Friday, May 29, 2009

Topic: Literary Discussion (1)

10-second review: The student question approach with a poem, Karl Shapiro’s “Auto Wreck.” Taken from Teaching English, How To… Raymond Stopper, Xlibris, 2004.

With Karl Shapiro’s “Auto Wreck” as an example, I will explain how I taught and organized a discussion of a literary work.

Introducing the Poem.

The Poem, “Auto Wreck,” re-creates the aftermath of a terrible automobile accident.

As the teacher, I first needed to decide my reason for asking the students to read the poem. This poem, “Auto Wreck,” was the first poem in an introductory unit on poetry. I decided that my main reason for having the students read it was its “unpoetic” subject matter. This poem was not about love and hearts and flowers, but about the ugly experience of an auto accident. I wanted the students to understand that poems can be written about almost any human experience and that the poet uses the experience to raise questions about life. A second reason for reading the poem was to have the students explore how poetry differs from other types of writing—specifically, newspaper reports of automobile accidents.

I began by asking students to tell how they felt about poetry, whether they had any favorite poems and whether they enjoyed reading poetry. A good many of the students said, “I never can understand poems. The language is confusing. The meaning is not plain. And when teachers tell us what it means, I don’t see it. So, I don’t read poetry on my own.” I ask students to tell about poems they have liked. Students usually remember some poems, especially those they read in elementary school and a few from middle school or junior high.

I introduced “Auto Wreck” by telling the students of my personal experience with an auto accident, in which I fell asleep at the wheel, barely avoided a head-on collision with a brick building and severed a telephone pole—at a time when cars did not have seat belts. I especially remembered my trip to the hospital in the ambulance that seemed to float along (an experience suggested in Shapiro’s poem). Had any students been in accidents? Those students who had been in accidents and those who knew people who had been in accidents reflected on what the accidents had meant to them in their lives.

I gave the students a copy of a newspaper report of an automobile accident. We analyzed the style and the tone of the report and agreed that it was straight reporting of the facts of the accident, together with the comments by the investigating officers and witnesses as to how the accident happened. Now I introduced the poem “Auto Wreck” by Karl Shapiro.

To be continued.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Topic: Previewing a Novel for the Purpose of Discussion.

10-second review: The origin and an example of the preview of a novel from my book, Teaching English, How To…. Xlibris (2004).

At Syracuse University, I was responsible for working with students who needed study skills to survive. One of the techniques I learned was useful for students who had a difficult time starting and completing reading assignments—in this case, novels. The originator of the idea, a professor named Dr. Shirk from the University of Kansas at Missouri, called the technique “Successive Sieves.”

The students gathered in small groups and read for 10 minutes somewhere near the beginning of the novel and then shared what they had learned with each other. Since students read at different places in the beginning, collectively they had covered a good portion of the beginning section of the novel. Each student then told the group about what he or she had read.

They repeated the process about half way through the novel, three-fourths of the way through the novel, and at the end of the novel. Each time students explained what they had read and collectively they would put together a pretty good review of the novel. The cost in time was less than two hours. Students were then prepared to participate in class discussions and even to take quizzes. Such an activity was certainly superior to not reading at all. But such an activity, I discovered, also had a surprisingly desirable side-effect.

When I tried this technique in class, I found something wonderful happening. The “preview” from different parts of the novel proved to be a terrific discussion starter—and motivator. One night in a continuing education class at a community college, I tried the technique with Knowles’s A Separate Peace, a novel I’m not crazy about. I just happened to have enough copies for every member of the class.

The class read for ten minutes near the beginning, in the middle, three-fourths through and near the end of the novel. The discussion of what the students had learned from their sampling was enthusiastic. Questions about the novel came from all sides. But I was unprepared for the class’s response to previewing the novel.

When I was ready to collect the books, hands shot up. The students wanted to take the novel home so they could read it fully. They had been motivated by the sampling and the discussion and the questions raised to want to read the entire novel. Abut 80% of the class took A Separate Peace home that night. And it was not even assigned reading.

Here’s an example of previewing a novel, Henry James’s Washington Square.

1. Read for ten minutes in the beginning of the novel.

What we have learned:

Long paragraphs and convoluted sentences.

