Fun with Words: Tips for Success in UIL Spelling and Vocabulary SULPHUR SPRINGS

Fun with Words: Tips for Success in UIL Spelling and Vocabulary GAIL HERMAN SULPHUR SPRINGS HIGH SCHOOL Herman--Capital Conference 2014 First, the...
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Fun with Words: Tips for Success in UIL Spelling and Vocabulary


SULPHUR SPRINGS HIGH SCHOOL Herman--Capital Conference 2014

First, the spelling part of the contest . . .

Why is being able to spell correctly important? As so many students say, why can’t we all just depend on our computers’ spell checkers to make sure we spell everything correctly? Well, here’s one answer to this question:

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“Candidate for a Pullet Surprise” I have a spelling checker. It came with my PC. It plane lee marks four my revue Miss steaks aye can knot sea. Eye ran this poem threw it, Your sure reel glad two no. Its vary polished inn it's weigh. My checker tolled me sew.

(first two stanzas of Dr. Jerrold Zar’s commonly cited “Spell Checker Poem”/”Ode to a Spell Checker”; see whole poem at Herman--Capital Conference 2014

The Importance of Correct Spelling

“When our spelling is perfect, it’s invisible. But when it’s flawed, it prompts strong negative associations.” -- Marilyn vos Savant

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Advice from Thomas Jefferson “Take care that you never spell a word wrong. Always before you write a word, consider how it is spelled, and, if you do not remember, turn to a dictionary. It produces great praise to a lady to spell well.” (in a letter to his daughter Martha)

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Another observation about spelling

“Spelling counts. Spelling is not merely a tedious exercise in a fourth-grade classroom. Spelling is one of the outward and visible marks of a disciplined mind.” -- James J. Kilpatrick, journalist and grammarian

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The Challenges of English Spelling “If GH can stand for P as in Hiccough If OUGH stands for O as in Dough If PHTH stands for T as in Phthisis IF EIGH stands for A as in Neighbor If TTE stands for T as in Gazette If EAU stands for O as in Plateau The right way to spell POTATO should be GHOUGHPHTHEIGHTTEEAU!” (attributed to Oscar Wilde) Herman--Capital Conference 2014

The Challenges of English Spelling Then, there is this suggested spelling for “fish”: ghoti. The reasoning is as follows: “gh” can sound like “f” as in “laugh,” “o” can sound like “i” as in “women,” and “ti” provides the “sh” sound as in “action.” Popularly attributed to George Bernard Shaw, this facetious spelling suggestion, according to The New York Times, actually predates Shaw, going back to an 1855 letter in which the publisher Charles Ollier commented on his son’s idea for a new spelling of “fish.” (Actually, English orthography makes much more sense than this example suggests, but there’s still enough illogic to cause us problems!) Herman--Capital Conference 2014

Then there’s the vocabulary part of the contest . . .

Knowing how to spell words correctly is important, but it is equally or more important to know what words mean and how to use them accurately and effectively. As Mark Twain famously remarked, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

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The Importance of a Good Vocabulary Knowledge of vocabulary “is an indication of [one’s] general knowledge. Vocabulary level is the best predictor of overall success in school and performance on the SAT-verbal and other similar tests. A large and exact vocabulary is also a characteristic of successful people in many occupations.” FROM THE JOHNSON O’CONNOR RESEARCH FOUNDATION WEBSITE

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The Importance of a Good Vocabulary “Vocabulary is the best single indicator of intellectual ability and an accurate predictor of success at school.” --W. B. Elley, education professor emeritus and literacy researcher

“Because each new word has to be studied and learned on its own, the larger your vocabulary becomes, the easier it will be to connect a new word with words you already know, and thus remember its meaning. So your learning speed, or pace, should increase as your vocabulary grows.” -- Johnson O’Connor, researcher Herman--Capital Conference 2014

Spelling and vocabulary are important!

Correctly spelled words, coupled with precise and compelling diction, are two of the most important aspects of effective communication.

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Some English Language History  In the 5th and 6th centuries, the Angles and Saxons,

who spoke a Germanic language, invaded presentday England.  Old English writings began to appear in the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries. This is the language that King Alfred referred to as “English” in the 9th century.  Also in the 9th century, large numbers of Norse invaders arrived, adding many Norse words to the language.

