What Spelling Champions Know Can Help Your Child Spell Better

Have you ever wondered why spelling bee contestants are allowed to ask to have the word defined or used in a sentence? What spelling bee champions know is these questions reveal clues about how a word is spelled. Children can learn how to unlock the secrets of words by knowing what these questions disclose about spelling a word.

The Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee rules state what a contestant can ask about a word. Here’s what each question tells the speller.

1. Please say the word again. There are 40 phonemes (sounds) in the English language. In order to spell a word correctly, a speller needs to clearly hear the sounds in a particular word. Repeating the pronunciation of the word allows the speller to hear each sound uttered in the word. The speller is then going to decode those sounds into letter combinations representing the sounds. This would be relatively straight forward if English had an alphabet system that had a letter for each sound or a consistent method of combining the 26 letters it does have to represent the extra 14 phonemes that are not directly represented by a letter. Nevertheless, there are many words that are spelled exactly as they sound and hearing the word correctly pronounced enables the speller to spell these words correctly.

2. May I have the definition, please? English is littered with homonyms (words spelled and pronounced alike) and homophones (words pronounced alike but differing in spelling, derivation, and meaning). Just think of the complications introduced by words like dear (meaning beloved), dear (meaning costly), and deer (meaning the four legged animal). By requesting a definition, the speller identifies which word must be spelled. There is also another factor which knowing the definition may unlock. The definition may help identify the origin of the word. Roughly 70% of English words appeared first in another language. Pairing this knowledge with the next allowed question can help spellers enormously.

3. May I have the language of origin, please? About 30% of all English words come from Latin. Concentrating first on learning Latin roots, prefixes and suffixes gives a great deal of insight into how words are spelled. The next most important language of origin to explore is Greek. Many of the words used in science and philosophy come to us from Greek. After these two huge contributors to the English language come French, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Turkish, Persian, and Sanskrit, in rapidly declining levels of adoption.

When a word is adopted from another language, its spelling is done according to rules which allow our alphabet to represent the sounds in the other language. The process is transliteration. Knowing where the word came from helps the speller know which rules were used in the transliteration process. Of course, the speller must know what those rules are, but the fact that there are rules to apply, gives the speller a better chance of spelling the word correctly. Put that together with the definition and a speller can be pretty confident they are on the right track. For example, knowing the word pneumonia was originally Greek and is a disease of the lungs provides the speller with important clues to the correct spelling. Words from Greek are most likely to have the /pn/ to represent the /n/ sound in the beginning of the word. Also the definition points to something related to air (lungs). Now for another question.

4. Does this word contain the Latin combining form of “ante”, meaning before? Knowing the root word (or base word) can be very helpful in correctly spelling a larger, more complicated word. This question also clears up any possible confusion between roots that sound similar but are spelled differently. In this example, asking if the combining form is “ante” as opposed to “anti” will mean the difference between a correctly spelled word and a near miss. Naturally, using this method means one must learn root words. Spellers can approach learning root words, prefixes, and suffixes in a prioritized way by remembering the contribution level of each language listed in paragraph 3 of this article.

5. Would you please use the word in a sentence? Hearing how a word is used in a sentence tells the speller what part of speech the word is – is it a noun, a verb, an adverb? It also may expose whether the word is pluralized, confirms word meaning, and is an opportunity to hear the word pronounced again. Think about the confusing word pair of than and then. Hearing the sentence: “Gas costs more this year than it did last year” confirms to the speller that the word needed is the conjunction than as opposed to the adverb then.

Champion spellers know how to use these questions to their advantage when trying to correctly spell a word. Every speller can use the information revealed by these questions to spell more accurately and consistently. Understanding how our language is encoded into letters is critical to correct spelling.

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