Spelling and Memorization

By | September 29, 2013


m, me, mem, memo, memor, memori, memoriz, memoriza, memorizat, memorizati, memorizatio, memorization

Would you think this is an effective or efficient way to learn to spell “memorization”? Several years ago, I saw a report by a psychologist from a highly reputable children’s hospital that suggested that a child should memorize the first letter, then add memorization of the second letter, and so on, until a word on a spelling list is completely memorized.

Here are a few other practices used to teach spelling: copying words, reciting letter names, learning rules, using a mnemonic or song, drawing letters in sand or pudding, and writing letters into box-like drawings that show the shapes of words.

Some people might say that if one of these methods doesn’t work, use another.  Differentiate. “All people learn differently.” Hmm.

Wouldn’t it be better if we start with superior materials and methods that identify crucial content and capitalize on how all people learn best?

What Does Spelling for Humans Look Like?

What if, for our spelling example, we identify the meaningful units of reading and writing and apply what has been long known about how humans learn best?

First —- content.

What are the essential units, and how can we compose or decompose them at different levels?

Humans talked before they learned to write. So first, we want to make sure that children know the meaning of the words we’re working with and how they are related to other words they know. Children need to understand what others are saying to them. They also need to communicate their own ideas effectively. They need to know how to say words as well as understand them when they hear them.

So we want to start with the spoken word and its meaning. Do students know the word already? If not, we must make sure they know what it means and have opportunities to use it until it becomes a natural part of their vocabulary.

Next, the word ‘memorization’ can be separated or segmented according to several different levels:


As humans began to write, letters or groups of letters were devised to represent sounds (phonemes).

m    e    m     o     r     i    z     a    ti    o    n

Multisyllabic words such as “memorization” are composed of a lot of letters! However, if students are already conversant with recognizing and using the appropriate units to represent individual sounds in simple words and they know how to say “memorization” clearly*, they can use the next level, chunks, to make spelling this or other multisyllabic words more manageable.


mem   or   iz   a   tion

Within each chunk, students can use their skills with individual sounds to spell each phoneme. (I’ve chosen this group of chunks for this word, but multisyllabic words often can be separated reasonably in more than one way.)


Another kind of chunk is that of semantic meaning.

root word:  memorize

some suffixes:  s (present tense),  ed (past tense),  tion  (often meaning “the act of”)

We are able to compose and decompose many words into parts that we use again and again for related concepts:

           memorize — e.g., memorizes, memorized, memorizing, memorization

           tion — e.g., partition, rotation, prevention

Second —– how people learn.

How do we increase the probability that children will remember and use what we teach them?

Human beings are not computers that save random and meaningful information equally well. Humans are also not wax tablets that can be impressed with a perfect copy of what is to be learned.

In order to remember most effectively, humans need to be deeply engaged in tasks that naturally involve them in attending to and using the most important aspects of information to do interesting and meaningful things.

Phonemes and their representations:

How about asking students to sequence these into the word as they say it perfectly?*

o     m     ti     e     z     m     o     r     a     n     i


But we might want to start with sequencing chunks first, because the word is so long!


a       iz      tion      or      mem

“Chunk” is a word with an honorable pedigree in cognitive psychology. “Chunk” is a set of things, a way to put ideas that we must work with and remember together into more manageable wholes. In 1956, George A. Miller published his famous paper on “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information,” in which he explained how, on average, adult human beings have a memory span of about 7 (plus or minus 2) bits of unrelated or random information, such as are often found in telephone numbers or lists of unrelated words. We can extend our capacity to remember less meaningful information by putting it into chunks (for instance, separating a telephone number into parts). Better chunks often have something to do with innate or useful relationships. The apparently random can become easy to remember if we start to see how ideas are related, as they become meaningful to us.

Fortunately, we humans spend much of our time in a world that becomes more and more meaningful to us as we learn through experience. By using meaning, we can remember and associate many more than 7 bits of information. (Psychologists have traditionally spent much time measuring people’s performance in remembering random information, not because the world is random, but because it’s easier to control differences in people’s background knowledge.) We can spell a word such as memorization in about 5 chunks as we say it instead of memorizing 12 seemingly random sequential letters. (By the way, I prefer to use and talk about chunks rather than syllables for spelling. Syllables are a specialized, rule-based way of splitting words into segments that do not necessarily reflect speech. Also, we must always think about whether a method highlights the most crucial information for our purposes. Separating words neatly for hyphenation at ends of sentences is not a major issue for writing and publishing any more.)

Another kind of meaning, of course, is at the morpheme level.


We can most enjoyably work with morphemes within the context of speaking, writing, and understanding. Given the information in the sentence, which is the best choice to fill the blank space?

1. Poor Fred ________________ all of his spelling words last week instead of learning how to analyze and spell them in fun ways.

a. memorize

b. memorized

c. memorizing

Sadly, poorer educational materials and methods turn potentially meaningful information into unrelated bits and pieces, which makes learning tedious and more difficult (like memorizing a word like “memorization” one letter at a time).

Ironically, while computer scientists work to make computers more like humans, educators may treat humans like older computers. Instead of using the human propensity to find pattern and meaning in order to construct the right building blocks into intellectual and wonder-full edifices, we set up students to appear like malfunctioning computers when we give them tasks that are more suited for a computer or a wax tablet.


* Carmen and Geoffrey McGuinness’ book, Reading Reflex (1998), describes the technique of having students say words with “perfect” or “Queen’s” pronunciation. Many kids enjoy using an exaggerated or even snooty tone of voice to say words “perfectly.” For example, it is much easier and more fun to learn to spell Wednesday if you say “Wednesday,” including each of the chunks Wed — nes — day. Although one might not want to carry these kinds of pronunciations into everyday life, they help to highlight the crucial structure of the words we want to spell.

Karen McDonald, Ph.D.

Karen McDonald, Ph.D.

One of my obsessive interests is making learning (and teaching) easier -- for students and for myself.
Karen McDonald, Ph.D.

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