Can You Pass A 19th Century Middle School Spelling Test?

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You might have seen a quiz like this one from BuzzFeed floating around the Internet. Tauntingly entitled “Can You Pass A Middle School Spelling Test?”, the quiz offers a list of 25 words and asks whether or not they are spelled correctly. Here are a few samples:

While some of the words on this test may make us stop and second guess ourselves - does necessary have one “c” or two? - many of the words aren’t all that difficult. Which makes me wonder: has the rigor of middle school spelling curriculum declined in the same manner as middle schoolreading material?

To answer this question, I turned to Noah Webster’s famous “blue-back speller,” which was used by millions of children in American schools during the 18th and 19th centuries. One of these children was Carrie Ingalls, who “disgraced herself” around age 11 by misspelling “cataract,” “separate,” and “exasperate” in school.

As Webster’s speller is not arranged by grade level, I tracked down these three words to see the lessons which a 19th century sixth grader like Carrie would have been studying. Her trouble words can be found between lessons 104 and 128 in the old blue-back.

Curious as to the spelling words these lessons taught? Take a peek at the list below which contains one word from every lesson between 104 and 128:

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that passing a 19th century middle school spelling test with words such as “perspicuity,” “scintillate,” “prerogative,” and “sinecure” would be far more difficult than passing BuzzFeed’s modern middle school spelling test with words such as “quizzes,” “February,” “unanimous,” and “until.” Carrie Ingalls would probably blush with shame if she, a mature 11 year-old, were asked to spell the easy words on today’s test.

To put it bluntly, our modern spelling skills seem to have regressed.

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