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Some English Language History  In 1066, the Normans crossed the English Channel

and became the masters of England, bringing French with them. Thousands of French words were added to the English vocabulary between 1100 and 1500.  English also borrowed greatly from Latin, the language of the church.  About 1500, the discovery of new lands brought many thousands of other new words to English. Words from India, China, Africa, and North America enriched the language tremendously. Herman--Capital Conference 2014

Spelling Challenges  New words often appeared in English with the

spellings which they originally had and which did not always conform to the customs of English. Sometimes the spellings were modified to conform more closely; many times they were not.  As a linguistic grab bag, the English language is rich, but its very richness compounds our spelling problems.

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Spelling Challenges  Present-day spelling often reflects pronunciations of

several centuries ago rather than the way the word is pronounced today. Example: knight.  During the time between Chaucer and Shakespeare, a major change in pronunciation occurred when English lost a pronounced vowel in certain positions. Chaucer pronounced “name” and “dance” as twosyllable words. By Shakespeare’s time, the “silent e” was standard in such words.

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The Introduction of the Printing Press

In 1476, William Caxton introduced the printing press to England. Before this, there was little concern over such matters as spelling because reading and writing were activities carried on only by monks and other learned men. The arrival of the printing press indicated the need for some standards to be set.

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Publication of Important Dictionaries  The first English dictionary, consisting of about

2,500 words, was compiled in 1604 by school teacher Robert Cawdrey. It was called Table Alphabeticall.  In 1755, Dr. Samuel Johnson published his famous Dictionary of the English Language, which tended to “fix” English spelling.  In 1828, across the pond, Noah Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language, and, as we all know, the two varieties of English have differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, and spelling. Herman--Capital Conference 2014

The Oxford English Dictionary

The quintessential dictionary is, of course, the famous Oxford English Dictionary, containing over 600,000 words. In 1857, the Philological Society of London proposed a new dictionary. In 1879, work actually began on what was conceived of as a ten-year project. Five years later, they were on “ant.” This dictionary traces the development of English and includes 3 million quotations to demonstrate the history of English usage. It is an amazing piece of scholarship. Herman--Capital Conference 2014

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language This dictionary, which first appeared in 1969, is the authority for the UIL Spelling and Vocabulary Contest. Containing over 200,000 entries, it is very userfriendly with clear, easy to understand diacritical marks. Teachers—and students—will find the commentary on usage interesting and enlightening. A fifth edition was published in 2011. For purposes of the Spelling and Vocabulary Contest, the third, fourth, or fifth edition of the dictionary may be used. On district, regional, and state tests, 20% of the words come from “words in current usage” that are not found in Word Power. Herman--Capital Conference 2014

So how can students best prepare for the contest?  Begin by assigning students a limited number of

words, such as two columns (100 words) in Word Power. They can look up the words to determine the correct pronunciations or use commercially prepared study materials that feature written and/or oral pronunciations. Most students need some instruction in how to interpret diacritical marks. Refer to the chart in The American Heritage Dictionary. You may want to give students a copy of this and discuss it with them. Online dictionaries are valuable for the oral pronunciations they provide.

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How to Prepare  After sufficient individual study time (perhaps

several days since most students seem to be involved in many activities!), call out the words to see how well the students have learned them. As you proceed through the list, discuss meanings and etymologies for the words marked for vocabulary study. It is useful to provide definitions for all but the most commonly known words because knowing a word’s meaning helps students learn and remember a word’s spelling. Herman--Capital Conference 2014

How to Prepare  Sponsors and students may come up with

mnemonics to aid in vocabulary study. Students may draw a picture, make up a rhyme, or act out the meaning of a word.  For the first few practice sessions, the sponsor should grade each student’s words. In this way, he or she can determine the individual problems a student may be having and thus provide the appropriate individualized instruction. Later, students can exchange papers and grade each other’s words. Herman--Capital Conference 2014

How to Prepare  Make sure that students know that there may be

questions on the test that deal purely with the etymologies of the words marked for vocabulary study. Many etymologies closely parallel the denotation of a word; some are more removed from the word’s present meaning. Regardless, learning the origin of a word is interesting and instructive. As Wilfred Funk writes in Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories, “To know the past of an individual helps us to understand him the better. To know the life history of a word makes its present meaning clearer and more nearly unforgettable.”

