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Repost: The English Language and Spelling

Modern science provided us with a universal method of studying
and mastering any subject. This method, highly successful in
music, wasn’t applied to language because there was a fixed
method of language study in existence long before modern
science appeared. The problem with that old system — it was
invented to apply to languages with mechanical systems of
endings, by which word relationships were indicated, not the
case with English.

English depends mostly on the arrangement of words, and the
key is logical relationship. The student of the English language
must master the logic of sentence structure or word relations.
As for spelling, the irregularities of the English language seem to
have driven us to one sole method — memorizing. To memorize
every word in a language is an unthinkable task.

Language is just as much a natural growth as trees, rocks, or
human bodies, and can have no more irregularities, even in the
spelling, than these have. Science would laugh at the idea of
memorizing every single form of tree, rock, or human body. It
looks for fundamental laws, classifies and groups, having a limit
so it can be mastered. Can this be the solution for mastering

Grammar has seven fundamental logical relationships, and when
these are mastered with their chief modifications and combinations,
we know the essence of grammar as if we knew the name of every
possible combination those seven relationships might have.

The mastery of the English language is almost the task of a lifetime,
since only a few easy lessons won’t have an effect. We must make
it a habit of study that will grow as we grow.

Mastering English spelling is a serious journey. First, because the one
to three thousand words spelled in irregular ways must be memorized.
The easiest way would be to classify them as much as possible and
associate those in a way that will help us remember them. Second,
homonyms (words pronounced alike but spelled differently) can be
studied only in relation to their meaning, since it’s the meaning and
the grammatical use in sentences that is the key to the correct form.
So studying spelling means going beyond the mere mechanical
association of the letters that make up the word. Third, the list of
exceptions is so big that we get discouraged as most of these
exceptions are words used every day. If so, what is the use of
having rules anyway?

To begin this task one should begin with the common irregular words
and commit them to memory. The problem of how to do so effectively
begins with those writing spelling textbooks. The problem — mixing
regular with irregular words, common with uncommon and inserting
hard, long words that are used less frequently. These books are little
more that lists of words, and anyone can make lists of common, easy
words so a spelling book with such lists wouldn’t seem worth the money.
But teachers seek the easy way out and simply use these books to
teach by assigning the next page on a regular basis. To change this
and improve the spelling of future generations the chief objective should
be to acquire two habits: 1) observing articulate sounds (what happened
to phonics? wasn’t that what phonics did?) and 2) observing word forms
in reading.

Children can be taught to train the ear by giving utterance to
\each sound in a word, by carefully pronouncing words in
reading aloud. So instead of having a parent always read to the
child, why not share the reading so the child has more
opportunities to practice pronouncing words. Don’t let the child
continue after a mispronounced word, correct him/her and have
him/her repeat it. Only then will the child be trained to hear the
word in the right way. Teachers should speak clearly with clear
pronunciation as the teacher is the true medium of the child’s
learning, not the use of diacritical marks in the dictionary.

Adults can train the ear by reading poetry aloud, trying to
harmonize the sense and the rhythm rather than the sing-song

But the most effective way to learn spelling is to train the eye
to carefully observe the forms of the words in newspapers and
books. But how does one do so? The observation of the general
form of a word isn’t the observation that teaches spelling. The
student must observe every letter in a word. But there is a
problem with this too – there’s a limit to the powers of memory.

For example, in spelling books the list of words may contain
words ending in “ise,” “ize.” or “yse.” This doesn’t tell us which is
which or when to use each. If, on the other hand, we’re told that
“ize” is the common ending, “ise” is the ending of thirty-one words,
and “yse” the ending of three or four, we can memorize the few
exceptions only, making the task easier.

When it comes to regular words the laws we can state with
certainty are few — namely doubling consonants, dropping silent
e’s, changing y’s to i’s, accenting certain syllables, and lengthening
or shortening vowels. Teachers who ignore these principles and fail
to teach them and spelling books that fail to address them are the
source of failure to learn correct spelling.

Students should be drilled on these until they become second
nature as is done in math with the multiplication tables. Unless
they are taught what the regular principles are, they can’t know
how a word should regularly be spelled.

What method was used to teach you spelling?

Were the basic principles heavily drilled in school?

Are you a good speller? If not, what words give you the most problems?

Till next time,


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