verbally and written) he spells them all correctly. At school, over 50% are wrong. In all other subjects, (math etc.) he does excellent work.

Answer:

It is fairly common for children to learn their spelling words before a test and then somehow "lose" the words when they take the real test. A situation like this can lead to frustration for the student, as well as his parents. When it happens repeatedly, the frustration can turn into anxiety, as the child starts to dread the test and his parents' reactions to a poor grade. It can get to the point where simply hearing the words "spelling test" can cause a child to panic and freeze. Rest assured that test anxiety is usually temporary and can be managed with a few simple strategies.

Three tactics are needed for anyone to succeed on a test: preparation, organization, and practice.

  • Preparation includes obtaining the word list as soon as it is available, learning the definitions and the correct spelling of each.
  • Organization means having a clear time set aside for homework and studying each day leading up to the test.
  • Practice means exactly what you think it does: rehearsing each word, using it in a sentence, writing it correctly, and spelling it aloud, over and over again.

An e-mail or a phone call to his teacher can give you more information about the types of errors your son is making and what the teacher thinks may be happening on the tests. Find out how the test is administered, and in what time frame. Perhaps your son needs more time; he may be rushing through the test, and he may be forgetting to proofread his work before turning it in. Also, if you know more about the teacher's testing style, you can mimic those conditions at home when your son is practicing his spelling words. Be sure to share with the teacher the fact that your son spells the words correctly at home, and ask about alternative testing strategies.

Is your son overwhelmed in other areas of his life, besides his spelling tests? Fifth-graders are given greater responsibility, more assignments and bigger tasks in preparation for middle school. Children who are used to doing well in school often have a hard time with this, because study skills that were effective in the lower grades may not be sufficient now. For example, reviewing and practicing spelling words the night before a test may have been all he needed to do in second-, third- and fourth-grade, but from this point on, he may need to do it for three or four nights in a row.

Ask yourself if your son might be participating in too many extracurricular activities. In today's fast-paced society, many children are overloaded on activities, leaving too little "down time," and little energy left for studying.

If these strategies don't help and your son's anxiety continues, or if it begins to interfere with other areas of his life, he might benefit from a few sessions with a qualified therapist. Ask for help from the school counselor or your pediatrician.


Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

08/2/2010:
"Alot of the time, my daughter is the same way..Happy as a lark, can answer most of the questions, but then at school she 'blanks out'.. What she feared most, was the 'timer'. The Teacher does timed tests, and my daughter freezes. She does not do well when timed. Speak to the Teacher and see if this is happening. Then come up with a plan to help your youngster make a game of it at home with the egg timer, or ? Perhaps dress the Timer up to look like a funny object..That way in school, the child can think of the 'Funny Timer' instead of the shock of being timed and worried."
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