Dr. Sloper: snide comments; not much respect for women, except for his deceased wife; makes negative judgments about people.

Catherine, Dr. Sloper’s daughter: “stolid, unresponsive.”


Does the plot center on Catherine? Dr. Sloper?


2. Read for ten minutes in the middle of the novel.

What we have learned:

Dr. Sloper is aloof; observes life; curious how things will turn out; does not respect his daughter; cynic.

Conflict between Dr. Sloper and Catherine’s suitor, Morris Townsend.


What is the relationship between Dr. Sloper and his daughter Catherine?

Does Dr. Sloper manipulate the lives of others?


3. Read for ten minutes about three-fourths of the way through the novel.

What we have learned:

Sloper tells his daughter he will disinherit her if she marries Townsend.

Sloper manipulates the lives of people over whom he has power.


Does Sloper suspect Townsend of wanting Catherine’s money?

What is Townsend’s character?

How will the plot conclude? Will Sloper change his mind about Townsend? Will Catherine marry Townsend?


4. Read for ten minutes near the end of the novel.

What we have learned:

Years later. Sloper is dead. Aunt Penniman and Catherine are living together. No sign of Townsend. However, Mrs. Penniman meets Townsend and he wants to renew his relationship with Catherine. When he comes to call, Catherine says, “No,” and she means it. Townsend goes away. Reveals the hardness of his heart.

Questions: Fact, Interpretation, Criticism

Fact: How did Townsend break with Catherine?

Interpretation. Was it because she would be disinherited?

Interpretation: Was Dr. Sloper’s judgment about Townsend accurate?

Interpretation: To what extent did Dr. Sloper manipulate his daughter’s life?

Interpretation: Why did Catherine decide never to marry?

Interpretation: How does Catherine’s character change from the beginning to the end of the novel?

Criticism: Why did James write this novel?

Criticism: How does the narrator’s role change in telling the story?

Criticism: What is the theme of the novel—if there is one?


How Do Students Respond to Previewing Novels?

When I was Language Arts Supervisor, K-12, I observed the class of an English teacher whose introduction to The Red Badge of Courage amounted to a review of the reading and writing assignments with dates on which they would be due. After that introduction, the students in a very desultory way began their reading. When I commented that this method was not a very effective motivator, the teacher agreed. When I suggested the preview method of sampling different parts of the novel, she said she would try it. The next day she stopped me in the hall.

“I couldn’t shut them up,” she said. “They got so much from previewing different parts of the book, and they wanted to talk, talk, talk. They had questions. They anticipated what was gong to happen. They speculated about the author’s [Stephen Crane’s] style of writing. I’ve never had such an enthusiastic response to The Red Badge of courage, which is really pretty difficult to read. They couldn’t’ wait to get started reading the whole thing.”

Comment: I rest my case.

Next blog: Using the student question method with a poem.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Topic: Questions

10-second review: Author realized that the questions from the literature text and her own questions about what students were reading had very little interest or meaning to the students. So she set about teaching students how to ask questions, i.e., levels of questions and defining real questions, questions to which they really wanted answers

Title: “Using Comprehension Strategies as a Springboard for Student Talk.” SL Lloyd. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (October 2004), 114-124. A publication of the International Reading Association (Ira).

Comment: The issue is how to engage as many in the class in the discussion as possible. I found a technique that worked. We want to avoid the scene in “Peggy Sue Got Married” in which the instructor engages in a one-on-one “discussion” with a single student while the other students sit bored and uninterested.

How did I elicit the students’ questions? Let’s begin with a novel. Students read near the beginning for 10 minutes. They then reported what they had read, which I recorded with key words on the board. Then I asked them if they had any questions about the novel. They did. After just 10 minutes of reading.

Second, the students read for ten minutes in the middle of the book. Once again, they reported what they had learned and raised questions about the novel to which they wanted the answer.

Third, students read for ten minutes three-fourths through the novel. Again they reported what they had learned and raised questions to which they wanted the answers.

Finally, students read for ten minutes near the end of the novel, reported what they had learned and raised questions to which they wanted answers.

We would then sort the questions into questions of fact that could be answered in the text; questions of interpretation, usually beginning with the word “Why?” And finally, questions of criticism, concerning the author’s style, plot, setting, theme, etc. The students then read to answer the questions. .