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How to Prepare  Have fun with your students while you work. If you

are bored or uninterested, you can bet that they will be, too. To be an effective Spelling sponsor, you must be excited about words. If so, you will transmit your enthusiasm to your students.  Emphasize the team aspect and encourage teammates to support each other and to help each other learn the words.  Expect to devote a good deal of time to preparation for this contest. It takes work to create winners. Herman--Capital Conference 2014

An Example of How to Teach a Word Consider the word “vacillate.” (Vacillatory is on the 201415 Word Power.) Its etymology is to waver, and it comes from Latin. Its denotations are as follows: 1. To sway from one side to the other; oscillate. 2. To swing indecisively from one course of action or opinion to another. The connection between the etymology of “vacillate” and its denotations is obvious and clear. To remember the word, one might think of a person who is trying to decide whether to attend a social gathering but who can’t make up her mind whether to go: If Val continues to vacillate, she will be late to the party. Herman--Capital Conference 2014

Learn Synonyms It’s also a good idea to discuss synonyms for the vocabulary words. It is helpful to students to be able to make connections with other words, especially if they already know a synonym for the word in question. For example, a synonym for vacillate is hesitate. The similar endings of the words also offer a good opportunity to create a rhythmic mnemonic such as . . .

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An Example of a Rhythmic Mnemonic

If you vacillate, You might be late. You hesitate, You change your fate!

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Spelling Rules Learning basic spelling rules is helpful. Consider the following famous rule: I before E except after C or when sounded as A as in neighbor and weigh. This rule holds up well for many words, but there are a number of exceptions, e.g. seize, either, neither, weird, height, foreign, leisure, conscience, counterfeit, forfeit, science, species, sufficient, efficient, ancient, caffeine.

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Spelling Rules Another helpful rule is that for –ible, -able. If the root is not a complete word, add –ible. For example, visible, horrible, terrible, possible, edible. If the root is a complete word, add –able. For example, fashionable, laughable, suitable, comfortable. If the root is a complete word ending in –e, drop the final –e and add –able. For example, advisable, desirable, valuable, debatable. Once again, however, exceptions exist: contemptible, digestible, flexible, responsible, irritable, inevitable. Herman--Capital Conference 2014

What about those pesky “outside words”? “Outside words”: the bane of sponsors and Spellers. Here’s what Section 960 of the CCR has to say about the sources of “outside words”:  Words of common usage (e.g., gosling, hemorrhage);  Words and proper names currently in the news;  Words which by their formation or origins build vocabulary and promote the study of English. These include words with affixes, roots and suffixes which appear in words on the printed list by being different parts of speech, and other words of interest for the general lessons which they teach about language. Herman--Capital Conference 2014

Suggestions for Coping with “Outside Words”  Study roots and affixes.

 Encourage students to read widely and pay attention

to words that are new to them or that they feel they could not spell if asked to do so.  Go to the Internet (or actual books!) and find lists of SAT vocabulary or college vocabulary. For example, has a list titled “College Board Top 100 SAT/ACT Vocabulary Words.” Students can play games to test their spelling ability. also has helpful word lists. A great list of 5,000 words (!) can be found at Herman--Capital Conference 2014

The Importance of Good Penmanship Not only must students know how to spell words correctly, but they must also write them legibly or risk having them counted wrong. In regard to legibility, the CCR states: “The correct spelling of a word consists of writing legibly the letters which compose it in their proper order. Printing the word is acceptable. Legibility and not handwriting style is to be emphasized. To determine whether a given letter is legible, place a blank piece of paper on either side of it, thus separating it from its context, and then see whether the character can be identified. Any letter, even though it may not be perfectly written, is considered correct if it can still be identified when separated from the remainder of the word. If two of three judges rule that a letter is legible, it should be considered correct.”

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The Importance of Good Penmanship  Stress to students the importance of good penmanship.

