Putting down roots

29th November 1996 at 00:00
Armed with skills learned in infant and junior years, older primary pupils can turn into language sleuths to search for the stories behind the words. Sue Palmer ends her series on spelling with advice for Years 5 and 6.

Children who successfully master phonetic encoding in infant school, and learn during the early juniors to look out for the wide variety of patterns and rules which underlie English spelling, should have a good grounding in the use of analogy. As they gradually expand their vocabulary and knowledge about the language in all its aspects, the ability to analogise will help them develop further spelling strategies.

The Look Say Cover Write Check strategy for learning new words (described last week) is still appropriate in the later primary years, and pupils still need regular structured spelling lessons to draw their attention to the patterns underlying English orthography. The more they know about how English works, however, the greater the opportunities for explaining these patterns.

Spelling links very obviously to many areas of grammar. Teaching about verbs and tense, for instance, presents an opportunity to look at the spelling patterns involved in adding the -ing and -ed endings (such as when to double letters; changing y to i; dealing with final e). The same spelling patterns are involved when changing adjectives into comparative and superlative forms (bigger, happier, wiser), or when converting nouns to adjectives by adding y (funny, lacy). Sometimes knowledge about grammar can help with spelling (such as when to write practice, and when to write practise), sometimes knowledge about spelling can help with grammar (as in determining the difference between "the witches' cauldron" and "the witch's cauldron").

Such grammatically-based rules are extremely useful, and should form the basis of many structured spelling lessons in the upper junior years. But the fun element of spelling at this stage is the opportunity to relate it to the history of language. With the national curriculum firmly in place we can assume that most upper junior children have a nodding acquaintance with the Ancient Greeks, the Romans, and a few invaders and settlers. This knowledge makes an excellent backdrop for excursions into the stories behind English spelling, and a book like The Kingfisher Book of Words provides lots of interesting starting points, providing lists of common root words, such as those in the box below, and pages full of fascinating information on word origins. (Did you know that alligator comes from the Latin word lacertus (lizard)? "The name came to English through Spanish. The Spanish for alligator is lagarto and the Spanish word for "the" is el. When el lagarto was heard by English speakers, it sounded like the one word alligator".) Children (like adults) are usually fascinated by the stories behind the words, and with a language like English - compiled from so many basic languages, dripping with historical associations, enriched by "borrowings" from all over the world - there is plenty to investigate. There are words from the different countries within Britain (lots more "well I never" possibilities here: did you know, for instance, that slogan originally meant a Scottish war cry?) and from our European neighbours - like the French chauffeur, German spiel, Spanish patio, Norwegian ski and Icelandic geyser. And since the British have always got around such a lot, there are many words from beyond Europe - zero and arsenal from North Africa, chocolate and jeep from the Americas, dinghy and shampoo from India, ketchup from China and boomerang from Australia.

While introducing pupils to the stories of how words came to be, it would be a shame to get stuck on history and geography - detours can be made into onomatopoeiac words like sizzle, portmanteau words like telathon, eponymous words like pasteurised and maverick, and the many other linguistic curiosities in which English is so rich. Spelling lessons can thus become an opportunity to interest children in language in general, to enlarge their vocabulary, and to make them conscious of the way words can influence us and change the way we look at the world. For those pupils who wish to investigate the story of English further, offer Terry Deary's humorous book Wicked Words, or the marvellous CD-Rom WordRoot which will take them on fascinating word-journeys around words derived from the classical languages.

As well as helping pupils to understand the basis of our orthography, we can also expand their range of strategies for dealing with it. We can start teaching simple mnemonics ("a piece of pie," "does Olive eat sausages?") in early juniors so that by the later years pupils are able to devise their own for their own spelling black spots. lt's worth developing a trade in effective mnemonics, and perhaps compiling a book of the ones pupils find most helpful.

A major problem area is homophones (the obvious ones like except and accept, and the less obvious like mussel and muscle, gorilla and guerrilla). Grammatical knowledge can pay dividends here, but the best way of scoring the difference deep into the memory is humour - pupils usually enjoy devising and drawing cartoons which illustrate the two potential meanings. Another way of helping pupils remember a tricky spelling is to set them to create what I call "visual onomatopoeia" - an artistic representation of the word in question, so the correct spelling is enshrined in a memorable visual form. Colourful, for instance, can be portrayed in glorious technicolour, and advertisement writ large, bold and bright, as if on a hoarding.

If we also ensure pupils have training and practice in using dictionaries and computer spell-checkers (the latter are especially useful for less successful spellers), we should send them off to secondary school equipped not only to spell easily the majority of words in their working vocabulary, but to add to that vocabulary through techniques of analogy and reasoning.

And through exciting teaching of this most basic of skills we might also ignite in them an interest in the English language which will be a source of discovery and delight for the rest of their lives.

WordRoot CD-Rom (Pounds 29.95) from Word Routes (01767 600580)

Sue Palmer has written two spelling courses for key stage 2, Mind Your Spelling and the language strand of The Longman Book Project (Language 2, 3 and 4), both published by Longman. For information on her spelling road shows for pupils and teachers, send a SAE to Language LIVE, 11 St George's Road, Truro TRl 3JE.

SOME GREEK ROOTS

cata - down, thoroughly (catastrophe, catalogue, cataclysm)

drao - I do, act (drama, dramatic, melodramatic)

homo - the same (homoeopathy, homonym, homogeneous)

SOME LATIN ROOTS

credo - I believe, put trust in (credible, credence, creditor, creed)

dico - (dictum) I speak (verdict, dictionary, dictate, indictment, ditto)

rideo - (risum) I laugh (ridicule, deride, ridiculous, risible)

SOME ANGLO-SAXON ROOTS

fod - a food or feed (food, feed, fodder, foster, forage)

hael - an to heal (heal, hale, holy, hallow, health, whole)

hlaf - bread (loaf, lord (from hlaf-keeper), lady (from loaf-kneader)).

SOME LINKS BETWEEN GRAMMAR AND SPELLING

NOUNS

* typical endings, such as ment, tionsion, our, enceance

* changing to plural, for example. singulars ending in sxshch, y,o, ffe

VERBS

* adding endings (ed,ing), irregular past tense spellings

* shortened forms of negatives and auxiliaries, such as doesn't, would've

* changing verbs to nouns by adding eror

ADJECTIVES

* typical endings, such as ous,y, ibleable

* adjectives and nouns, such as electricelectricity, medicalmedicine

ADVERBS

* adding ly to adjectives (especially dealing with y and le endings)

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