Word Families and Spelling

In my last post, I wrote about some of the reasons English spelling is so weird. Interesting, sure, but what do we actually do to help children learn to spell?

People learn things that are relevant to them. You’ve all watched your children’s amazing capacity to retain information about Legos or horse breeds or ancient Babylonian weaponry, or whatever their fascinations happen to be. To help them apply that capacity towards spelling, their spelling words should be meaningful to them.

Pulling spelling words out of their own writing is one great way to do this. In my classes, I encourage students not to worry about spelling in their first draft. Then we do a revision and look at the spelling issues they are having. By then, the words they don’t know have become interesting to them, because they are problems that they have already tried to solve. This doesn’t mean they instantly can spell them, but their brains are primed to learn.

Word families are another way to make spelling meaningful. By looking at words in groups, they start to be a part of a pattern instead of random pieces of information.

In my class, we do two kinds of word families: spelling families and word roots. We might look at words that have “tion” or silent e’s in them or when to double the consonant when adding an “ing.” We might look at all the words with “tele” in them — teleport, telephone, telekinesis etc. — or the Latin root fluctus/fluere, or how most “sk” words came from Scandinavian languages (Vikings!).

People usually think of word roots as a way to build vocabulary, which they are, but they can also help with spelling. Many of the weird things about English spelling make much more sense when you know the root words, partly because there was a fad around when spelling was homogenizing to spell English words in ways that reflected their origins rather than following English spelling rules.

For instance, it doesn’t make any sense phonetically for “sign” to be spelled with that g instead of a silent e like “mine” and “fine” and all the rest of them. But it makes a lot of sense for “sign” to be spelled like “signal” and “signature,” two words from the same root that have pronounced g’s. Similarly, the spelling of “special” is pretty absurd unless you know it’s connected to “species.”

Spelling also takes a lot of practice. Repetition, both writing and reading the words, is essential. But practicing spelling words in groups that make sense together helps too.

David Crystal, whose work on spelling I’ve been reading, says that one grouping that does not make sense is trying to learn homophones together. He suggests teaching the more common word first, and bringing in the other words later. I had never thought about this, but I’m struck by how, while I have to think to get “its” and “it’s” right, I never mix up “carrot” and “karat” or “sign” and “sine.” I think he’s onto something.

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