Look critically at students’ writing. If they do not form certain letters in a standard way, show them the correct format and insist that they follow it. Caution students to avoid printing in all capital letters. Similarly, remind them that they should capitalize words only if a capital letter is called for.  Explain to students the standards for determining legibility and demonstrate the process described in the CCR. Doing so will help make them more aware of the importance of legible writing. Herman--Capital Conference 2014

Good Penmanship/Attention to Detail Other important reminders for students:  If a word is to be written as two words, leave enough space to make it clear that two words are intended.  If a word has non-alphabetic components (e.g. circumflex—as in moyen âge, tilde—as in mañana, cedilla—as in soupçon, dieresis—as in naïve, umlaut—as in Schrödinger), such marks must be placed “clearly and unambiguously.” Accents must point in the correct direction, and apostrophes must be placed appropriately.  Uppercase and lowercase letters that are formed in the same way or very nearly the same way must be written so that it is apparent whether they are intended to be uppercase or lowercase. The most troublesome letters tend to be c, k, m, n, o, s, u, v, w, x, z, and sometimes a if cursive or a blend of cursive and printing is used. Herman--Capital Conference 2014

The Make-Up of the Test

Part I A This section of the test consists of 15 proofreading questions. Each question contains 5 words, one of which is misspelled. Students must identify which word is misspelled and write it correctly on the blank provided. Errors may be in spelling, in the use of nonalphabetic components, and/or in capitalization. A word that must be written as two words may appear as one or vice-versa. Learning alternate spellings of words is important for success on this section of the test. Each question is worth 1 point. Herman--Capital Conference 2014

Part I A—Proofreading


spare ribs


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Correct Answer


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Part I A



non sequitur

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Weil’s disease

Correct Answer

Pre-Raphaelite or pre-Raphaelite

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Part I A

vacuum-packed idyllic

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bona fide


Correct Answer


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The Make-Up of the Test

Part I B. In this portion of the test, students are given 15 multiple-choice questions based on the words that are marked for vocabulary study on the Word Power list. Each question has 5 answer choices. Questions may be about the word’s denotation(s) or etymology, or students may be given a sentence with a blank into which they must fit the best choice of the 5 words listed. Each question is worth 1 point. In this section, it is helpful to know the part of speech a word is. Herman--Capital Conference 2014

Part I B The defense attorney sought to find _____ evidence as he prepared for his client’s trial. A. gressorial B. perspicacious C. interfluvial D. exculpatory E. non obstante

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Correct Answer

D. exculpatory, meaning tending to clear of blame or guilt. The root here is the Latin culpa, meaning guilt. Teach students roots, and you will provide them with the keys to the meanings of many words!

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Part I B Because the English teacher had a reputation for being very demanding, assigning three-page essays to be written every night, the more literate among the students referred to her as a/an _____. A. oubilette B. sepulture C. confrere D. kibitizer E. ogress Herman--Capital Conference 2014

Correct Answer

E. ogress This is the feminine version of ogre, which can refer to a monster in legends or fairy tales, or to a person who is felt to be particularly cruel, brutish, or hideous! No definite etymology is given, but the word may come from Latin Orcus, god of the underworld. Herman--Capital Conference 2014

Part I B Which of the following words refers to a new convert to a doctrine or religion? A. breviary B. proselyte C. aiguille D. hierophant E. hackamore

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Correct Answer

B. proselyte This word comes from the Greek word for stranger. If one is a new convert to a belief system, one is a stranger to it.

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Parts IA and IB

Students are given 15 minutes to complete the 30 questions that comprise Parts IA and IB, NOT 15 minutes for each part.

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Part II This portion of the test consists of 70 words called out at a rate of approximately 5 words a minute. This callout portion of the test is worth 70% of the overall score. If a word has different spellings for different denotations and the pronouncer provides a specific definition, then the student must write down the corresponding spelling. A simple example from the 2014-15 list is the word camellia. The lowercase spelling refers to the plant, but Camellia refers to the genus to which the plant belongs. Encourage students to listen carefully to all of the information that the pronouncer provides. Herman--Capital Conference 2014

Part III This is the tiebreaker portion of the test. It consists of 20 words called out at the conclusion of Part II. If students tie on the 100-point test, then the tiebreaker provides a potential means of breaking the tie. If students tie on the tiebreaker, then the tie is not broken. If, for example, two students tie for second place, then no third place is awarded. The tiebreaker scores can also be used to break a tie between teams as well as individuals. Typically, words on the tiebreaker are more challenging words. Herman--Capital Conference 2014

The Challenges of Grading  Grading lists of handwritten words is challenging and

tiring. We all make mistakes. For this reason, each student’s paper is to be graded three times. Accuracy and fairness are extremely important.  As mentioned previously, the basic test for legibility involves isolating the questionable letter from its context.  Graders should use common sense when grading. For example, when trying to determine whether a letter is capitalized or what a letter is, try looking for other examples of the particular letter on the student’s paper and compare. Herman--Capital Conference 2014

Types of Graders  The Strict Constructionist (a.k.a. Legibility Nazi).

