Spelling Plants - Guest Post by David Warr

I'm really excited to have a guest blogger today! And such an amazing one! David Warr produces plants - language plants that show how language grows, how words are related and work together. These not only give wonderful visual clues to the langauge but are also delightful to look at and explore - some are so lovely you think they are going to be scented! You can see more of them on David's site ( http://www.languagegarden.org/ ) and in his extraordinary book.

Over to David...

I first met Johanna at IATEFL in Liverpool in 2004 Our websites share similar names, and it is right that non-botanical gardeners stick together. (My website is called Language Garden,  Johanna’s is an English specimen). I am a great admirer of Johanna and her work, and it is a pleasure and privilege to be invited to scatter a few seeds here today.

The Spelling Blog shows the need for treating spelling and the problems it causes with respect. Although we cannot assume that spelling will take care of itself, it can get pushed into corners and not given due attention. But, coupled with activities that promote speaking, thinking and creativity, spelling activities can easily slot into lessons as smoothly and as naturally as we might focus on the mispronunciation of a word. It’s another string to our bow.

The table in Johanna’s recent post http://thespellingblog.blogspot.com/2010/11/look-say-cover-write-check-template.html showed how we can focus on the different properties a word has. The columns that differentiate this table from the more common, but less focused Look-Say-Cover-Write-Check get learners to look at certain features of the word, of their choosing. This might be something unusual about the word, such as a rare spelling pattern that needs to be learned by heart, or the opposite - a spelling pattern that is common to many other words, and by learning to spell this one word, it opens the door to a number of others. Learning is about discovering and applying rules, and testing their boundaries. The trick is to find rules that are easy to remember, simple to apply and useful across a wide spectrum.

I commented on this post with a personal anecdote. My problem was that I could never remember how to spell questionnaire and millionaire. They both end in aire, but one n or two? I didn’t know. And eventually my patience snapped and I employed a personal technique which I will share with you here, called language plants.

These are a visual way of presenting language. They look for patterns and remove repetition and redundancy. Here is the one I made for the two words.

Ugly? Weird? Confusing? What adjectives come to mind?

Fascinating too, I’d say. Have you ever seen a solitary tree on a windswept cliff, so exposed to the prevailing gales that its branches are permanently distorted and bent? It’s its unusual but perfectly explainable and adapted form that is so spellbinding. Its shape is its essence.

I think the same is happening here. You see, this language plant is reflecting reality too. I learned that the two words do not follow the same rule. Millionaire has one n, but questionnaire has two. They’re different, and by sharing the letters they have in common, I’ve had to twist them all so that we can see both spellings at the same time. Look how the little green n that belongs to questionnaire is trying so hard to squeeze in between the other n and a. But millionaire is resisting. “You can’t come in,” it is admonishing, “you’re not part of me. Stay away!”

Colour helps too. Millionaire is grey, questionnaire is green. That’s why the intruding n is just green, while other letters are both grey and green. “We have no allegiance” they are announcing. “We belong to both,” they are confirming.

I thought I was satisfied.

Until the next time that is, when I had to spell one of them, I can’t recall which. Yet again, I had to reach for my weighty dictionary that owns a part of my desk. All I knew was that it could have one n or two. Ahh, but which? I had only solved half the problem. My quest was incomplete. Another language plant I needed.

“A millionaire has money!” True enough, but importantly here, these two words have just one n. The words are semantically and graphically related and the language plant shares on, so these letters are bigger. And this time I was satisfied.

All in all, I had invested mental energy, sifted through language, first in finding a word, money, that was related to one of the words, and then by creating the two images that presented the spelling patterns. This is another way of helping learners with spelling, a way that uses many intelligences and senses, not least visual, spatial and kinaesthetic, which is what Johanna’s table does so splendidly. And if you’ve got a rough piece of paper handy, you could try copying these out. Then next time you have to write either of these awkward words, well, hopefully your hard work will pay off.

Guest post by David Warr

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