Spelling: A Lost Art

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I would like to begin by thanking the following teachers/researchers for showing me logical strategies for spelling: Romalda Spalding, Louisa Cook Moats, and Wanda Sanseri.

Schools only pretend to teach spelling. Children are assigned spelling books in many classrooms; in many schools. Lists of words are included; activities around those lists are completed; tests are given. So…why is yet another generation of poor spellers being sent out from the schools, into the working world, where they are lost, even with computers and tools such as Franklin Spelling Aces?

The main reason for this outrage is that possibly as many as 99% of the teachers do not understand that English is written in an alphabetic Code, and that this Code for English is used to encode auditory speech and inner speech (i.e. thought). Most teachers are not even aware that English is well structured and logical. Many would have difficulty comprehending the fact that print is, indeed, recorded speech. Therefore, such teachers have no idea how to teach spelling, and only require students to memorize a limited number of words, which ill prepares individuals to spell the thousands — tens and hundreds of thousand — of English words they need to handle in order to be competent readers, spellers, writers, and thinkers.

My early teachers often gave me only part of a spelling rule, then told me that everything else was an exception or a rule breaker. They told me “Change y to i and add es.” They never told me about changing i to y, or about adding suffixes like -ful, -zen, and so many others. They taught me about -tion but not about -tial, tious, and others. Their partial, incidental lessons narrowed my understanding of English, rather than broadening it. They wasted my learning time and allowed me to develop totally inappropriate strategies for spelling my mother tongue. (If I believed that we need more laws, which I certainly do not, I would be tempted to say, “There ought to be a law!”)

To make matters worse, textbook writers do not understand the surface, let alone the underlying structures and layers of English, so they write textbooks that fail to teach spelling, rather than writing books that would help teachers, who have already been so damaged by their own schooling, both in the grammar years, as well as in teacher training classes, to make mental repairs and finally learn how to spell logically, and how to teach logical spelling. Modern textbooks only offer lists of words that anyone could put together so that a child might work on memorization — although certainly not on spelling.

Furthermore, too many writers of these spelling books do not know a phonogram from a random letter combination. Recently a student’s spelling book had a lesson on “Unusual Letter Combinations.” In actuality, the lesson required that children memorize words with wr, kn, and gn. The lesson failed to explain that those letter combinations are true phono/grams (sound/write), then failed to teach students concepts that would help them to spell any words coded with those phonograms. (Hint: wr is the ‘two letter /r/ that may only be used at the beginning of a word, and today, thanks to Joseph Stromberg, I learned that the wr phonogram will usually be found in words that convey the idea of “twisting” — wrestle, write, written, wreath, wrench, wrest, wringer…; kn is the “two letter /n/ that may only be used at the beginning of a word”; gn is the “two letter /n/ that may be used at the beginning or end of a word.”) It is maddening to be expected to “reinforce spelling” from books such as this, when my special education students, all students, actually, need real instruction in strategies for encoding speech and thus spelling words accurately.

I consider the typical ineffective classroom spelling instruction to be “incidental” rather than methodical. I imagine that, faced with a list of words ending with ed, the teacher might say, “Incidentally, notice that all these words end with ed.” Compare that directive to the methodical, definitive instruction contained in rule #28. (See the following list of 29 spelling rules.)

When I first meet a remedial reading class, whether at the elementary, high school, or college level, I begin by offering them a choice. I explain that they can either learn to read using the “I Haven’t Had That Word Yet” method, which means that they will have to be taught, and memorize, around 250,000 words to be an exceptional reader; or… they can learn: 26 ABC’s, 29 Rules, and 70 Spellings for 44 Sounds. They always choose the second method, especially since they have a head start in that they usually know those ABC’s.

I have found that Romalda Spalding, with 29 rules, created a logical presentation of the information we need to be good spellers. Mrs. Sanseri added points that clarify and improve retention in my students.

  1. The letter q is always followed by u and together they say /kw/. The u is not considered a vowel here.

  2. The letter c before e, i, or y says /s/ (cent, city, cycle), but followed by any other letter says /k/ (cat, cot, cut).

  3. The letter g before e, i, or y may say /j/ (page, giant, gym), but followed by any other letters says /g/ (gate, go, gust). The letters e and i following g do not always make the g say /j/ (get, girl, give).

  4. Vowels a, e, o, and u usually say their names/long sounds (a, e, o, u) at the end of a syllable (na vy, me, o pen, mu sic). (These are referred to as open syllables.) This rule helps students know how to divide unfamiliar vowel-consonant-vowel words and then pronounce the word correctly. (re port…rather than rep ort)

  5. The letters i and y usually say /i/ (big, gym), but may say i (silent, my, type).

  6. The letter y, not i, is used at the end of an English word (my).

  7. There are five kinds of Silent final e’s. (In short words such as me, she, and he, the e says e, but in longer words where a single e appears at the end, the e is silent.)

    Silent Final e’s should be thought of as “having a job."

    Silent e #1: bake gene time/type code cute

(The job of the #1 Silent e is to make the vowel preceding itsay its name.)

Silent e #2: love give blue true

(The job of the #2 Silent final e is to prevent us from ending an English word with a v or a u.)

Silent e #3: chance bodice charge allege

(The job of the #3 Silent final e is to soften a c or g.)

Silent e #4: lit tle cas tle bot tle dab ble fid dle

(The job of the #4 Silent final e is to prevent us from having a syllable with no vowel.)

Silent e # 5: are nurse raise bye ewe owe cause

Mrs. Spalding referred to the #5 Silent final e as the “No job e.”

Mrs. Sanseri refers to the #5 Silent final e as the “Odd job E” and explains: “Any reason for a silent E not covered by the first four is lumped into this final category.

