Spell Logically

By: Linda Schrock Taylor - February 15, 2008

I suspect that I hear some grumblings and objections, but really, once one learns to approach spelling logically; to think of each difficult word as an opportunity to study word structure and origins, the process becomes fun as well as mentally stimulating. I will not claim that all frustrations will end, but they should greatly lessen. If all else fails, at least you may learn to smile despite tightly clenched teeth.

I readily admit that I am a poor speller---thanks to Dick, Jane, Puff, and all of the Sight Word Pushers who violate children with: See & Say, Whole Language, Balanced Literacy, plus hundreds of flash cards. In my opinion, those Fad Followers have destroyed literacy, scholarship, education, responsibility, families, values and even the culture of America. The repercussions of illiteracy are without end…and may actually spell the end of this nation and our way of life. The FAD pushers have much, so much, for which they must answer. May they do their answering in a warm; very warm place. I most certainly do not mean Florida!

I am always interested in stories, questions, ideas, conclusions, and articles about spelling, and found Robert Klose's recent piece on the letter X, to be both interesting and humorous. His examples and explanations reminded me of questions that my students have asked throughout my teaching career. It has been some time since I wrote about spelling, so this might be a good time to again offer more insights and suggestions, of ways to improve spelling skills; on how to use strategies like: prediction, deduction, word knowledge, a sense of humor…and an adventurous spirit. Let us first look at the hated IE/EI spellings.

I before E except after C unless it says A as in neighbor and weighUNLESS the word is an Exception.

Generally, it is those darn exceptions that trip up even good spellers! With the IE/EI words, it is helpful to use a mental cheat sheet until the rules are internalized and exception words are learned to automaticity. Borrowing from Romalda Spalding and Wanda Sanseri, with some of my own preferences included, I offer the following explanations. Note: The Exceptions "cheat sheet" is detailed in sections "A" and "B" below---should be memorized. The rules in "C, D, E" should to be studied and practiced for perfection.

A) "Neither foreign sovereign seized (the) counterfeit (so) forfeited leisure."

B) "PHEW--CC" (protein; heifer; either; weird;--caffeine and codeine)

Here are words that The Spalding Reading Method uses as examples for practice of IE/EI words that are not exceptions:

C) "I before E": believe; belief; fierce; brief; niece; priest; field; chief; siege; achieve; piece // pie; lie // mischief. (Please note that the phonogram "ie" can represent three different speech sounds in the Code for spoken English (i.e. SPELLING): Long E (siege); Long I (pie); Short I (mischief).

D) "Except after C": receive; perceive; ceiling; receipt; conceit

E) "Unless it says A": their (root: they); veil; heir (inherit); rein; reign; vein; surveillance; skein; beige; reindeer; heinous

Encoding and Decoding the /er/ sound. Take a guess! How many English words contain the speech sound /er/ in the base word (not counting words with ‘er' endings like ‘teacher')? 20,000! (Margaret Bishop) Yes, "20,000!" To further complicate spelling, there are numerous phonograms that are used to represent the /er/ sound: ER, UR, IR, WOR, EAR, OUR, AR, OR, but they cannot be used willy-nilly. English is consistent, so this is a great time to practice applying knowledge, logic and statistics when spelling a word! Spellers who need help with the /er/ words should memorize this simple sentence: Her nurse first works early.

Sanseri explains (pg 134): "Not counting all the words that use ER as a suffix meaning ‘one who' (farm + er), the ER spelling occurs over five times as often as all the others put together. Each remaining [/er/ spelling] occurs about twice as often as the one after it. ER is used 2,063 times; UR — 247 times; IR — 114 times; WOR — 51 times; and EAR — 31 times." (Italics are mine.)

I first teach my students the concept of "number of occurrences" of a phonogram or spelling in the English language. Why rush to use the "EAR" spelling unless one has a pretty good idea of how the word, or its root, is spelled? It would make no sense to hope of happening upon "1 of 31" when chances are so much better for "1 of 2063". Draw a chart! Show the comparisons, then later write in additional examples.







+ 60 more!





We retain many words in our visual memory, and we can call upon them for assistance. Even though we may not know them well enough to spell them, they provide a way for us to check our spelling. Pretend that we cannot recall the exact spelling of the word that means "take in new information and retain it."

Since "er" is the most used phonogram, we try that first: "lern". Our brain disapproves of that so we then proceed through the chart:

lern (no) lurn (no) lirn (no)

(No need to try wor this time because we do not hear a /w/.)

Then finally, learn.

Our brain recognizes and confirms that choice.

Many of us already know and use this skill. It is a good strategy for it allows your visual memory to rule out, or confirm, a choice. However, it is very difficult for poor readers and non-readers to use this strategy. They have not read enough to build a multitude of images against which they can compare their own spellings. BTW, Spelling "tests" that have the taker choose the correct spelling from a line of similar words does not test spelling! It tests the ability to recognize words.

Silent E's. I had long been angry about Silent E's…probably since I was first taught that the Silent E at the end of a word forces the vowel before it to say its name. That one (1 of 5) rule was so easy to learn…but it also caused me grief, and set me up to distrust the English language. The confusion and harm were compounded by teachers who told us that all the other words, those in which the Silent E that did not control the vowel before it, were "rule breakers." My guess is that such teachers really had no idea that there are five (5) Silent E rules, and basically no rule breakers at all! Then I attended a Spalding Reading course and finally learned how the English Code for Written Speech (i.e. SPELLING) works.

The Silent Final E's are also presented in the order of their appearance and usage in the language.

