Real Spellers

English Makes Sense!


A while back, I hosted a parent evening in my class, focussed on Real Spellng.  It was an experiment I will repeat early in the next school year, with the intention of helping parents to understand this very different approach to word study, why I won't be sending lists home to memorize, and how they might better support their children at home.  Attendance was modest, but those that came were highly engaged.  There were of course many more questions than I could get at in such a brief intro.

Yesterday I received a note from one of these parents, who's clearly been thinking about all this and wanted to challenge the proposition that English spelling is ordered and logical (or, in fairness, was simply curious).  Though the note was clearly in the father's handwriting, it was signed by the student (who is six), a new twist on an old ruse.  Anyway, I couldn't resist playing at being Melvyn, without benefit of his breadth of knowledge or his aptitude for film making.  Critique at will!


Hello “Broghan”,

These are very interesting word questions you’ve raised. (I must say that though your “signature” was at the bottom of the page, I have to be doubtful about your having much use for <paradigm> or <benign> at this point in your young life. Please tell your dad or mom that they are always welcome to discuss word questions with me first hand if they have any). I see you are testing my assertion of the inherent logic in English spelling, and so you should! Busy week, but I’ll take a shot at those words. Understand that I am “having a go” here, but will defer to wiser scholars and further research.

Your question was “How do these fit in the letter teams?”, but I think in two out of the three, there is no real “team” (digraph or trigraph) involved. Instead, we are dealing with what are called etymological markers. In the third, similarly no digraph, as we shall see, but an interesting discovery.

To begin with though, I think it is important that we understand a shift in thinking required to understand how Real Spellers approach words. In brief, the English writing system is designed to represent three things, in order of general importance: the first of these is morphology, which is to do with the representation of meaning; the second of these is etymology, which is about the relationships between words, including their history; and the third among these is phonology, the representation of sound. Conventionally over the past decades, we have tried—and been frustrated in these efforts—to make English spelling conform to a notion that its primary purpose was to represent sound, though this was never true. It is clinging to this belief that most often causes us to feel confused by spellings we encounter.

That was probably too brief, but vital as a starting principle in examining the words you’ve asked about.

1.  <benign> was the word that I had some idea about from the get go. I considered that it relates in meaning (always a good place to start) to another word: <malignant>. The base of <malignant> is <malign> which retains its unvoiced <g> as a marker of its meaning connection to <malignant>. This is of course the same pattern we see in <sign> and <signal>. I had to wonder if <benign> had a similar derivation, <benignant> that I had not had occasion to use. Indeed, a quick search of dictionaries revealed this to be so. It seems that over time the base has replaced the derivation in common usage, so that instead of referring to a “benignant ruler”, we now tend to say “benign ruler.” Of course the <ben> and <mal> of this pair of words were also good markers of meaning and etymology. Their meaning and structural similarity to words such as <benefit> or <malady> allow us to infer common roots in the French, and earlier the Latin, bene and male meaning “well” and “bad” respectively.

 See how understanding the spelling will help us, secondarily, to remember the spelling. One will not forget or misunderstand the <g> in <benign> if one remembers the related word <malign>. But note also that while remembering has been the exclusive business of spelling programs for multiple decades, understanding has rarely been given any attention.

2.  With <paradigm> I had to wonder if there was a similarity to the above words. That <g> seemed too familiar. <paradigm> comes straight from the Latin, paradigma, which meant “pattern” or “example”. The <g> is therefore an etymological marker, denoting its root. This happens all the time in English words—the spellings reflect the word's history. In many cases, the pronunciation has shifted over time. But, is there a more modern explanation for keeping that <g>? Had to wonder if there was the word <paradigmatic>, and indeed there is, meaning “that which serves as a model or example.” Ironically, it is apparently used in linguistics.

3.  <leopard> Yes, the interesting <eo> caught my attention too, because I had just discussed with the class the word <people>, the only example of an <eo> digraph I could think of (and that an etymological marker also). My starting point for this one was this: leopards are native to Africa; English is not. Thus, my suspicion was that this might be a loan word from another language. (Your dad may not be familiar with this term, Broghan. This is where you can explain how <ski> seems to break the rule that “No English word ends in <i>” and how little <skiing> they’ve ever done in England). This, I recall, is the explanation for the word <giraffe>, as well as our own <raccoon>.

But it turns out I was happily wrong! (Beautiful mistakes--don’t I say so, Broghan?--lead to learning, and such is the case here). And my mistake was in failing to do what I ask my Grade Ones to do: always ask, “What is the base?”!! Ask your dad to check out the first three letters of the word <leopard> on their own. Ring a bell? Right! <leo>, for “lion” and, it turns out, a second base, <pard>, an archaic word also from Greek, for “panther.” (This from the same folks who gave us <hippopotamus> from the Greek for “river horse”--they just couldn't resist giving names from their own language to things that almost certainly had names among the people who had known them for eons. That's imperialism for you). So! No <eo> letter team here, just a compound word (two base elements) where the pronunciation has shifted over time! I think I already knew how to spell <leopard>, but now that I understand the spelling, I'd never think of leaving that <o> out!   Very interesting!

Well, Broghan, that’s probably more than you (or your dad) were bargaining for. Is it meaningful? I hope you’ll both see that these real investigations unearth real meaning that in turn helps us make real connections between many words. That is Real Spelling! Would I normally share any of this with a student in my class? Certainly, if they had truly come across the word, and were motivated to know more about it, I’d encourage them to lead the investigation. I’ll be surprised if a Grade One asks me about the spelling of <paradigm> in the future, but <leopard>--seems quite possible, and manageable!

To pursue your own investigations, I recommend a good dictionary and an etymological resource. Online resources exist, but I find I am often misled when I rely on them too heavily or exclusively (happened to me quite recently in fact). Happy hunting! Thanks for the learning opportunity.

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