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Why you need a spellchecker inside your head
Scripps Howard News Service


January 28, 2006

I suppose I'll alienate everyone in sight, but I have to confess that I liked spelling tests in grade school.

Spelling was so easy; you knew what words looked like, because you'd seen them in books, so you wrote them the way they looked. And the way they looked made perfect sense.

It was quite a lot later in my academic career that I discovered a lot of people had trouble with spelling because they tried to write words the way they sounded. That had never occurred to me.

I was delighted, therefore, to discover an article by Louisa Moats, in the winter issue of American Educator, "How Spelling Supports Reading: And Why It Is More Regular and Predictable Than You May Think."

See, I was right all along, even if I had no idea why.

Moats lists five principles - not spelling rules, but broader observations about the development of the English language - and derives from them a spelling curriculum for kindergarten through middle school that progresses from spelling individual words to understanding why words are spelled the way they are.

They are:

- Words' language of origin and history of use can explain their spelling.

- Words' meaning and part of speech can determine their spelling.

- Speech sounds are spelled with single letters and/or combinations of up to four letters.

- The spelling of a given sound can vary according to its position within a word.

- The spellings of some sounds are governed by established conventions of letter sequences and patterns.

Modern English is the result of 1,600 years of linguistic change, layering one language on top of another. Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, a melding of Roman Latin, native Celtic languages and the languages of invading Germanic tribes emerged after the Romans left.

"The most common, frequent words of Modern English," Moats says, "are preserved from Anglo-Saxon." And since spelling changes more slowly than pronunciation, their spelling today is often irregular; she mentions "said," "does," "friend" and "enough."

Then English had 400 years of Norman French layered on top, with more Latin and Greek added during and after the Renaissance. And ever since, English has been voraciously borrowing words from anywhere, with spelling attached.

You might say the profusion of different spelling models is the bad part; but the good parts are that English vocabulary is roughly twice as large as that of competing modern languages, and that spelling preserved from historic origins yields clues to a new word's meaning, for those who know how to read the clues.

At some point in your life, you will see "incredulity" for the first time, but you can reasonably guess that it has something to do with "not believe."

Languages that are strictly phonetic, and thus easier to spell, give up a lot in clarity of meaning.

And English is quite phonetic enough to be functional.

When I was struggling to learn Chinese, we had one lab class in which we got to ask how to write the names of our various ailments, in case we even had to explain them to a Chinese doctor who knew no English. "Allergic" stumped our instructor. "I don't remember how to write that," she said.

You can't forget how to write "allergic." Even "uhlirjick" would be close enough for communication in the doctor's office.

Speech sounds are spelled with single letters or standardized combinations of several letters, called graphemes. English has 26 letters, about 40 phonemes (the smallest bits of sound that are used to distinguish words) and some 250 graphemes, or ways of spelling the phonemes. Is that a lot? Not spread over seven or eight years, with the most common ones learned first.

And not a lot for children who will learn perhaps 80,000 words (and as many more proper names) during their school years. And who can recite from memory the lifetime statistics of their sports idols or the Latin names of dozens of dinosaurs.

Moats illustrates the influence of position in a word with the various spelling of the hard-c sound. "Cast," not "ckast." "Kite," not "cite" (which is a different word with a different initial phoneme). And usually -ck at the end of a word or syllable, like "rock" or "nickel."

Certain spelling conventions have been adopted as a guide to pronunciation - "guide" itself being an example.

All these ideas together demystify a lot about English spelling. Moats' point is that they are often unfamiliar to teachers. Even if they're good spellers themselves, which can't be guaranteed, they have nothing to say when bewildered students ask, "But how do you know to spell it that way?"

Spelling is seldom separately tested in statewide assessments, Moats says, in part because many people believe that spellcheckers make it unnecessary to know how to spell.

Actually, spellcheckers are evil - just look at any newspaper's published corrections - but worse, from the student's point of view, is that if they spell badly enough, even the spellchecker won't be able to guess what they mean more than about half the time.

A good spellchecker inside your head will help you a whole lot more.


Contact Linda Seebach of the Rocky Mountain News at

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