    1. The E keeps a word that is not plural from ending in an ‘s’

      Examples: dense (not dens), purse (not purs), false (not fals)

    2. The E adds length to a short main-idea word. Ex.: awe, ewe, rye

    3. The E gives a distinction in meaning between homonyms. Ex.: or/ore for/fore

    4. The E is left over from Middle English or a foreign language where the final E was once pronounced. (treatise giraffe)”

  1. There are five spellings for the sound /er/. Keep this sentence in mind:

    Her nurse first works early.

    In that, the spellings are in the descending order of usage in English.

    The phonogram or may say /er/ when it follows w (work, worm, worthy). Also keep in mind that ar and or say /er/ at the end of some words (dollar, doctor).

  2. The 1-1-1 Rule: Words of one syllable (hop), having one vowel followed by one consonant, need another final consonant (hop + ped) before adding endings that begin with a vowel. This rule does not apply to words with x since x has two sounds /ks/.

  3. The 2-1-1 Rule:

    Words of two syllables (be gin) in which the second syllable (gin) is accented and has one vowel followed by one consonant, need another final consonant (be gin + ning) before adding an ending that begins with a vowel. If the last syllable is not accented (en ter, prof it, bud get) do not double the final consonant before adding the ending.

  4. The Drop-e Rule:

    Words ending with a Silent final e (come, hope) are written without the e when adding an ending that begins with a vowel.

  5. After c we use ei (receive). If we say a, we use ei (vein).

    In the list of exceptions, we use ei.

Exceptions: Neither foreign sovereign seized counterfeit forfeited leisure. Plus: either weird protein heifer

In all other words, the phonogram ie is used.

(In school we were taught, “I before E, except after C, unless it says A as in neighbor and weigh.”)

  1. The phonogram sh is used at the beginning or end of a base word (she, dish), at the end of a syllable (fin ish), but never at the beginning of a syllable after the first one except for the ending ship (wor ship, friend ship).

  2. The phonograms ti, si, and ci are the spellings most frequently used to say /sh/ at the beginning of a second or subsequent syllable in a base word (na tion, ses sion, fa cial).

    Most often, consider the root or root word to help you choose the correct /sh/ spelling to use.

    Examples: infect to in fec tious / collect to col lec tion / potent to po ten tial

    music to mu si cian / space to spa cious / finance to fi nan cial

    soci (companion) to so cial / ancien (old) to an cient

cruc (cross) to cru cial / speci (kind) to spe cial

  1. The phonogram si is used to say /sh/ when the syllable before it ends in an s (ses sion) or when the base word has an s where the base word changes (tense, ten sion).

    discuss to dis cus sion / compress to com pres sion / admis to ad mis sion

  2. The phonogram si may also say /zh/ as in vi sion, di vi sion, oc ca sion, ex plo sion.

  3. We often double l, f, and s following a single vowel at the end of a one-syllable word (will, off, miss). Sometimes rule 17 applies to two-syllable words like recess.

  4. We often use ay to say a at the end of a base word, never a alone. (bay, day, decay)

  5. Vowels i and o may say long i and long o if followed by two consonants (find, old).

  6. The letter s never follows x. The phonogram x includes an s sound-/ks/.

  7. Dismiss L Rule:

    All, written alone, has two l‘s, but when used as a prefix, only one l is written (al so, al most).

  8. Dismiss L Rule (part 2):

    Till and full, written alone, have two l’s, but when used as a suffix, only one l is written (un til, beau ti ful).

  9. The phonogram dge may be used only after a single vowel that says its short sound (badge, edge, bridge, lodge, budge).

  10. Change Y to I Rule:

    When adding an ending to a word that ends with a consonant and y, use i instead of y unless the ending is ing or might split a phonogram.

    city/cit ies beauty/beau ti ful play/player funny/fun ni est

  11. multiply/mul ti ply ing rely/re li able cry/cried deny/denied

  12. The phonogram ck may be used only after a single vowel that says its short sound (back, neck, lick, rock, duck).

  13. Words that are the names or titles of people, places, books, days, or months are capitalized.

  14. Words beginning with the sound z are always spelled with z, never with s.

  15. The phonogram ed has three sounds.

    If a base word ends in the sound /d/ or /t/, adding ed makes another syllable that says /ed/ (sid ed, part ed).

If the base word ends in a voiced consonant sound, the ending ed says /d/ (lived). If the base word ends in an unvoiced consonant sound, the ending ed says /t/ (jumped).

  1. Words are usually divided between double consonants.

    For speaking and reading, only the consonant in the accented syllable is pronounced; the consonant in the unaccented syllable is silent (lit tle to lit le).

I encourage poor spellers of all ages to stop spelling from memory, and instead approach each word logically, calling to mind these 29 rules and the 70 spellings of the 44 speech sounds. I teach students to also consider word knowledge, especially the Greek and Latin roots, prefixes and suffixes. I find the study of words and word origins to be fascinating, and soon my students develop the same interests. With increasing frequency they request that I look up interesting words or roots in our two favorite books: Word Stems by John Kennedy, and The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology by Robert K. Barnhart. With every word that you, your children, or your students research, ponder, learn…knowledge and the usage of English improves, along with the potential for ever deeper, more serious, and more rational, thought.

Spell well. Write well. Think well. Read as you were meant to read. Remember that Romalda Spalding, for sound reasons, entitled her book, The Writing Road to Reading. As spelling and writing skills develop, reading skills follow on their heels. Our schools have the process backwards, incomplete, or never teach it at all.

Linda Schrock Taylor [send her mail] is a free-lance writer and the owner of “The Learning Clinic,” where real reading, and real math, are taught effectively and efficiently.

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