The Path to Spelling and Linguistic Success

For me, linguistically-related subjects were easiest: English, math, music, drama, and foreign languages.  They were codes that helped communicate.  I started speaking early, reading early, and used my skills to become the youngest accepted member at the Alliance Theatre Academy of Atlanta from a single cold reading at age 5 (at the time, the minimum age for the program I entered was 9; now, they have classes from pre-K and up).

My daughter, squirelflight, however, struggles with the many of the subjects I found simple, and it’s been a long road of acceptance on my part that she isn’t just a miniature version of me.  Like every individual, no matter their genetics, they still end up with different environments in which to develop and a natural set of abilities from which to operate that cannot be measured by their parents’ achievements.

As my 7th grade English teacher, Mr. Vancini, once asked me (after I’d prattled on about the writing success of several members of my recent ancestry), “Yeah, but what have you done?”  I may not have liked him then, but I love him for it now.  I was such a teacher’s pet, and he actually pushed me to be my best.

So, the challenge for us now is for me to find ways of making what comes naturally to me understood by my daughter, who simply doesn’t get it as easily.  Her wealth of books, and her passion for reading has helped her spelling to some extent, but her understanding of meanings, pronunciations, and flow are still an area that we’re working to improve.

This week, we began a project to see what words she’s already comfortable with that are considered relevant to her grade level.  I found a list of 5th grade spelling words on Wednesday, and I reminded her of the standard method for responding to questions in a spelling bee (starting and ending with the word, spelling it in the middle, and if there are known homonyms, asking to have the word used in a sentence).

Since the list is rather long, we’ve broken it down and started with words beginning with A-C.  Yesterday was my birthday, so we took a break from it, and then today we did D-G.

With each column of words, I’m erasing ones she had no trouble spelling from memory, and at the end of the “bee,” writing out a list of the words with which she struggled into her reading/writing/spelling/handwriting notebook.*  She then copied each word three times in her best handwriting, and when we’re finished with this list, she has been informed that I expect her to write each of them on a flashcard with the definition of each on the back.

However, from my own experiences growing up, and my lessons in linguistics while studying at university for my anthropology degree, I know that whole-word memorization isn’t truly the best way to build an individual’s understanding of the English–or any–language.  Our own tongue is rather dynamic and filled with numerous irregular verbs, and there’s a good reason why:

“The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”
–James D. Nicoll

All languages evolve over time, and though written forms of any language take the longest to adapt to the commonly spoken dialects, eventually even spellings are altered to accept contemporary conventions in thought and speech.  English has a long history of being conquered, altered, and then stealing from everyone else’s languages.  These days, its global proliferation has acted almost as a virus upon the languages of other cultures–either wiping them out, taking precedence in certain schools or fields, or shifting specific terms from the local to the English.

With over 180,000 words in use in the English language (that Oxford Dictionary knows of), and many being borrowed from other cultures or invented for technology or business purposes, it’s difficult to imagine forcing our children to memorize the spellings of each.  Thus, it’s important they understand two things: phonemes and word roots.

Phonemes are the units of sound that, when put together, make a coherent series of sounds called words.  Take the word “way,” for instance.  We could break it down into the /w/ phoneme and the /ai/ phoneme.  W-ay.

While linguists insist on using one of the main code languages for describing phonemes regardless of language or form of writing being studied, there isn’t a single world standard for phonetic transcription.  One in common use in the U.S. and Europe is the International Phonetic Alphabet, and can help anyone better understand how to say (and eventually spell, once comprehension of the writing system is understood) words of many languages correctly.  However, unless you or your child is planning on becoming a linguist or studying multiple languages, it may not be necessary to learn the IPA by rote, as some have suggested.

Considering the many irregularities within the English language, it’s better to use a combination of phonetic awareness, whole word memorization (of irregular words), and a basic understanding of word roots.

When I attended St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano (6th grade through the first half of 8th), their method of teaching English helped me immeasurably.  Although I already had a fairly sturdy grasp of English for my age, their 6th grade instruction of Latin and Greek root words, as well as a parallel course in Latin, helped me better understand the pieces of words held in common by all romance languages.  My own experience of living in Monaco, also gave me a better understanding of the French scattered throughout English, and thus, its Germanic origins as well.

This history of words and their development over time is known as etymology, and learning about the etymology of words helps contribute not only to the understanding of one language, but others within the same language family, and the history of the people who used those languages.  By learning about English’s history, I’ve never forgotten that 1066 is the date of the Norman invasion of England, which brought French into common use within English.  And I’ve never been one for remembering dates, which made history a rather difficulty subject!

The most important thing we can offer our children when teaching them the art of spelling, writing, and speaking in any language, is that we find methods that work for them, that help them best understand what we are attempting to teach.  After all, you can drill ’em ’til the cows come home, but in the end, they may have only learned spite, resentment, and a sense of personal failure.

Spelling Lists:

Phonology Sites:

Help with Root Word Teaching:

As I wrote this, it occurred to me that one of my heroes growing up was Anne Shirley from the Anne of Green Gables series.  While I admit, my first introduction to her was from the television adaptation of the book, I never forgot out to spell “chrysanthemum” after she showed up Gilbert Blithe in the classroom.

Please let me know of other resources you’ve found helped, and if any of those above are working (or not) for your own homeschool!

*Since this became such a lengthy post, I’ll post squirelflight’s new notebook and its organization and associated expectations in a separate post.  UPDATE: here’s the post!


One thought on “The Path to Spelling and Linguistic Success

  1. Pingback: Spelling, Reading, Writing, and Handwriting Notebook « Willow and Birch

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