How Spelling and Meaning Go Together

Have you ever watched the movie Akeelah and the Bee? In it, Akeelah, a middle school student, prepares for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. She overcomes a variety of obstacles in order to advance to the national spelling contest. One lesson she learns is the importance of understanding the meanings of words. At first, Akeelah just wants to memorize the spelling of words. If you've ever studied for a spelling bee, you know this is almost an impossible task. There are thousands of words to learn for any spelling competition.

Akeelah's tutor, a very smart man, has another idea. He gives her lessons in Latin and Greek. He also encourages her to read great volumes of literature, so she can understand how the words are used in sentences. Akeelah thinks this is a waste of time. But the tutor doesn't give up. He encourages her to learn about the origins of words, and even asks her to explain the meanings of words only based on the books that she's read.

Of course, all this reading and writing takes a while, and Akeelah thinks it's all for the birds. She has a tough time grasping why these things are important until she is in Washington, D.C., at the famous bee. Then it all comes together. She's able to pinpoint each word's root, prefix, and suffix, and her studying helps her see how to spell those different parts of the word. Understanding the meanings of words helps her to spell any word — even words she's never seen before. Akeelah does very well in the National Spelling Bee, but just as importantly, she learns a lot of important lessons. One of them is that knowledge shouldn't be put into separate boxes. The things you learn for one purpose can easily be used in other parts of your life.

If you play a musical instrument, you know that being a fine musician doesn't just mean learning notes and playing them correctly. A very good musician knows how to play the melody in a way that will grab hold of the audience. The same holds true for sports. A good baseball player knows more than just how to catch baseballs. He knows how to work with other players, he can throw well, and he can react quickly to intense situations.

Back to Spelling

Good spellers must also be able to think, not just recite memorized words. But all is not lost! Most difficult words are made up of smaller words or simply have a prefix or suffix added to them.

Let's take the word independence. What prefixes and suffixes make up this word? First, there's the prefix in, which means not. On the other side of the word, you can find the suffix ence, which means the state of. Finally, we have the root word depend. Depend means to count on, or to need. Therefore, in•depend•ence means “to not be in the state of needing someone.”

Super spellers at spelling bees ask for words in a sentence to help them understand meaning. Okay, it's time to give it a try.

The two-year-old did not like holding his mom's hand when he crossed the street, so he cried out for his independence.

That's kind of wordy. Can you think of a better word to use instead of independence?

Give It a Try

Now that you've seen an example of how to pull apart a word in order to figure out its parts, try to break up the following words and then put them in a defining sentence.

• encouragement

• disappearance

• unmanageable

Remember, break up the words into small parts first! Be a sight-word detective! Can you easily spot the root word in each big word? Now, here's the spelling part. With practice, do you think you will be able to learn how to spell the root words? For example, if you can remember how to spell forget, you will soon be able to spell unforgettable.

Try This

What's the Origin?

Challenge yourself to find the origin of two or three unfamiliar words in the newspaper. In what country did the word originate?

Challenge yourself to find the origin of two or three unfamiliar words in the newspaper. In what country did the word originate?

You're on Your Way!

Once you know the basic meanings of root words, you can understand a whole lot of words with little trouble. This knowledge is helpful with both reading and writing. You can amaze your friends when you are able to figure out the most confusing words in a book! You can impress your teacher when you are able to explain how you defined words. And, of course, you will be thrilled when your weekly spelling tests don't seem quite so difficult.

Grownups Need to Spell, Too

Being able to figure out the meaning of words is a helpful skill for grownups, too. Older students must know a variety of vocabulary words in order to do well on the SATs and ACTs, which are a big part of getting into college. Some of the vocabulary requirements can seem overwhelming if you are unfamiliar with some of the words. There are a lot of tough vocabulary words, but the good news is that breaking up words is not so hard to do.

Let's see if you are smarter than the average high school college applicant. Can you take a guess at what the following words mean, based on your ability to break up words? Try breaking them into syllables and then find the root word, subject, and prefix and/or suffix?

• circumspect

• predispose

• unbridled

Let's Play a Game

Can you correct the following bold-faced words in this series of unfortunate sentences? The authors picked the wrong word to describe themselves!

• I feel that I would not be invaluable to any club I joined.

• People have said that my idealistic way of studying for geometry tests is counterproductive. You should try studying that way, too!

• It won't be unnecessary for me to try out for the cheerleading squad.

Did you see that for the first and third examples, the problem with each word was the prefix. Both in and un mean ‘not.’ So the first would make far more sense if it said, “I feel that I would be valuable to any club I joined.” The third sentence just sounds strange. Perhaps, “It won't be necessary for me to try out for the cheerleading squad. For the second sentence, the author didn't understand what idealistic or counterproductive meant. Idealistic means you imagine the perfect way to do things; counterproductive means you make things harder for yourself! Don't forget to make sure you understand the meaning of the words you use in sentences.

Headline Headache

Stop the Presses!

Look at these actual headlines. Do you see how they can have multiple meanings?

Hospitals Are Sued by Seven Foot Doctors

Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery. Hundreds Dead.

Is That an Echo

Can you think of other words that sound like the ones here but mean something different and have different spellings?

When you find the right word, fill in the correct sentence.

flower

here

sea

made

weak

one

brake

would

pour

I — — with my eyes.

Once a — — I visit my Grandma.

Careful with that vase or it will — — .

When you bake a cake you need — — .

If you have no money you are — — .

I — — beautiful music.

Congratulations, you — — the race!

That chair is made of — — .

Elaine works as a — — .

These four words have four different spellings, but they all sound the same!

right

wright

rite

write

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