“Please don’t judge me on my looks!”

Have you ever written a word spelled two different ways on the side of your paper, and then tried to decide which one looked right?  Of course you have.  Lots of people do it every day.  When we decide whether or not it looks right, what are we basing that decision on?  Well, we are trying to remember what the word looked like the last time we wrote it down, or what it looked like when we first memorized its spelling.  But you have to wonder this:  if we already memorized its spelling, why are we still unsure?  Should we blame our memory?  Our memorizing strategies?

How about rethinking the way we teach spelling?  Typically, students are given a list of “related words” to study.  I used quotes because the relationship among the words is usually based on similarly pronounced vowels and is unreliable at best.  For years I taught spelling in this way.  Our textbook listed the pattern of the week as (let’s say) long /e/.  The students would help me brainstorm all the letter patterns that might be used in words to achieve the long /e/.  We thought of <ee> as in feet, <ea> as in read, <ei> as in receive, <ie> as in field, <e> as in scene, and <ui> as in suite.  But at the end of the day, how was that helpful?  The task of memorizing the words wasn’t easier.  It was now up to the students to memorize which word contained which letter combination.  I was not able to explain why a specific letter sequence was used in a specific word.  When you really think about it, I wasn’t teaching anything that was helpful because I wasn’t giving them any understanding about how our language works.  Currently, many schools have students sort words into piles so that they see the words over and over which will supposedly help the student remember the spelling when the student uses the word.  See?  Students are still being taught to judge a spelling by its looks.

What if we didn’t pick a false spelling pattern to focus on for the week?  What if we picked a base instead?  What if the list of words our students worked on for the week were words that were really and truly related?  In order for two words to be related, they need to share an ancestor (etymon).  And when they share an ancestor, they will also share meaning (denotation).

For example, last week I decided to focus on the bound base <fer>.  Its ancestor is the Latin verb ferre, “to bring, to bear”.  All of the present day English words that share this bound base will share its meaning as well.  The addition of prefixes and suffixes will affect how we think of the denotation “to bring or to bear”.

I wrote the bound base on the board along with its Latin root and denotation.  Then I wrote the word ‘conference’.  I asked students to tell me what they hypothesized the word sum to be?  The fact that I already had the base of this word on the board, helped them focus on the affixes.  Someone suggested <con> + <fer> + <ence>.   We talked about the prefix <con> and that in this word it brings a sense of ‘together’.  A conference is the bringing of people together to talk to and to listen to each other.  I also pointed out that this same prefix can sometimes be an intensifier.  In the word ‘confidence’ for example, the <con> prefix brings a sense of intensely trusting (the bound base <fide> from Latin fidere “to trust”).  I was also able to discuss the idea of assimilated prefixes, and that depending on the letter following the prefix, the prefix <con> might also be spelled <com> (complete) or <co> (costar).  The suffix <ence> gives us some grammatical information. It indicates that this word is a noun.

So what have my students just learned about this word?

1)   They have learned that this word (like all words) has a structure.  It is the structure that is reliable in helping spell the words we use daily.  It is the structure that reveals the meaning of the word and the language of origin (which helps us understand many things about spelling).

2)  They have learned that a prefix is found before the base.  Sometimes prefixes have assimilated, and if we recognize the variation in spelling among these prefixes, we will recognize that those variations represent one prefix, not many.

3)  They have learned that a prefix doesn’t have a denotation in the same way that a base does.  A prefix can sometimes simply intensify the base’s meaning.

4)  They have learned that a suffix can give grammatical information.

The next word I wrote on the board was ‘different’.  Again I asked for someone to hypothesize a word sum.  Someone suggested <dif> + <fer> + <ent>.  The prefix <dif> is another example of an assimilated prefix.  Depending on the first letter of the morpheme that follows the prefix, it might also be spelled <dis> as in dismiss or <di> as in digest.  In the word ‘different’, the prefix brings a sense of “apart from”.   So when something is different, it is carried apart from the rest.  The suffix <ent> is used with both adjectives and nouns.  With the word ‘different’, the students agreed that <ent> indicated an adjective, but with the word ‘student’ it would indicate a noun.  They made these decisions by thinking of how they would use these words in a sentence.