This sampling of the novel raised questions about which they cared, gave students a reason to read and often led to additional questions. In my experience, rarely did the students overlook questions that I would have asked. Often they raised questions to which I did not have the answer. So I became a genuine party to the discussion. We would conclude with some kind of summary of professional criticism of the novel and the students could compare their questions and answers to the critics’. My final question, by the way, after all the discussion, was, “Why read it?”

I think the moral of this story is that genuine questioning and discussion begins with students’ questions which they have raised and to which they genuinely want the answers.

In my next two blogs, I will give you some more examples of how I used this student question technique to involve most students in discussion. RayS.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Topic: English Language Learners (ELLs)

10-second review: The authors highlight four misconceptions about teaching English Language Learners (ELLs) in mainstream classrooms. However, they suggest at least two techniques with which I have had experience.

Title: “Misconceptions about Teaching English-Language Learners.” C Harper and E deJong. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (October 2004), 152-162. A publication of the International Reading Association (IRA).

Summary. The four misconceptions:

1. Exposure and interaction will result in English language learning. Just exposing students to English speakers does not teach English.

2. All ELLs learn English in the same way and at the same time.

3. God teaching for native speakers is good teaching for ELLs. The article, however, does suggest techniques that are good teaching, e.g., pre-teaching vocabulary and rewriting ELL students’ original writing.

4. Effective instruction means nonverbal support, i.e., visuals.

Comment: I think it would be fair to say of these misconceptions that they are “half right.” By themselves, they do not do a complete job of teaching ELLs English. However, they contribute to a complete program of English learning. What’s missing from mainstream teachers’ repertoire is a knowledge of how ELLs learn English. RayS.

The two techniques that the authors suggest:

1. Pre-teaching and discussing key terms before reading or lectures. “One technique that is helpful is supporting ELLs’ reading and learning in academic content areas is ‘front loading’ a lecture or assigned reading with activities that highlight key language.” Link related background knowledge and highlight key vocabulary. p. 157.

2. Rewriting the ELLs’ writing.

“In responding to ELLs’ journal writing, teachers can rephrase students’ errors to clarify ideas, provide input on the grammatical form, or suggest a more appropriate word or phrase….” p. 154.

Comment: Have the ELLs write in English for ten minutes (no more) at night as well as they can. The teacher on the following night rewrites to correct grammar, word choice, idioms, clarity and awkwardness directly on the students’ originals.

I’ve used this technique with native speakers of English with great success. Don’t just label the problem, rewrite it.

If students have questions about the changes, the teacher can explain. It’s important that the students rewrite the corrected version in order to compare the original version with the corrected version and to visualize the correct version in a clean copy. RayS.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Topic: Names.

10-second review: The author uses names to introduce the process of doing research.

Title: “The Challenge of Place-name Study.” A W Read. Elementary English (April 1971), 235-236. Elementary English was re-named Language Arts as its elementary journal by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Comment: I used two activities to engage students in research with names.

In the first, we began with a question: Why are American place names given their names? I distributed quarters of maps of the United States. Students first looked over the place names in their quarter-map. Next they collected names that interested them from the map. Next, they categorized the place names according to origin—people’s family names, the Bible, geographic description, American Indian, etc. Finally, they drew conclusions about the origins of place names in the United States. When names were especially interesting, they might write to the town asking for information about the name’s origin. Finally, they compiled a book of some of the most common reasons for naming places, the most interesting, the most puzzling, the longest, the shortest, etc.

A second techniques concerned students’ first names. Students asked their parents why they were named as they were. We would gather a list of reasons for first name—popular name of the time, celebrities, family name, etc. (One student was named “Glorita.” Her parents could not agree on a name between “Gloria” and “Rita,” so they combined the two names as a compromise.) Finally, we classified the names according to the reasons and wrote a class book on the subject of why parents name their children.

The purpose of these two activities concerning names? Introduction to Research. Begin with a question, gather the information, classify it, draw conclusions or generalizations, and write about it. RayS.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Topic: Newspapers

10-second review: Activities to use in studying newspapers at the elementary level.

Title: “Teaching About the Newspaper in elementary Schools.” AS Beeler. Elementary English (February 1972), 227 – 229. Elementary English was renamed Language Arts by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).


