Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Visualizing Spelling

Question: How can I remember words I really want to spell correctly?

Answer: Blow up the trouble spot and make a silly association.

In the same book that I used to identify words likely to be misspelled, Six Minutes a Day to Perfect Spelling, Harry Shefter says that most parts of words can be sounded out accurately, but words that contain the indefinite vowel--a, e, i, o, u--whose sound is not clear can not. These are words with vowels that could be any of the vowels--a, e, i, o, u. Examples are "secretary" and "cemetery" that are likely to be pronounced "secrAtEry," "cemAtAry" and a word like "argument" that is likely to be spelled "arguEment."

With indefinite vowels, Shefter says, the spelling has to be visualized. He recommends "blowing up" the trouble spot: "SECRETary," "cEmEtEry" and "arGUMent." When I introduced this technique to my ninth graders, they giggled.

But a second step is necessary, according to Shefter. You have to provide some sort of association to complete the visualization: "A SECRETary should keep a SECRET." "EEE!" she screamed as she passed the cEmEtEry." "Never chew GUM in an arGUMent." The ninth graders loved it. Another one by Shefter: "beLIEve" and "Never beLIEve a LIE." Remember that "reCEIve" is the opposite of "beLIEve" and you'll never mix them up again.

Shefter has many more clever associations to help remember words with indefinite vowels. But my students and I did not hesitate to make up our own associations for words we wanted to remember to spell. I can always remember how to spell "phenolphthalein" because I blow up "phenOLPHthalEIN" and make up the association to highlight "ein," which I'm not quite sure of: "Phenolphthatlein was invented by EINstEIN." The statement is not true, of course, but it helps me to remember how to spell "phenolphthalEIN." My particular association might not work for you, but it works for me.

When I wanted to be sure how to spell "Khrushchev," I wrote KhRUSH/CHEV" that became "KhRUSH/CHEV" RUSHed to buy a CHEVy." I know it's silly. But it works. When you see a word you want to remember how to spell, blow up the trouble spot or the part of the word you are not sure how to spell and try to come up with an association that will help you remember its spelling, usually a word within a word.

Critics have told me that research does not support the trouble spot/association method. Maybe not, but generations of my students have learned both to sound out the parts of words that can be sounded out and to visualize the parts that can't be sounded out by blowing up the trouble spot and making an association that helps to visualize hard-to-spell words.

Some other hard-to-spell words that Shefter uses the trouble spot/association method with are as follows: "principal" and "principle"; "vinegar"; "sacrilegious"; "judgment"; "bargain"; "grammar"; "parallel"; "privilege"; "tragedy"; "existence"; "obedient"; "minuscule"; "stationery" and "stationary"; "villain"; "separate." You will have to buy the book to see how he uses his technique to make the spelling of these often hard-to-spell words permanent in your mind.

All the best. RayS.

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