The next word I wrote on the board was ‘suffer’.  When I asked for a word sum hypothesis, most all students were now confident enough to raise their hands.  Someone suggested <suf> + <fer>.  Once again I had the opportunity to talk about assimilated prefixes.  This suffix can also be spelled <sug> as in suggest, <sub> as in subtract  and <suc> as in succeed.  It can bring a sense of under, beneath, behind, a little, and close to (as well as other things depending on the base it is paired with).  The word ‘suffer’ has to do with bearing either pain, punishment, or some kind of judgement.  The suffix brings a sense of under.  It is thought that when we suffer, we bear the pain under our hearts.  It’s why we say our chest hurts when we have emotional pain.

In order to help the students understand why prefixes have assimilated to these various spellings, I show them what this word would look like if the <sub> spelling were used.  I write ‘subfer’ on the board.  Then I ask them to say the word.  Then I ask them to say it five times.  What always happens is that they end up saying ‘suffer’.  The final <b> in the prefix assimilated to an <f> because the first letter of the next morpheme is an <f>.  Then we looked back at the previous two words to see that the final <s> in <dis> also assimilated to an <f> because the bound base <fer> begins with an <f>.  And this observation led to the important distinction that the word ‘different’ has two <f>’s because one is part of the prefix and one is part of the base.  The students won’t have to try to remember whether there is one <f> or two if they understand the structure.

The next word on the board was ‘offer’.  Someone suggested that the word sum would be <of> + <fer>.  At this point the students are catching on that the base in the words I am using is constant and what changes are the affixes.  Again we have the opportunity to talk about the prefix <of> and how it is an assimilated form of <ob>.  We go back to the word ‘suffer’ and remind ourselves that the prefix <sub> had a final <b> as well that assimilated to an <f> when paired with this base.  It is also a great opportunity to point out the difference between the prefix <of> and the preposition ‘of ‘.  Finally, I pointed out that the prefix <of> brings a sense of to or toward to the base.  When something is offered, it is brought forward.

At this point I asked for questions or reflective comments.  The students felt that this was pretty straight forward.  They understood and thought the idea of assimilated prefixes was interesting, even if they weren’t totally solid on recognizing them yet.

I was ready to point out the reason I picked this base in the first place!  I drew their attention back to the words ‘conference’ and ‘different’.  We all read both words aloud.  Then I shared that these two words get misspelled often by people.  I wondered if they could pinpoint what the misspelling might be.  One person suggested that ‘different’ might only have one <f>.  Again I was able to reiterate how important it is to understand the structure of a word.  If you know the prefix, base and suffix of this word, spelling is less stressful.  It is simply spelling out the morphemes and considering any suffixing conventions that might apply.

The next suggested misspelling is the one I see most often, and the one I was hoping to highlight.  A student pointed out that the <e> in the base <fer> gets left out.  Exactly! We were able to talk about pronunciation differences between the word confer and conference, and how as speakers of the language we tend to say *confrence rather than conference.  The <e> is so unstressed in this word (AND in the word different) that it’s as if it isn’t there!  This is one reason (one big reason) students should be taught to spell words using morphemes rather than pronunciation!  The spelling of the base does not change, even when the pronunciation (as affixes are joined to the base) does!

The following day I asked them to take out a piece of paper.  I read some these words, and also a few others that share the <fer> base.  My expectation is that they would write down the word sum as such:

con + fer + ence –>  conference

I read the following 7 words, along with a definition for each that tied the meaning back to the base <fer>.  I also used the word in a sentence:


After the students had written these on their paper in this fashion, I asked for volunteers to write the word sums on the board.  We had a lovely discussion about ‘conifer’.  Some recognized it would be a compound word with an <i> connecting vowel, but none recognized that the first base would be <cone> and not <con>.  I pointed out that conifer means cone bearing, so the <con> we see has a final <e>. It was replaced by the connecting vowel <i> when the two morphemes joined.  I also pointed out that even though the prefix <con> in ‘conference’ is pronounced the same as the base <con> in ‘conifer’, it doesn’t mean they are the same morpheme with the same function!  As word scientists, it is our responsibility to provide evidence to support our hypotheses.  **Yet another reason to break away from judging a word’s spelling by its looks alone!