If you can find one in today’s newspapers, have students analyze the “lead” in a news story. What questions does the “lead” answer?

What type of opening is found in feature stories?

Compare the first page of today’s newspapers with the first page from a newspaper fifty years ago. How are they the same and how do they differ?

Follow a story for several days. Why does it change locations?

Evaluate headlines. Write headlines for news and feature articles.

Compare an editorial with a news story on the same subject. Interpret the cartoon on an editorial page.

Write an editorial based on a news story. How organize the editorial?

Interview an editorial writer, reporter, photographer.

Note unfamiliar vocabulary in headlines and in comic strips.

How is a column organized? Write a column. What are the subjects of a continuing column? Interview a columnist.

What are some topics in feature stories?

Study classified ads. How are they organized? Write a classified ad. Write a letter answering a classified ad. How should you organize the letter?

How can a newspaper be helpful in each of your subject areas?

Define newspaper words: flag, ears, deck, lead, by-line, cutline, date-line, etc. Compile a class dictionary. Clip illustrations for each word from old newspapers.

Make a field trip to a local newspaper and/or newspaper plant.

Play the word games available in the daily newspaper.

Comment: Begin by finding out how many of your students read a newspaper and how often. Never too early to familiarize students with what the newspaper has to offer. RayS.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Topic: Spelling, the Dreadful Ordeal (6)

10-second review: Personal spelling demons, proofreading and Summary

Title: “In the Age of Computers, Is Spelling Still a Worthwhile Subject in the English Curriculum?” Raymond Stopper. Teaching English, How To…. Xlibris. 2004.

Personal Spelling Demons

Students should keep a list of words they frequently misspell when they write. Of course, they can put these words into the “auto-correct” feature of their word processors and, when using the computer, if they misspell the word, it will be corrected automatically without their conscious awareness. But it also helps to organize the personal list of misspelled words according to the spelling problem they represent and to use the techniques introduced in the spelling program to help them master the correct spelling for times when they are not using computers.

Proofreading: A Different Type of Reading.

Students need to be taught to proofread. Proofreading is different from normal reading. If students proofread the way they normally read, from beginning to end, they are likely to read too quickly, passing over the details of words—which they should do when reading normally. However, proofreading requires careful examination of the details of every word.

One technique I have used to slow students down so that they do notice the details of every word is to have them read backwards, from the end of the composition, starting with the last word, to the beginning of the composition, finishing with the first word. I did not invent this technique, which has been around a long time, but it works. Students are thereby able to see the misspelled words they might have passed over if reading normally from beginning to end. Proofreading would, of course, be taught and reinforced in every grade as part of the writing program.

Summary of RayS’s Complete Spelling Program

Misspellings are an embarrassment. Misspellings seem to suggest that the writer is lazy, careless, pays no attention to details, has no desire for excellence and is uneducated. I have heard some employers say that a misspelled word on a resume means that it is relegated to the trash can. The use of selling checkers on computers should make the problem of spelling much less of a problem.

However, even with computerized spelling checkers, I think spelling instruction is still important. Knowing how to spell frequently misspelled words enables writers to write fluently and confidently, and “inventing” spelling, guessing at the spelling of words, as they write, enables writers to use a broad vocabulary, unconstrained by concerns for spelling, which will be checked as the last step in the writing process.

In a society in which a single misspelled word invites criticism that hurts, confidence in spelling helps to eliminate one significant fear of expressing ideas in writing. Taught the way I suggest, after words are introduced, spelling takes the first five minutes or so of class, helps to settle the class down, and focuses only on words likely to be used and misspelled. Teaching students how to proofread for spelling is also essential. In my experience, spelling instruction is much more efficient—and even enjoyable—this way. RayS.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Topic: Spelling, the Dreadful Ordeal (5)

10-second review: Words frequently misspelled.

Title: “In the Age of Computers, Is Spelling Still a Worthwhile Subject in the English Curriculum?” Raymond Stopper. Teaching English, How To…. Xlibris. 2004.

