In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was as a mystery, cryptic, undecipherable. This was before a time of language patterns, of etymology, of roots, prefixes, and suffixes. And the only way to learn the Word was to just plain memorize it.
Really, when you think about it, this was how we all learned language as children. We heard sounds, and learned to put them to letters when we started reading. Many times, we could relate sensory experiences to the words and sounds we were trying to learn. For example, we could pat a dog’s fur while learning the word soft, or feel stubble on a man’s chin while learning the word rough. But learning about roots, language patterns, and etymology was far beyond our capabilities. So we had to just memorize, using the simple tools we had at the time.
It’s certainly possible – and incredibly helpful – to use different devices to help with spelling. Two mnemonics immediately come to mind. You can make an acronym out of “a rat in the house may eat the ice cream” to spell arithmetic. You can also remember that the word accommodate must be large enough to accommodate both two c’s and two m’s. Learning roots obviously comes in handy for more advanced words. Knowing that the Greek root cephal meaning “head,” and the Greek suffix -algia meaning “pain,” certainly helps in deciphering how to spell cephalalgia. (And unsurprisingly, the word is just a highfalutin way to say “headache.”) But sometimes words just don’t have much to hang mnemonics on. In this case, rote memorization is important.
Much has been made of the three main styles of learning: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Respectively, these refer to learning by seeing, by hearing, or through physical experience. In many cases, people believe it is important to learn in ways that accentuate one’s specific affinity (or affinities) for learning. For the task of rote memorization, I like to recommend a method that has actually been used by more than one National Spelling Bee champion. Instead of just using one learning style, this method encompasses all three styles of learning, and is a four-step process. Here are the steps:
1. Look at the word on paper, and spell it aloud.
2. Look away, at a blank wall, picture the word on the wall, and spell it aloud.
3. Close your eyes, picture the word in your mind’s eye, and spell it aloud.
4. Write the word down on paper, and spell it aloud as you are writing it.
It may be a bit painstaking, but it is systematic, and it works. Some blessed spellers may not need this method, since words may stick to their brains like refrigerator magnets. Others may have a difficult time with this method; I’ve found at least one excellent speller for whom this method doesn’t seem to work so well. But for the vast majority of people, this method is great.