Righting the Wrongs in Spelling

The headline, “Retractions:  Righting the wrongs of science”, caught my eye the other day.  But it was the byline, “False findings must be acknowledged and ‘corrected’ to keep science credible”, that made me stop and want to read more.  I was looking at a digital publication of Science News for Students that I receive once a week.  The article was written by Stephen Ornes.  The article focused on scientific research findings that had been published, but then needed to be retracted because they were found to be false.  I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the science of spelling.

How many of us as young students were convinced through our own personal frustrations that spelling doesn’t make sense?  Letters seemed to be dropped, doubled or added without rhyme or reason.  Teachers labeled frequently misspelled words as oddball, tricky or difficult and posted them on a wall.  Many teachers still do.  When did we lose the desire to truly understand why words are spelled the way they are?  When did we give up hope that we ever could?  When did we stop questioning gimmicky things told to us that weren’t logical?

For a few generations now, the idea that spelling is all about the sounds that words make has persisted.  But where is the research to back that up?  Any of us could make a huge collection of words that would disprove that idea.  The list would no doubt include words like does, come, goes, really, science, accent, piano, group, again and cell.  And yet we have become complacent and have accepted that illogical idea.  What if it’s time to teach our students to conduct research regarding words instead of asking them to memorize a word’s spelling.  What if it’s time to say, “What I mean when I say that a word has a tricky spelling is that I don’t personally understand that spelling.”  There should be no shame in that.  There should only be a challenge.  But have we been prepared for such a challenge?

Another persistent notion that I would like to question is the idea that spelling plays a minor role in reading and a major role in writing.  Obviously many people can read words that they wouldn’t necessarily be able to spell in isolation, but delving into the a word’s history and meaning over time brings such a huge sense of that word to light.  And when we identify a word with images and feelings we bring a richness to the context of the thing we are reading.  If students had a solid understanding of word structure and a journal type record of previously proven affixes and bases, they would be able to make sense of some of the morphemes and use that knowledge in conjunction with the context in which the word is used to figure out its meaning.

In his article, Ornes says, “Acknowledging mistakes helps science move forward,” and “They (retractions) remove false findings that pollute the pool of scientific knowledge.”  The more I find out about words – their etymology, morphology, and phonology, the more I am convinced that it is time to make a major retraction!  False claims about spelling are wide spread and deeply embedded in the instruction students receive and even the newest materials they work with.

But can spelling be treated as a science?  Why not?  Why not propose the spelling of a word in much the same way a scientist would propose a hypothesis.  At first it is an educated guess based on what the speller understands about morphemes and the meaning of the word.  The speller then looks at related words and digs into the history of the word.  The speller finds out all he can about the word in order to better formulate remaining questions.  Finally, the speller shares his findings which are based on his research.  He gives his initial hypothesis a second look and decides whether or not to make changes.

I believe that false claims in spelling have indeed polluted the pool of spelling knowledge.  For example, students that come into my fifth grade classroom have a very shallow idea of what affixes are.  When asked to find words with an <-ing> suffix, they list bring and ring.  When asked for a word with an <-ly> suffix, the words golly and dolly come up.  When asked for the suffix in the word <action>, they struggle between choosing <-tion> and <-ion>.  They struggle because they have had such an overabundance of instruction on breaking words into syllables and such an underabundance of instruction on dividing words into morphemes.  With words like luckier, happier, and jumpier, the same students identify the suffix as <-ier>, clearly not understanding that a word can have more than one suffix.  Clearly not understanding a word’s structure.

Why spend valuable time on the old “I before E” rule when we all know there are a ton of exceptions.  Or “the first vowel does the talking, the second one does the walking”  rule when, if you really picture that, you’ll find it can be very confusing.  Why such a primary focus on pronunciation when it has never been the logical reason for a specific spelling?  Why have we given children lists of words and asked them to memorize the spellings while giving little attention to the word’s meaning?