Multi-syllable Words.

accessory, accidentally, accommodate, accompany, accrue, address, apparent, attendance, attorney, banana, battalion, beginning cinnamon, committee, disappear, disappoint, dispel, dissatisfied, embarrass, equipped, erroneous, especially, exaggerate, harass, hemorrhage, irresistible, missionary, molasses, necessary, occasion, occur, occurred, offense, omitted, parallel, politically, possess, preferred, recess, recommend, remittance, repellent, scissors, squirrel, succeed, success, tariff, tenement, threshold, tobacco, vaccinate, villain, warrant, withhold.


i before e, except after c, or when rhyming with a as in neighbor and weigh.

ie: believe, chief, mischief, niece, siege, sieve

cei: ceiling, conceive, receipt, receive

a as in neighbor or weigh: reign, foreign, freight, heir

But: counterfeit, financier, leisure, seize, weird.

Plurals of nouns ending in o

mosquito/mosquitoes; tomato/tomatoes; potato/potatoes

But: Music—altos, pianos, sopranos, etc.

Doubling the final consonant preceded by a vowel with words of two or more syllables:

accented second syllable: prefer’/preferred; occur’/occurred; omit’/omitted; remit’/remitted; repel’/repellent; begin’/beginning; equip’/equipped; refer’/referred.

Accented first syllable: pref’erence; difference.

Doubling the final consonant with words of one syllable ending in a consonant and preceded by a vowel:

chop/chopped; drop/dropped; set/setting.


accidentally; especially; desperately; politically; separately; sincerely; usually.

But: true/truly; whole/wholly.

silent e

desire/ desirable; write/writing; hope/hoping; practice/practicing.

But: noticeable; changeable (to preserve the sounds of “notice” and “change”).

Other Spelling Problems

c/s confusion

consensus; expense; ;nuisance; offense; hypocrisy; defense; glacier; license; licorice.

Pronunciation. words often mispronounced or not pronounced the way they are spelled:

amateur, Antarctic, athletic, auxiliary, bargain, biscuit, buoyant, caterpillar, chamois, circuit, cocoa, comptroller, diphtheria, environment, familiar, February, formerly, gauge, government, handkerchief, height, hygiene, infinitesimal, larynx, league, library, literature, maneuver, minuscule, parliament, plaid, probably, raspberry, rendezvous, restaurant, villain, Wednesday, yolk.

-sede, -ceed, -cede words.

Only one word ends in –sede, supersede.

Only three words end in –ceed, proceed, succeed, exceed.

All other words ending in the sound are spelled –cede: recede, accede, intercede, etc.

Words Frequently Confused:

cereal/serial; colonel/kernel; compliment [praise]/ complement [complete]; stationary [stay in one place]/ stationery [paper]; principle [rule]/ principal [main or school principal].

Silent Letters

benign, consignment, debt, design, diaphragm, eighth, foreign, gingham, guarantee, guess, guest, hemorrhage, indict, khaki, malign, mortgage, pneumonia, pseudonym, psychology, ptomaine, receipt, rendezvous, rhythm, yolk.


mothers-in-law; passers-by; adjutants-general; attorneys-general; cupfuls; spoonfuls; glassfuls.

story/stories: If a word ends in y, preceded by a consonant, change the y to I and add –es.

valley/valleys, monkey/monkeys: If the word ends in –ey, just add s.


beautiful, careful, dutiful, spoonfuls, glassfuls, etc.

Final blog: Personal spelling demons, proofreading and summary.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Topic: Spelling, the Dreadful Ordeal (4)

10-second review: Selecting and introducing the words for spelling instruction.

Title: “In the Age of Computers, Is Spelling Still a Worthwhile Subject in the English Curriculum?” Raymond Stopper. Teaching English, How To…. Xlibris. 2004.

Selecting and Introducing the Words for Spelling Instruction

Usually, I would put the ten words for the week on the board without explanation. The words were all related because of the same problem in their spelling. Students then decided on what the spelling problem was and tried to formulate a generalization. We would also try to decide the best method for remembering how to spell them.

For example, suppose I listed the following words on the board: “accessory”; “accidentally”; “accommodate”; “accompany”; “accrue”; “address”; “apparent”; “attendance”; and “attorney.” Students would recognize that each word contains at least one double consonant. The best method for attacking this problem might be “over-pronunciation”: “ac-cess-ory.” The “or” would also be “over-pronounced” because it presents the problem of a vowel that could be almost any other vowel.