With the word ‘circumference’ we were able to talk about writing <circum> and calling it a stem if we were unsure whether or not it could be further analyzed.  Sometimes it is better to do just that rather than going with an unsubstantiated idea.  Then we listed words like circus, circle, and circulation.  We felt that <circ> might be a base here, but we definitely needed further research.  The point I was trying to make with the students here is that they shouldn’t leap to conclusions.  Evidence collecting and reference checking is a must.

The last convention that presented itself was the convention of doubling the final consonant when adding a vowel suffix.  We had the words ‘offered’ and ‘suffering’ on the board already.  So beneath the word ‘prefer’ I wrote ‘preferred’, and asked if anyone had thoughts about why the final <r> would be doubled in this word when it wasn’t when vowel suffixes were added to ‘offer’ and ‘suffer’.  There wasn’t a single student all day who had an idea about this one.  Time to talk about syllable stress!

We read all three words aloud.  A few recognized which carried the stress, but not all.  I decided to switch the focus to ‘begin’ and ‘open’, thinking these are more commonly used by my students.  We pretended we were calling both words to dinner.  “Be -giiinnn!  Oooo-pen!”  It became a bit more obvious which syllable carried the stress in each word.  Knowing where the stress is becomes important when applying the  suffixing convention regarding consonant doubling.  If the stress is on the second syllable (in a two syllable word), then the final consonant is forced to double before a vowel suffix.  If the stress is on the first syllable, then the final consonant is not doubled before a vowel suffix.  So ‘begin’ becomes ‘beginning’ and ‘open’ becomes ‘opening’.

Back to ‘preferred’.  The students could now identifying that the stress was on the second syllable which forced the final <r> on the base to double, whereas in ‘suffering’ and ‘offered’, the stress was on the first syllable in each word.  As a final question to the class I wrote:

garden + ing –>

Will the final spelling reflect one <n> or two?  Confident replies of  “One!” quickly came back at me!

How in the world can we compare the benefits of empty memorization to a true understanding of spelling?  The things my students have learned in these two days will show up as they read aloud and alone.  They will show up in their writing.  They will show up in discussions.  For now the students see a relationship between these words that has to do with their present day base and the shared nugget of meaning in this family of words.  They will begin to spell relying on morphemes rather than letter order memorization.  And they won’t waste a minute writing down two or three versions of a word’s spelling to see which looks right.  Because they are learning that looks don’t matter.  Substance does.  Meaning does.  Structure does.  History does.  Relatives do. Phonology does.


7 thoughts on ““Please don’t judge me on my looks!”

  1. This is a marvellous, resonant essay Mary Beth. What I really admire is that as your understanding has grown and grown, you continue to demonstrate such keen intuition about which word or concept you can place before your students to lead them down a path of learning. My admiration never ceases.

  2. Oh-yeah! Excellent post! Having experienced nearly this exact sequence of learning with one of my groups of students (Resource Room) I can attest to the joy of watching their little eyes light up with understanding when studying spelling in this way.

    One of my students recently asked, “So, when we see a double letter at the beginning like that (examples on the board were suffering, different…) does that, yeah, I think it does, indicate there could be a prefix and at the part where there are 2 of the same letters, that could be the beginning of the base.” Such understanding and solving of the literacy puzzle.

    Thanks for blogging about this so others can learn from your examples.

    • I actually chose the base ‘fer’ so I could talk about stress and the schwa and relying on a base for spelling. The assimilated prefix part was just there staring me in the face, and I couldn’t ignore such a fabulous opportunity!

  3. Beautiful Mary Beth. You have shared so many important observations here.

    I wanted to highlight one subtle point you made which I think some may miss. This is a very clear, important statement about etymology and meaning:

    “In order for two words to be related, they need to share an ancestor (etymon). And when they share an ancestor, they will also share meaning (denotation).”

    Thanks so much for sharing the amazing culture of learning in your classroom language lab!

  4. Thank you so much for this post. It came just at the right time for me as I wish to introduce this way of learning to spell to some classes this year. (Baby steps) Your explanation is just “spot on” and gives ideas on how to introduce it to the students as well as the teachers.

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