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What spelling bees can tell us about learning to spell – and what they get wrong

Spelling isn’t about memorising, it’s about meaning. Courtesy of Network Ten

The world is divided into three types of people. Those who can spell – and know it. Those who can’t spell – and are ashamed of it. Those who can’t spell – and pretend they don’t care.

Spelling bees are full of the first type. They are usually clever kids who can do much more than spell.

Spelling bees don’t do much for the self esteem of the rest of the population that struggles with spelling. However, we CAN all be good spellers and if we are not, it is because we haven’t been taught how words work.

How do we learn to spell?

We don’t learn to spell words simply by being surrounded by them. There are many avid readers who can’t spell. Educated adults know around 60,000 words and they didn’t learn to spell those words just by remembering the look of each one. Spelling isn’t about “looking”.

We don’t learn our words by their sounds. Not only can hearing impaired students spell – and spell very well, as evidenced by one of the contestants on the Great Australian Spelling Bee – but most words simply cannot be sounded out. Spelling isn’t about “hearing”.

Spelling is about “meaning”.

When we know what the word means but can’t remember how to spell it, thinking about the meaning can help us spell it. When we read a word and don’t know what it means, unravelling its spelling can help us understand the word.

How DO words make their meaning?

The two questions we should ask when trying to spell a word are:

What does this word mean?

How does this word make its meaning?

Children usually spell magician as they hear it – “majishun”. If we ask them to think about what the word means, they will tell us it is a person who does magic. That gives us the base word magic, and now we can hear the “ic” ending that disappears in magician.

Knowing the word is from French helps us choose a “g” to make the middle sound in “magic”.

Magician makes its meaning by adding the suffix “ian” to the end of magic. This turns the base word magic into the person who does that word. It is a suffix that does this work in many other words that end in “ic”, e.g. electrician, physician and mathematician.

Understanding how magician makes its meaning uncovers the logic of its spelling. English spelling is not random and chaotic but neither is it natural and innate. English spelling is a human invention that has evolved over 1500 years of invasions, explorations, innovations, exchanges and egos. It needs to be taught.

Spelling improves learning in all areas of schooling

When spelling is focused on meaning, and how words make their meaning, spelling improves and so does reading comprehension, writing and vocabulary across all subjects.

For example, when teaching the concept of perimeter in mathematics the teacher can unpack the two meaningful parts of the word, “peri” – meaning around, and “meter” – meaning to measure.

This helps students spell the word, but it also teaches them that perimeter means they must measure around the shape. This clearly differentiates the mathematical concept of perimeter from area – two concepts students often confuse.

It also turns a long word of nine letters into two much more manageable chunks to learn to spell.

Knowing what the word means makes it easier to spell. Courtesy of Network Ten

What can we learn from spelling bees?

Watching contestants in spelling bees can show us how good spellers spell. In the big US spelling bees, which have been captivating that nation for decades, the contestants are allowed to ask a number of questions as they attempt to spell their words.

They can ask for the meaning of the word and this helps unpack any of the meaningful parts of the word. For example, magic and ian.

They can ask to hear the word in a sentence so they know what kind of word it is, and this may help them decide how to spell some of the sounds they can hear. For example, choosing ian rather than ion.

They can ask for the word’s origin and this can help them decide which letters are most likely to represent the sounds they can hear. For example, choosing g rather than j, and c rather than k in a French origin word.

Before giving their answer they often write the word to visually check their spelling.

Each of these questions gives an insight into how good spellers tackle spelling. They don’t just memorise a dictionary.

What do spelling bees get wrong?

We learn to spell words best while they are doing their day job – communicating. Spelling bees take words away from their day job, and place them in some sort of party game.

Words do nothing and mean nothing when they sit by themselves in long lists - randomly selected and disconnected from context. When spelling words are learned from isolated lists, they are learned as a discrete skill and quickly forgotten. This explains why the words learned for the Friday spelling test are often forgotten by the time Monday comes around again.

An opportunity lost?

The only question some contestants asked in the Australian version of the Spelling Bee was “Can I have the definition of the word?”. Perhaps the other questions which feature in US spelling bees were not allowed.

That would be a shame, because having the children simply bark letters back at the judge just reinforces the misconception that good spelling is the freakish talent of a lucky few, and robs us all of an opportunity to improve our own spelling.

Further reading: Spelling bees don’t teach kids literacy, or much else

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