Spelling list words

Spelling is traditionally taught as though there are a fixed number of words in the language, but many more words exist than those in dictionaries. We have words at the breakfast table, on street signs, on products and marketing materials, at the football, on maps, on the television, for example:

  • people’s names – the first, last and nicknames of new people we meet, but also actors, characters, politicians, sportspeople, crime figures, daughters of deceased crocodile wranglers…
  • the names of places – streets, towns, cities, countries, shops, heritage homes, amusement parks…
  • pets – Fido, Oedipuss, Velcro, Genghis, Nemo…
  • words that have been in the news – fracking, vuvuzela, slacktivism…
  • words used in specific cultures or subcultures – burquini, gubbah, bestie, Emo, bromance, flashpacker…
  • slang – brekkie, exy, nuddy…
  • crazes – planking, tweeting, infomania, lolcats…
  • businesses and brands – Rev, Nokia, Oshkosh, Nike, Pajero, Vegemite…
  • words from history, science, astronomy, gastronomy, and other specialist fields – ziggurat, Aztec, kinetic, hygrometer, asteroid, galaxy, jus, evoo…
  • words related to new ideas or inventions – googleganger, shockumentary, staycation, pescatarian, nettiquette…

When a new word is made up, it can be written down and subsequently read by people who have never heard it spoken – if you’d never heard of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lewis Carroll or Pokemon, you would probably still be able to have a reasonable crack at writing the words Yoda, Sith, Snape, Quidditch, brillig, Jabberwocky, Electabuzz and Snorlax.

I can make up the word “Spelfabet” and write it down, and anyone who understands English sound-spelling rules will be able to read it aloud without difficulty. They'll generally also be able to use their analogical reasoning skills to deduce that it means something to do with spelling and the alphabet.

This generativity is one of the things that is truly marvelous about our language and spelling system. Sadly it’s something we generally fail to enjoy and exploit in learning spelling, though I recently very much enjoyed a school's display of students' invented animals, including the doguin, neox and replion.

What I want is a spelling framework that accounts for how all the words in the dictionary are spelt, but also lets me add other, relevant words where they fit the spelling pattern being demonstrated.

My partner’s brother is called Gav, his daughter is called Zena (except now the contrary girl is spelling it Xena), I live in Clifton Hill, Melbourne, love curry laksa and am typing this on an Asus computer. These words are relevant to my life, so I want to be able to spell them. I need a system that can neatly organise and explain these and other relevant words, not just dictionary words, and allow words to be pulled in and dropped out according to learner needs, for example:

  • Leave out words like pork and bacon when working with Muslim or Jewish students,
  • Add words like hajj, Eid, Ramadan and Quran when working with Muslim students,
  • Add words like Hanukkah, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, chuppah, kippah and Torah when working with Jewish students,
  • Add words like Lent, Advent, salvation, communion, myrrh, genuflect and confession when working with Catholic students,
  • Add more slang and possibly also swear words when working with disengaged teenagers in community schools and people in the justice system.
  • Add AFL vocabulary when working with footy nuts – ruck, melée, flank, drop punt, mark, tribunal.
  • Add words like andante, minim, quaver, chord and presto when working with kids who study music.
  • Add words like woggle, troop, patrol, bivouac and rover when working with kids who are in the Scouts
  • Be able to plausibly explain the spellings of names “Handa” and “Akeyo” and words like “guava” and “tangerine” if reading the popular story of wildlife kleptomania “Handa’s surprise” (Eileen Browne, Walker Books, 1994).
  • Be able to explain the latest vocabulary from whatever movie (e.g. Na’vi, unobtanium, Pandora, Eywa…) or TV show (e.g. Bart, meh, embiggen, cromulent, craptacular…) people are talking about.
I hope that this blog, and particularly its branching spelling lists, will provide such a framework, along with teaching materials that can be tailored to suit a range of different learners.
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