Developing a Spelling List

I am greatly enjoying writing curriculum to accompany Uncovering the Logic of English: A Common-Sense Solution to America's Literacy Crisis. Having the book in front of me has been an invaluable tool. I have been able to reference sample words for each rule and it is providing a consistency across the curriculum.

The most challenging aspect at this point to writing the curriculum is creating a word list. I have done extensive research on high frequency word lists. Most curricula based upon Dr. Orton's 70 phonograms use the Ayres List of the 1,000 most frequently used words or an Extended Ayres List for spelling.

I have decided not to use the Ayres list in isolation due to three concerns. First, the Ayres list was originally published in 1918. In the past 93 years there has been a shift in usage.

For example, madam, cordially, forenoon are no longer high frequency words. In addition, the time and culture is represented; railroad appears but not airplane, etc.

Second, every high frequency word list is based upon a source. Leonard Ayres relied on private correspondence, business letters, and most heavily, newspapers. Due to the heavy usage of newspapers, the Ayres list includes a disproportionately high number of words about the criminal justice system and government: capture, death, tax, district, objection, judge, police, prison, convict, property, justice, imprison, witness, investigate, victim, evidence, estate, primary, testimony. Though this may be appropriate for adults wanting to read particular sections of the newspaper, these words are not as commonly found in school textbooks and children's literature.

Finally, the Ayres list claims to organize the 1,000 most frequently used words based upon difficulty in spelling. Leonard Ayres wrote a series of spelling tests based upon the the 1,000 most frequently used words he had identified. 70,000 children in grades 2-8 in the mid-point of the school year were tested on these spelling words. The Ayres list is then organized from A-Z based upon the ability of those children to spell each of the words. What is disturbing about the research is that the list forms a perfect bell curve, meant to represent the spelling difficulty of each word in the 1,000 most frequently spelled word list.  Anyone involved in human research immediately recognizes that this most likely entailed a great deal of smoothing to create such statistical symmetry. It also does not explain how words that follow clear phonetic rules and use all the first sounds of the letters A-Z often appear high in the list, such as beg in list P.

Due to these facts I have decided to not utilize solely the Ayres list as many other curriculum writers have done.

Rather, I have taken six high frequency lists, including the Ayres list, Dolch List, a list compiled for ESL students, an International English list that studied usage in the U.S., U.K. and Australia, a list compiled based upon children's literature, and one other. I then entered the words from each list into a database, including their frequency number for each list, part of speech, phonograms, and rules used. Using this information, I am then creating a spelling list that includes 2,400 words for the Accelerated Level.

Although I agree with other educators that using the high frequency word lists is the most efficient way to build vocabulary, we need to proceed with some caution. What is amazing about this process is the high degree of overlap with the first 500 words. This is because the core vocabulary of English is used in all levels and styles of writing. Children's books, newspapers, and doctoral dissertations in physics all use the core grammar words, conjunctions, pronouns, helping verbs, numbers, etc. All of the lists I surveyed included the, of, to, and, a, in, is, it, you, that as the ten most frequently used words.

What many people do not recognize is that after 400 to 500 words there is increasing diversity in the word lists depending upon the type of reading material surveyed. If we developed a 1,000 high frequency word list based upon the most popular children's books for children under 10 and another based upon college science text books, the results would be vastly different, though there would be an amazing amount of overlap in the first 200-400 words.

Though I find Leonard Ayres idea of ranking high frequency words based upon spelling difficulty intriguing, I have decided to go about it a different way. The words are initially controlled for what spelling rules are being taught, or have been taught. Since English is complex, I believe it is important that the words in any given list do not all follow the same pattern. Students must learn, with the guidance of a teacher, to analyze English words and understand what is occurring within them.

However, for an introductory lesson it is beneficial to provide students with word samples that all follow the same pattern, I believe this is most helpful to students, even young five year olds, to find the patterns and deduce the rule. It is not helpful to provide them with pages of the same pattern one day, and a new pattern the next and never require the students to think about why.

Once all the rules have been taught, the highest frequency words that correspond to all the lists that have not been taught, are introduced. Following this, words that are naturally more difficult to spell due to unaccented syllables, etc. are taught with a heavy emphasis on roots.

As I am developing The Logic of English curriculum it has been most challenging to introduce the rules quickly but systematically. My goal is to provide a smooth introduction to the language that is systematic, thorough, and appropriately paced based upon the ages of the learners.

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