Recently I contacted a company that creates word workbooks for schools.  I told them that I was concerned about some of the activities required of the students.  I sent them a link to a video that my students made which provides evidence that <-tion> and <-sion> are not suffixes, but rather syllables.  They were very polite, but also very uninterested.  They said they were following the Common Core, and until the Common Core changed, they would not change.  It was then I realized it will be hard to retract false spelling ideas when some very popular and respected publishers don’t recognize the falseness.  As an educator, I hear often that the companies putting out the basal reading programs are research based.  But I have to wonder.  If my fifth graders can disprove some of what the publisher has included in the workbooks, what exactly has been researched?  It simply can’t be the word work/spelling content.  Certainly spelling is not the “main event” in a reading basal, but if that spelling component has not been researched, I wonder what has?  Perhaps the research concerns the overall success of the program and not the specific truth of the components.

So do we really need to retract the spelling ideas that have been clung to for so long?  Absolutely!  We cannot wait for the textbook and workbook publishers to lead the way.  Fanelli, a scientist mentioned in the article that stirred this reaction in me, states, “They (retractions) allow the truth to emerge”.  It is time.  In practically every other subject, a student can expect to be asked to explain how they know what they know or why they think what they think.  It’s time to add spelling to that list.  Let’s demonstrate to students our desire to be researchers, not answer seekers.  Let’s show them we are not afraid to say I don’t know.  Let’s train ourselves and our students to follow the principles of science as we seek to understand spelling.  All of the falseness will fall away on its own, and the truth will indeed emerge!

Explain How You Know It’s a Suffix!

The last few days the students have been working in pairs and trying to find and prove as many suffixes as they can.  I love this activity because over and over they are asked to explain their choices and elaborate on their thinking.  It sets the tone for the rest of the year.  I want them to experience that personal pride in being able to explain and defend one’s choices.  By doing so we deepen our thinking and weave each day’s investigations into a larger understanding of our language.

In this first film, Tyler is testing out the process he will become proficient at this year.  At first he is hesitant to come right out and make a choice.   I got the feeling he was fishing – waiting for me to tell him whether he was right or wrong.   But as I asked him questions and put the decision making back on him, I could feel him letting go of the notion that his answer must first and foremost be correct.  He began to see that logic and reasoning would help him make sense of whether the suffix in <adoption> was <-tion> or <-ion>.

The next student in this film is Ilsa.  She is playing around with structure.  She understands how the building blocks work and fit together.  Her word choices give us opportunity to be playful with words, and yet see the need to communicate meaning as well as structure.

In the next film Amanda is revealing what she understands about word structure.  In the word <daddy>, she knew that when removing the <-y> suffix, the base would not be <dadd>, but <dad>.  She also knew that in the word <user>, the suffix was an <-er>, and that the final <e> in the base <use> would not remain in place once the suffix was added.   The only things she was iffy on were the reasons why.

Hanna also understands that letters sometimes get doubled before a vowel, but she doesn’t sound too sure of when or why.  Calli is recognizing similarities in the words she found:  <graduation>, <innovation> and <irritation>.  At first she thought they each had a <-tion> suffix.  But when she actually went through the process of imagining the word without the final suffix, she realized the <t> had to be part of the base and not part of the suffix.  Kaitlyn proved that <-ive> was a suffix with the word <creative>.

As I walked around, I did mention that some of the words being looked at might have a prefix or another suffix besides the base.  The students nodded as if they understood that.  But then one of the suffixes that at least two groups identified was <-ier>.  They did not recognize that in the word <happier>, there are actually two suffixes.   In the weeks to come I will make sure they learn to investigate words to be more precise when identifying the base.  We have already created several large matrices on the board in which the students saw that a word could have several suffixes.  But today’s task was to focus on proving a final suffix and to be able to share our reasoning for our choices.

You Say Spelling Makes Sense? Show Me.

A new group of fifth graders.
A promise to prove that that spelling makes sense.
Skeptical looks.
An introduction to the matrix.
Smiles and head-nods.
The evidence begins stacking up.

Our mission today was to build a matrix using the base word <hope>.  I began by asking students to suggest words built from that base.  Here is the list we ended up with.