These ten words would be the only words for the week, and the students would have a test on these ten words every day of the week. Since, as the reader will note in the columns below, I have in reserve 54 words with the same problem, a different ten words, all representing the same spelling problem, would be used each week for the next 5 or 6 week.

I took my time to try to help students achieve mastery, not only of the words, but also of the spelling problem. By the way, marking the tests at night, even if all of my classes were involved with spelling instruction, required less than fifteen minutes. Almost all the tests were spelled correctly.

Sample Schedule of Spelling Instruction:

Spelling Problem: Double Consonants.

Week One: accessory, accidentally, accommodate, accompany, accrue, address, apparent, attendance, attorney, banana. (The last word, “banana” does not have a double consonant. Use the trouble spot method: “ba-NAN-a.” “NAN had a ba-NAN-a.”

Week Two: battalion, beginning, cinnamon, committee, disappear, disappoint, dispel, dissatisfied, embarrass, equipped.

Week Three: erroneous, especially, exaggerate, harass, hemorrhage, irresistible, missionary, molasses, necessary, occasion.

Week Four: occurred, offense, omitted, parallel, politically, possess, preferred, recess, recommend, remittance.

Week Five: repellent, scissors, squirrel, succeed, success, tariff, tenement, threshold, withhold, tobacco.

Week Six: vaccinate, villain, warrant, accessory, attorney, occasion, necessary, embarrass, recommend, occurred.

A good many of these words with double consonants also needed the trouble spot/association assistance to visualize troublesome parts of the words in addition to the double consonants. That was part of the fun of how to remember the words.

The following week, we would begin with a new examples of the spelling problem or a new spelling problem.

Next blog: Words Frequently Misspelled.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Topic: Spelling, the Dreadful Ordeal (3)

10-second review: Taking the pain out of spelling tests.

Title: “In the Age of Computers, Is Spelling Still a Worthwhile Subject in the English Curriculum?” Raymond Stopper. Teaching English, How To…. Xlibris. 2004.

Taking the Pain Out of Spelling Tests: Daily Success

I used another technique to take the pain out of learning to spell: Instead of just on Fridays, I gave the spelling test every day. Same words, or, at least, the same problem. After introducing the words on Monday, with emphasis on the particular spelling problem that they represented, I used the spelling test as the first thing the students did at the beginning of class each day. It always helps to have some activity right at the beginning of class to settle the students down, to put them right to work. Every day, the students came into class, received their spelling tests from the day before, noted their grades, which were almost always 100%, and waited expectantly to hear me dictate that day’s words.

The spelling problem was the same for the entire week. Sometimes the words were different but the problem was the same. Sometimes I gave the same words with the same problem every day with the intention that the students would achieve 100% every day. My goal was both mastery of those words and understanding the spelling problem. Since I emphasized the method for dealing with the spelling problem, the students almost always achieved 100% every day and that 100%, or whatever high average they achieved, was one part of their final grade. Even with review tests of words we had already covered, I gave the same ten words every day of the week. I guaranteed success.

A Complete Spelling Program for Secondary Schools

The trouble spot/association technique is a gimmick, of course, a gimmick that works. To be most useful, the technique needs to be part of a complete spelling program. Such a program consists of emphasis on (1) breaking down multi-syllable words; (2) studying words that are predictably misspelled; (3) learning spelling generalizations that work most of the time; (4) keeping lists of personal spelling demons; (5) providing instruction in proofreading; and (6) letting students take daily spelling tests that assure almost 100% success.

Next blog: Selecting and Introducing the Words for Spelling Instruction

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Topic: Spelling, the Dreadful Ordeal (2)

Topic: Spelling the Dreadful Ordeal (2)

10-second review: Taking the pain out of spelling.

Title: “In the Age of Computers, Is Spelling Still a Worthwhile Subject in the English Curriculum?” Raymond Stopper. Teaching English, How To…. Xlibris. 2004.

Harry Shefter, Spelling Trouble Spots, and Silly Associations.

