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.

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