We were in the computer lab the other day, and I was looking over a student’s poem before it was to be printed. She had incorrectly spelled the word <very> as <vary>. I told her that <vary> is something the temperature has been doing lately. I said, “It’s not consistent. It varies from day to day.” She shook her head and said, ” Ah. I see. It means changing. I used the wrong word.” When I asked her how to spell the word she really wanted, she spelled <very>, but with hesitation as she thought about which vowel to use. She wanted to use <a> because that is the sound she was hearing herself say, but she knew that wasn’t right. She settled on <e>.
It’s hard to fault our students who are using the strategies we give them: “Sound it out. If that doesn’t work, just plain memorize the spelling.”
Back in class I decided to talk about the word vary with the whole class. I said, ” If I asked you to spell the word <very>, how would you do it? Both spellings were suggested. That led to a discussion of the word homophone and its meaning.
Then we went back to the two words <very> and <vary>. I asked for a definition of each. Students used them in sentences. They defined <very> as an adverb meaning extremely. They defined <vary> as changing. Next I asked for relatives. For the word <vary>, students suggested <variety>, <variable>, and <various>. We talked about what each means and how each might be used. Then I asked for the spelling of <varying>. Maya began with <v> <a> <r> … but then paused. I knew she was questioning whether the next letter would be <y> or if that <y> would switch to an <i>. I was giving her some think time when Ryan jumped in and said rather enthusiastically, ” English words don’t have two i’s in a row! The <y> needs to stay a <y>! Just as I was smiling and about to say, ” So glad you remembered that!”, Logan raised this question. “What about the word <skiing>? (It seems that everything we look at in orthography leads to something else equally interesting!)
Ryan is correct in thinking that in complete English words there are never two i’s. When we see such a spelling, we know the word <ski> is a loan word from another language. Loan words don’t behave the way English words do.
I wanted to visit the spelling of <skiing> a bit further so I wrote the word <skiing> on the board. Right next to it I wrote <skying> and next to that I wrote <sking>. I asked for the base of each spelling. That helped us rule out <sking>. Looking at <skiing> the students saw <ski> + <ing> and looking at <skying> the students saw <sky> + <ing>. We couldn’t make sense of the word <skying> and realized that in the word <skiing> there isn’t a double <i>. There is an <i> in the final position of the base, and there is an <i> in the initial position of the suffix. It reminds me of the word <really>. There isn’t a double <l> here either. One <l> is the final consonant of the base, and the other is the first letter of the suffix. Thinking about words in this way (as word sums) helps with spelling because as you are spelling you are thinking of the word sum and how the morphemes go together rather than a memorized letter order.
Now we headed back to our original query. We tried adding a few more suffixes on to <vary> and talked about the suffixing rules before turning our attention to <very>. “What are its relatives?” I asked. We couldn’t think of any. We decided that <very> with an <e> is very limited in the number of relatives it has, whereas <vary> with an <a> has a variety of relatives! We also noticed that <very> is an adverb and only once in a while an adjective. The word <vary> however can be various parts of speech, including noun, verb, and adjective depending on the suffix used.
A simple misspelling led to such a rich discussion! Awesome!