Next I moved to a clear area of the board and wrote the base word.  I spelled it out loud as I wrote it.  I told the students that when working with words on a matrix or in a word sum, we always spell out the base and the affixes.  The look on their faces told me they needed to know why.

I moved to the side and wrote the base <sign> on the board.  I said, “This is a free base.  It is a word by itself.  It does not need an affix to be a word.  If it is used all by itself, how is it pronounced?”  The students read it as you might expect – /saɪn/.  Then I wrote the following word sum:  <sign> + <al>  –> signal.   I said, “Look carefully at what I did.  I added a suffix to the base <sign> and the pronunciation of the base changed!  In the word <sign>, the <g> represents no sound at all.  In the word <signal>, the <g> represents /g/.  Now look what happens when I add the prefix <de> to the same base.”  I wrote the word sum <de> + <sign> and asked someone to tell me what word we just made.  The students now had a look of understanding on their faces when they read the word <design>.  The pronounced /s/ in <sign> was now a pronounced /z/.  Three words.  Three different pronunciations of the base.  No change to the spelling of the base.  We must spell out morphemes until our word is finished.  Then we can look at pronunciation.

Now I went back to building our matrix.  I asked for suffixes that could be added directly to our base.  Students suggested <-ed>, <-ing>, <-ful>, <-s>, and <-less>.  I arranged them in a column since they could all be added directly to the base.


On the matrix you can see that I drew a vertical line to separate <-ful> and <-less> from <-ness> and <-ly>.  That is to show that <-ness> and <-ly> would never be added to the base directly.  They would only be added to the suffixes <-ful> and <-less>.  In this way we can make the words <hopeful>, <hopefulness>, <hopefully>, <hopeless>, <hopelessness> and <hopelessly>.  The horizontal line is drawn separating <-ed>, <-s> and <-ing> from <-ful> and <-less> because the suffixes <-ness> and <-ly> cannot be added to the top three suffixes.

Next it was time to talk about writing word sums.  What you see below would be read as, “h – o – p – e   plus   e – d   is rewritten as   (check the joins) … [at this point the student pauses and checks the places where the two morphemes, in this case a base and a suffix, are being joined.  Because we are adding a vowel suffix, the <e> in <-ed> will replace the final <e> in the base.  The final <e> in the base then gets crossed out and the reading out loud continues.]  … h – o – p –  (no   e)  –  ed.”  It’s important to say “no <e>” because in doing so we are acknowledging that the final <e> on the base is being replaced. The student realizes it is part of the base, and when deconstructing the word <hoped>, that final <e> needs to resurface.


The plot thickens and so does the understanding.

Next I posed this question to the students.  “Why is there only one <l> in <hopefulness> and two in <hopefully>?


There was no hesitation.  Using the matrix, the students easily explained that there was one <l> in the suffix <-ful> and one <l> in the next suffix <-ly>.


I used this opportunity to ask if anyone ever had to ask themselves if a specific word had one <l> or two.  Many hands went up.  We talked about the difference between the free base word <full> and the suffix <-ful>.  I asked someone to tell me if <really> had one <l> or two.  I said, “This is how you will always know.  Simply ask yourself what the base is.  Then ask yourself what the suffix is.  As you get more and more familiar with suffixes, you will see how they are used over and over with many different bases.  And you will begin to realize that unfamiliar words are often made up of familiar parts.  So far, you’ve been taught to listen to what words sound like.  Now we’re going to add to that and learn to see what words are made of.”


As a final piece I wrote the word <doeing> on the board, pointing out that this was how one of the students had spelled this word yesterday.  I asked, “Why is it logical that this student inserted an <e> into this word?”  The students recognized that there is an <e> in the related word <does>.  I asked for the base of this word and together we built a matrix.  With this example I was again able to reiterate what I had said earlier.  “You don’t ever have to wonder how to spell <doing> again.  Think of what the base is and what the suffix you are adding is.  We don’t randomly add letters and we don’t randomly drop them.”