This grader hunts for penmanship problems and seems to delight in marking words wrong because of less than perfect handwriting, often justifying her grading criteria by saying, “Well, I would count it wrong if it were my student.” The implication is that anyone who doesn’t agree just doesn’t have the proper standards.  The Laissez-Faire Grader. This grader gives the benefit of the doubt too often, sometimes out of a misguided sense of charity toward the student, or if the student doesn’t seem to be a particularly good speller anyway, the justification of “Well, it’s not really going to matter anyhow.”

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Types of Graders  The Common Sense Grader. This grader

understands and respects the rules for determining legibility but is able to view those rules through the lens of common sense, recognizing that this is, after all, a spelling contest, not a handwriting competition. This grader has high standards for students but is not needlessly punitive in grading. Please be a common sense grader!

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A Few (Fun)Words from the 2014-15 Word Power Following are a few examples of how my Spellers and I have fun with words: aposiopesis—a sudden breaking off of a thought in the middle of a sentence, as though the speaker were unwilling or unable to continue. From Greek, to become silent.

“How do you spell aposio—” I began, then continued, “Never mind. I’ll look it up!” Herman--Capital Conference 2014

2014-15 Words complicity—involvement as an accomplice in a questionable act or crime. The word complice is archaic, but it comes from Latin for “one closely connected with.” Complicit is a backformation from complicity. The city workers’ complicity became increasingly apparent as the investigation into the complicated case continued. Herman--Capital Conference 2014

2014-15 Words embolectomy—surgical removal of an embolus, which is a mass, such as an air bubble, a detached blood clot, or a foreign body, that travels through the bloodstream and lodges so as to obstruct or occlude a blood vessel. The Greek word embolos means stopper or plug. The suffix -ectomy means surgical removal. Because of the embolectomy, Bob’s Maker delayed pulling the plug on his life.

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2014-15 Words hackneyed—overfamiliar through overuse; trite. One denotation of hackney is a trotting horse suited for routine riding or driving; a hack. The word probably comes from Hackney, a borough of London where such horses were raised. Another denotation is a coach or carriage for hire. Thus, such a horse or carriage would be available to and used by many people. So, by extension, anything used a great deal came to be described as hackneyed. A hack produces routine or commercial writing. To describe the woman’s eyes, the hack referred to them as stars, using a hackneyed comparison. Herman--Capital Conference 2014

2014-15 Words intrepidity—courage, fearlessness. Comes from Latin trepidus, meaning alarmed. The prefix –in, of course, means not. Consider related words: intrepid (courageous), trepidation (a state of alarm or dread), and trepid (timid or timorous). Possessing intrepidity born of the consumption of copious amounts of alcohol, the foolish young man climbed into the Dodge Intrepid, cranked the engine, and zoomed away, leaving tire marks behind.

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2014-15 Words Ostracize—to exclude from a group. From Greek ostrakon meaning shell or potsherd, from the potsherds used as ballots in voting for ostracism.

The committee voted to ostracize Oscar because of his obnoxiousness.

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More Suggestions for Learning  Write questions for your students.

 Create mnemonics for your students.  Have your students write questions and create

mnemonics.  Brainstorm together for mnemonics.

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Section 960 of the CCR Sponsors should make sure they read carefully the description of the Spelling and Vocabulary Contest and know the rules. Your principal or UIL academic coordinator should have a copy. A new edition is published each year, reflecting rule changes, new dates, etc. The CCR is also available on the UIL’s website.

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Vendors for Study Materials  ASW Enterprises (

 Hexco Academics (www.  Panache Learning Company

(  Tune In (for UIL A+ Academics) (

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Best Practices

What are strategies that you have used successfully to prepare students for the Spelling and Vocabulary Contest?

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Spelling rules!

The best of luck to you as you prepare for UIL competition in 2014-15! I hope you and your students have fun with words!

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