Mr. Shefter, a professor at New York University in the 1950s wrote a book entitled Six Minutes a Day to Perfect Spelling. In it he points out that we don’t misspell entire words, only parts of words, usually words containing the indefinite vowel, or schwa, words like “secretary,” which we pronounce “sec ra tary.” We can’t tell from our pronunciation whether the vowel in “secretary” is a, e, i, o, or u. Mr. Shefter, however, makes sure we can visualize what he calls the “trouble spot” in the word by enlarging the part of the word likely to be misspelled—SECRETary—and making up a silly association, “A SECRETary should be able to keep a SECRET,” so that we don’t forget how to spell the part of the word likely to be misspelled.

Another example: the word, “cemetery.” Ask ten people to spell “cemetery,” and I’ll bet that half of them will spell it with an “a.” Mr. Shefter enlarges the trouble spot, the three e’s: cEmEtEry. Next he tries to make an association with the trouble spot in a silly sentence: “ ‘EEE!’ she screamed as she passed the cEmEtEry.”

Another example. People who misspell “argument” will do so as “arguement.” They don’t drop the “e” from “argue” before adding “—ment.” Mr. Shefter enlarges the trouble spot: arGUMent. His silly sentence association? “Never chew GUM in an arGUMent.”

This technique works in spite of the opinion of professional educators who say that no research evidence supports its effectiveness. It worked for my students and it works for me. For example, I never misspell “believe” or “receive” any more because I visualize the word “LIE” in the sentence, “Never beLIEve a LIE.” And I remember that reCEIve is the opposite of beLIEve.

My wife, a first grade teacher, used to help her young readers distinguish between “went” and “want” with these two associations that the kids loved: “I wANT an ANT for breakfast.” “WE WEnt to the zoo.”

I won’t give away any more of Mr. Shefter’s mnemonic devices. You’ll need to buy his book. It’s available on But here are some more frequently misspelled words for which he provides never-to-be-forgotten clues:

Principal, principle, vinegar, sacrilegious, judgment, bargain, grammar, privilege, parallel, tragedy, existence, obedient, minuscule, stationery, stationary, villain, separate.

One June, a graduating high school senior approached me with, “Mr. S., you taught me something I’ll never forget.” Naturally, I expected him to tell me about some piece of wisdom I had let drop in class that had changed his life forever. That piece of wisdom turned out to be, “Never chew gum in an argument.” So much for teacherly pride. But he supports my point that this technique can help students remember hard-to-spell words.

I tell my students that if they repeatedly misspell a word, they should note the place in the word where they are likely to misspell it—if they spell “leisure” as “leasure,” for example, they should enlarge this “trouble spot: leISure; and they should try to find an association—“Playtime IS leISure.” They will be helping themselves visualize the correct spelling.

One evening a science teacher dared me to spell “phenolphthalein.” He wrote it out for me and then took it away. In the instant I was able to look at his spelling of the word, I could see where I was uncertain of the spelling: phenOLphthalEIN. I was able to spell it for him because of the enlarged letters I visualized as the trouble spots, and later, I developed my association for it: “PhenOLphthalEIN was a chemical used by OL’ EINstEIN.” I know how to spell EINstEIN and I associate Einstein with science. The fact that he was a physicist and not a chemist doesn’t really matter. Visualizing the “ol” and the “ein” helped me spell the word correctly ever after. I can still do it.

You see, in most words the spelling is regular and can be sounded out. But in troublesome words, while most of the word is regular and can be sounded out, one or two places in the word cause the problem. Mentally blowing up the trouble spot and creating a sentence association will help visualize the correct spelling.

Next blog: Taking the Pain Out of Spelling Tests.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Topic: Spelling--The Dreadful Ordeal (1)

10-second review: The effects of spelling on people’s writing.

Title: “In the Age of Computers, Is Spelling Still a Worthwhile Subject in the English Curriculum?” Raymond Stopper. Teaching English, How To…. Xlibris. 2004.

Concern for Spelling Is a Constraint on Writing.

“I’ll never use a word [in writing ] I don’t know how to spell,” the Syracuse University junior stated candidly.

“Bad idea,” I responded. “Your vocabulary will be slim to none. You won’t be able to deliver your ideas with flair. You won’t use that rich vocabulary you’ve developed over the years. Your sentences could sound like those in the Dick and Jane Readers.”

Spelling Is a Significant Problem.

