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Making sense of spelling - Gina Cooke


8,573 Questions Answered

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What can spelling tell us about relationships between words? While spelling may sometimes seem random or unexpected, this lesson illuminates how peeling back the layers of spelling helps us understand the complex history and meaningful structure of words.

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Usually when we spell a word, we only acknowledge the surface structure by naming out the letters: "<d-o-e-s> spelles does. However, words often have deeper structures that can help us make sense of the way they're spelled, and that can highlight their connections to other words. We can make sense of these deeper structures by using something called a word sum, a morphological algorithm for the written word. For example, <do> + <es> --> <does>. We read a word sum like this: "d-o plus e-s is rewritten as d-o-e-s."
We can also understand the structure of words by using the word matrix, a Real Spelling tool that is the lexical map of a word family -- words that share the same base element.
Research these tools for understanding spelling in this free video gallery:
In working with your regular vocabulary or spelling words, study how you can use word sums and/or matrices to connect how words are spelled with what they mean and how they make sense.
The English language is rich in homophones, words that sound the same, but have different meanings and thus different spellings. Words like heel and heal or pain and pane are homophones. The spelling <heal> serves a few purposes: the <ea> can change sounds so that the same spelling works in suffixed words like health and healthy. The <ea> also connects heal to the less common word hale, as in the saying hale and hearty. The words heal, health, and healthy all share a base element, <heal>. The words heal and hale share an etymology: their historical roots are related.
Often, people think that the presence of homophones in English means that our spelling system is crazy or doesn't make sense. However, homophones help our written language to make sense when we read it. Watch this short graphic on The Homophone Principle, and investigate the following pairs of homophones:
feat ~ feet; meet ~ meat; row ~ roe; mist ~ missed; profit ~ prophet; wine ~ whine; none ~ nun; peace ~ piece; knot ~ not ~ naught; rain ~ rein ~ reign; sense ~ cense ~ cents ~ scents
a. What do each of these words mean?
b. How are they built? Are there any prefixes or suffixes you can peel off? What is the base element? Is the base element free (a word on its own, like <one>) or bound (needs another written element in order to surface in a word, like <rupt>)? Remember to look for a silent <e> that may have been replaced by a vowel suffix (as in loving), or a consonant that may have been doubled when adding a vowel suffix (as in robber), or a <y> that's changed to an <i> (as in cried).
c. Do they have any relatives? Are there any morphological relatives, words that share a base element, like one and alone? Are there any etymological relatives, words with the same or related historical roots, like two and twin? The website is very helpful for looking into words' histories.
d. What aspects of their pronunciation is relevant to their spelling? What do we need to make sure to signal about the pronunciation of a word in its spelling? For example, in the word large, the final <g> is 'soft', so we need to make sure to put an <e> on the end to signal that. Otherwise, it would be pronounced differently: *larg would end with the same sound as log.
Consider how these questions can help you to understand how a word is spelled, and why it is spelled that way. Consider too how they help to make sense out of homophones. How does this change your understanding of English spelling? Why do you think that people persist in characterizing English spelling as random or crazy? Do you think that memorization or investigation is a better approach to learning about spelling?
Linguist~Educator Exchange
Real Spelling
Real Spellers
Erin McKean is a lexicographer. See her talk about building dictionaries:
See a topic posted by Gina Cooke on the TED-Ed Community about teaching letters and sounds vs. letters and their names.

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Meet The Creators

  • Animator David Bernal
  • Educator Gina Cooke
  • Narrator Gina Cooke

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