1) time; ache: The Silent E forces the reader to go back, "leaping" over the consonant phonogram ( 2 or more letter phonograms, such as /th/, /ch/, /sh/, etc. should be counted as "one") and pronounce the vowel before it using the vowel's second, or "long", sound.

2) love; blue: This second Silent E prevents the breaking of this rule: "No English word may end with V or U." (BTW, 'flu' is not a real word. It is simply a syllable taken from the word 'influenza'. It is now being used as a real word in speech, products, and ads, but such usages further harm the ability to spell accurately, using rules and logic.)

3) chance; charge: This third Silent E 'softens' a C or G, forcing that consonant to say its 2nd sound---/s/; /j/. Without the E, we would have to say 'chank' or 'charg'.

4) lit tle; cas tle: This fourth Silent E provides a vowel for the last syllable so that we do not break the rule: "Every English syllable must have a vowel."

5) Odd job E's: An "Odd Job E" is a Silent E that does not meet the criteria of the first four. Sanseri fit most of these words into three specific (but still "odd") groupings. This specificity has greatly aided me in teaching students to recognize and accurately use such words; to gain confidence in the stability of English.

5a) Not-a-Plural E: (nurse; please; goose) These Silent E's confirm that the words are not in "plural" form. 1 nur/6 nurs? 1 plea/3 pleas? 1 goo/5 goos? Nah!

5b) Clarification E: This E helps the reader distinguish between similar words, and/or phonograms. Again, some from Sanseri: are/ar; ore/or; ewe/ew; owe/ow; cleanse/cleans; hearse/hears; shoe/shoo; breathe/breath.

5c) Once-Pronounced E: These words probably come from older forms of English, as well as from other languages, when/where Silent E's were pronounced. are, come, some, ease, done, treatise, giraffe (Sanseri, pg 108)

There are only 29 rules for spelling English words. When my students come to a word that appears not to follow the rules, I challenge the students to do some research. I especially encourage them to become interested in word origins. Rarely do we find an odd spelling that we cannot explain after consulting a good dictionary or book on word origins. Our favorite source is the Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, or "the big black book" as my younger students call it.

Often, the word being questioned is from another language. I explain that we simply cannot expect words from other languages to conform to the written code for English! We have only to look at the word "ski" to see the silliness of such an expectation. "Ski" is a Norwegian word meaning a long, thin piece of wood. Since there was no comparable word in English, "ski" was incorporated into our language. But, but, but…English words should never end with an "I"! Or consider this: "Today I ski; Yesterday I skied; Often I have skied." Ok, so far, because we can add "ed" to convey action that has ended, and the result appears to be a word that had a Y changed to an I before the ending was added.

Moving on…"Yesterday, I was skiing." Wait! English words should never have two "I's" side-by-side! There is no way to follow the rules in this case. When we add a vowel ending, like "ing" to a word, we "Drop the E" but that rule does not apply here for "ski" has no E to drop. Other times we "keep the Y and just add the ending" (skying) but there is no Y in "ski". Sometimes we "Change the Y to I and add the ending" but there is no Y to change. Perhaps we could reverse the process as we do when we remove endings, and "Change I back to Y". We get "skying" and find ourselves back where we started.

In instances like this, we are forced to break English spelling rules, which fuels the misconception that English lacks consistency and dependability. Words like "ski" provide fodder for mis-educated teachers, and mis-educating teacher training professors, as they continue to destroy educational standards and results by claiming that phonics and spelling are unimportant for reading and writing. I believe that is it impossible to get the anti-phonics people to even consider the possibility that they jumped on the wrong wagon decades ago. They will never admit that they are wrong about phonics; will never admit that they have no idea how to efficiently and effectively teach reading.

The reality is---that the only way to read back a code that has been scribed/recorded/SPELLED based on oral speech and an alphabet, is to learn the specific phonographic representations for the 44 sounds generally used in American English. Those children, who learn to read and write in anti-phonics classrooms, learn in spite of the instruction; in spite of the teacher! Those children manage to figure out the Code by themselves, but too often not the complete Code. I rapidly learned the Code for receptive purposes (i.e. Reading) but failed to do well with the Code for expressive purposes (i.e. Spelling.)

The Code for writing down/recording English speech contains: 26 ABC's, to use in 70 spellings, of 44 vocalizations, within the guidelines of 29 rules. When I ask new students if they prefer to read and spell: A) by learning to use the above 169 items, or B) by memorizing 250,000 words for instant sight recognition and perfect recall for spelling, they never choose the latter. It is a no-brainer, really.

Unfortunately, people who refuse to think, and teach, with phonics are throwing away the greatest invention of all time, the Alphabet. Please do not entrust the minds of your children to such teachers, professors, methods. Appreciate the alphabet and its possibilities. About 2,500 years ago, the Phoenicians found that with 26 simple letters, humans could record and read back everything anyone knows, ponders, or dreams, about the past, the present, and the future. Those 26 letters, and knowledge of the written Code for English speech, will serve us better than all the electronic spelling devices.

Put spelling to the test. Go in person to fill out an application for the job of your dreams. Fill it out right there in the main office of the company, in front of several employees and preferably the boss. Whenever you face a stumbling block, whip out your electronic speller---or ask to use a computer. Do you think you will get the job? In all likelihood, you will not.

Img MissingPlease do not write in teeny script, hoping that the individual letters will be virtually impossible to distinguish from one another and will thus disguise spelling errors. It is far better to spend time improving your spelling skills. The process can be great fun, while exercising and expanding the mind.

February 15, 2008


Copyright © 2008- Linda Schrock Taylor All Rights Reserved.