Economics may be the “dismal science,” but spelling is, for many students, a dreadful ordeal. Criticism of spelling hurts. Misspellings on résumés can cause people to be passed over for interviews. The typical spelling lesson in school is a bore. Most spelling texts emphasize sounding out words when poor spellers really need to learn how to visualize the spelling of troublesome words.

One solution to the problem of spelling is to use “invented” spelling, guessing at the spelling of words while writing, without interrupting your train of thought, and then checking and correcting them as the last step in the editing stage of the writing process.

Another solution is to learn how to spell frequently used words that are likely to be misspelled.

Finally, part of the solution to spelling problems is already solved by computerized spelling checkers. In this chapter, I present methods for making spelling instruction not only painless, but interesting, and suggest a complete spelling program—for those who live in the era of the computerized spelling checker.

Computerized Spelling Checkers

Today, spelling checkers, especially the ones that instantly signal via a wavy red line that a word is misspelled [technically, that the word as it is spelled is not recognized by the word processing program’s dictionary of words], even making the correction without the writer’s conscious awareness, have made the problem of spelling less important to people of common sense. Especially to people who know that spelling is a “mop-up” function in the writing process, that which they correct after they have organized their ideas, chosen their words, and arranged their paragraphs to deliver the message.

Criticism of Spelling Hurts.

But who has not had the experience of working hard to produce a piece of writing, only to have a reader say, ignoring ideas, reasoning, logic, and choice of words, “You’ve got a misspelled word here,” and that is the only comment made about the entire paper?

And who has not been penalized by teachers for misspelling words in essay tests when it’s a struggle just to write all of the ideas down in the limited time available?

And who hasn’t suffered the mortification of defeat in spelling bees?

Misspellings seem to suggest that the writer does not care about details, is lazy and even uneducated.

Economics may be the dismal science, but spelling is a dreadful ordeal for those who have difficulty with it.

Spelling in the School Curriculum: Booooring!

The study of spelling in school is boring. Typical lesson plan: Memorize a list of words. Use each word in a sentence. Write each word ten times. Take the test on Friday. Ugh! Sometimes the words in the spelling book are arranged according to spelling problems. That method of organizing words for study makes some sense.

Next blog: Taking the Pain Out of Spelling.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Topic: Spelling

10-second review: A successful educator tells about the anxiety he experienced when taking spelling tests in which he rarely succeeded: fear, anxiety and humiliation.

Title: “A Letter.” Mark Levensky. Elementary English (No date), pp. 83-84. Elementary English preceded the NCTE’s present elementary school publication, Language Arts.

Summary/Quotes: “At the time my teachers tried to help me. They told me what I had to do in order to improve: ‘Print the words over and over again. Spell a word to yourself with your eyes closed and then open your eyes to check if you are right. Spell the words for your parents before bed. Go over them again and again right before the test.’ My teachers also said that unless I learned to spell I would never get into high school, or out of high school, or into college, or out of college. And the last thing that they always told me was that I couldn’t spell.”

“What I want to say to you teachers now is this. I couldn’t spell very well then, and I still can’t. I got into high school, and out of high school, and into college, and out of college. While my teachers at Perkins didn’t teach me to spell, they did manage to have an effect on me. For example, this morning, twenty-five years later, I woke up and remembered their spelling tests, and experienced the fear, anxiety and humiliation that I felt when I prepared for these tests, took them, and got them back.”

Comment: People who can’t spell are as terrified of the task as are people who are uncomfortable in making a formal speech.

I’m a good speller, unlike Mr. Levensky in the preceding letter to his former teachers. If I see a word, I can spell it. Challenged by a science teacher one evening at dinner, I glanced once at his word, “phenolphthalein” and wrote it correctly and never forgot it.

That’s one point I want to make: spelling is primarily a phonological skill, that is, you can sound out most parts of most words, but for words that are difficult to spell, spelling requires a visual skill. In my next several blogs, I am going to tell you how to teach spelling as a visual skill. I will reproduce my chapter on spelling, “the dreadful ordeal,” from my book Teaching English, How To…. Xlibris, 2004. I want to show you how to make spelling fun and rewarding with the help of Harry Shefter and his book, Six Minutes a Day to Perfect Spelling. RayS.