The following is Chapter 15 from my book, Teaching English, How To…. (Xlibris, 2004).
Question: In the age of computers, is spelling still a worthwhile subject in the English curriculum?
Answer: A complete spelling program aims at building confidence in spelling and includes teaching students how to spell words predictably misspelled, how to solve specific spelling problems, how to visualize correct spelling and how to proofread for spelling.
What Do Most Spelling Texts Fail to Emphasize?
I’ve learned that spelling books do not deal with the real problem in spelling. They tend to emphasize sounding out words as the key to correct spelling. While many syllables can be sounded out, the difficulty experienced by most people who have a problem in spelling is not the inability to sound out words, but the inability to visualize their correct spelling.
That’s where Harry Shefter comes in.
Taking the Pain Out of Spelling I: 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 that can’t be sounded out, usually words containing the indefinite vowel, 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 makes an association with 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” anymore because I visualize the trouble spot “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 spellers distinguish between “went” and “want” with these two associations that the kids loved: “I wANT and ANT for breakfast.” “WE WEnt to the zoo.”
You will find many more examples of trouble spots and associations in Shefter’s book, Six Minutes a Day to Perfect Spelling, a volume that can still be found on Amazon.com.
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. That piece of wisdom turned out to be, “Never chew gum in an argument.” So much for teacherly pride. But he supported 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.
I also tell my students that to be most effective, the association should be theirs. For example, here’s my association for the word “phenolphthalein”:
“PhenOLphthalEIN was a chemical used by OL’ EINstEIN.”
Now I know that Einstein was a physicist and that he probably never dealt with phenolphthalein in his lifetime, but I associate Einstein with science. Visualizing the “ol” and the “ein” helps me spell the word correctly.
Remember that most syllables can be sounded out. But if they can’t, then try Mr. Shefter’s technique of enlarging the trouble spot and adding a silly association to help visualize the spelling. And see his book, Six Minutes a Day… for more examples of words that are likely to be misspelled..
Note: I’m aware that with a word processor, students can use “auto correct” to automatically spell troublesome words correctly. However, students will not always be using the same computer on which they have recorded the correction and, as with the SAT writing sample, they will have to use handwriting in many situations.
Next Blog: Taking the Pain Out of Spelling II: Daily Success.