Why it is more regular and predictable than you may think
Much about spelling is puzzling. Our society expects that any educated person can spell, yet literate adults commonly characterize themselves as poor spellers and make spelling mistakes. Many children have trouble spelling, but we do not know how many, or in relation to what standard, because state accountability assessments seldom include a direct measure of spelling competence. Few state standards specify what, exactly, a student at each grade level should be able to spell, and most subsume spelling under broad topics such as written composition and language proficiency. State writing tests may not even score children on spelling accuracy, as they prefer to lump it in with other “mechanical” skills in the scoring rubrics.
Nevertheless, research has shown that learning to spell and learning to read rely on much of the same underlying knowledge — such as the relationships between letters and sounds — and, not surprisingly, that spelling instruction can be designed to help children better understand that key knowledge, resulting in better reading. Catherine Snow et al. summarize the real importance of spelling for reading as follows: “Spelling and reading build and rely on the same mental representation of a word. Knowing the spelling of a word makes the representation of it sturdy and accessible for fluent reading.” In fact, Ehri and Snowling found that the ability to read words “by sight” (i.e. automatically) rests on the ability to map letters and letter combinations to sounds. Because words are not very visually distinctive (for example, car, can, cane), it is impossible for children to memorize more than a few dozen words unless they have developed insights into how letters and sounds correspond. Learning to spell requires instruction and gradual integration of information about print, speech sounds, and meaning — these, in turn, support memory for whole words, which is used in both spelling and sight reading.
Research also bears out a strong relationship between spelling and writing: Writers who must think too hard about how to spell use up valuable cognitive resources needed for higher level aspects of composition. Even more than reading, writing is a mental juggling act that depends on automatic deployment of basic skills such as handwriting, spelling, grammar, and punctuation so that the writer can keep track of such concerns as topic, organization, word choice, and audience needs. Poor spellers may restrict what they write to words they can spell, with inevitable loss of verbal power, or they may lose track of their thoughts when they get stuck trying to spell a word.
But what about spell check? Since the advent of word processing and spell checkers, some educators have argued that spelling instruction is unnecessary. It’s true that spell checkers work reasonably well for those of us who can spell reasonably well — but rudimentary spelling skills are insufficient to use a spell checker. Spell checkers do not catch all errors. Students who are very poor spellers do not produce the close approximations of target words necessary for the spell checker to suggest the right word. In fact, one study reported that spell checkers usually catch just 30% to 80% of misspellings overall (partly because they miss errors like here vs. hear), and that spell checkers identified the target word from the misspellings of students with learning disabilities only 53% of the time.
Clearly, the research base for claiming that spelling is important for young children is solid: Learning to spell enhances children’s reading and writing. But what about middle-school students? Does continued spelling instruction offer any added benefits? Here the research is sparse indeed. Yet, the nature of the English language’s spelling/writing system provides reason to believe that there would be significant benefits to older students from allocating a small amount of time to continued, appropriate spelling instruction. In addition to continuing to learn the rules of spelling, students can develop a deep understanding of English by studying the meanings of roots, prefixes, and suffixes; families of related words; the historical development of the English language; and words’ language of origin. It’s very likely that this sort of word study (in addition to being intrinsically interesting to many students) would support vocabulary development and facilitate reading by enabling students to view any new word from the angles of sound, meaning, language of origin, and syntax. As a result, students would be more likely to be able to figure out the new word’s meaning as well as how to spell it and how to use it with precision.
Those of us who can spell reasonably well take for granted the role that spelling plays in daily life. Filing alphabetically; looking up words in a phone book, dictionary, or thesaurus; recognizing the right choice from the possibilities presented by a spell checker; writing notes that others can read — and even playing parlor games — are all dependent on spelling. In a literate society, conventional spelling is expected and anything beyond a few small errors is equated with ignorance and incompetence. In fact, the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges reported that 80 percent of the time an employment application is doomed if it is poorly written or poorly spelled. Why does spelling appear on the one hand to be simple, something any reasonably intelligent person should be able to do, but on the other hand, cause so many students academic grief? How can spelling be taught so that it will support reading instruction as well as help students understand how the spelling system works and see the ways in which spelling is predictable? This article attempts to answer both of these questions by first exploring the nature of the English language’s writing/spelling system and, second, by outlining the key content that students should master in fourth through seventh grade.
Making sense of the English spelling system (it's not as irregular as you think)
The spelling of words in English is more regular and pattern-based than commonly believed. According to Hanna, Hanna, Hodges, and Rudorf (1966), half of all English words can be spelled accurately on the basis of sound-symbol correspondences alone, meaning that the letters used to spell these words predictably represent their sound patterns (e.g., back, clay, baby). These patterns, though, are somewhat complex and must be learned (e.g., when to use “ck” as in back and when to use “k” as in book). Another 34% of English words would only have one error if they were spelled on the basis of sound-symbol correspondences alone.(1) That means that the spelling of 84% of words is mostly predictable. Many more words could be spelled correctly if other information was taken into account, such as word meaning and word origin. The authors estimated that only 4% of English words were truly irregular.(2) Thus, the spelling of almost any word can be explained if one or more of the following five principles of English spelling is taken into account:
- Words’ language of origin and history of use can explain their spelling.
- Words’ meaning and part of speech can determine their spelling.
- Speech sounds are spelled with single letters and/or combinations of up to four letters.
- The spelling of a given sound can vary according to its position within a word.
- The spellings of some sounds are governed by established conventions of letter sequences and patterns.
Each principle is explained in broad strokes and illustrated with one or more examples over the next several pages. Together, the first two principles explain why English words are so complex — and why that complexity is well worth the frustration it causes for beginning spellers (and readers). The last three principles reveal the order behind the seeming chaos; for the most part, these three result from well-meaning attempts to bring regularity to the English language.
As you read about these principles, keep in mind that this part of the article is designed to help teachers better understand the nature and structure of the English spelling system. This is essential background knowledge for teachers of reading, spelling, and writing. As Snow et al. explained, the rules for spelling are very complex, “so it is not surprising that many highly literate adults who use those rules correctly [and automatically] find it difficult to talk about them or answer questions about them. Teachers who have been taught about phonics have typically received information about [spelling] as lists of rules about letter sequence constraints. Such lists are unmotivated, unappealing, and difficult to learn. Lists without a logical framework or set of principles must be learned by rote rather than reason.” By providing a logical framework, these five principles transform spelling from an arbitrary list of rules about how letters can and cannot be combined into a structured system. Section two of this article offers a way of breaking that system into key content for instruction in kindergarten through seventh grade.
Words’ language of origin and history of use can explain their spelling
One of the main reasons that English seems so irregular is that we have lots of different spellings for the same sound. For example, the /k/ sound can be spelled with several different letters and letter combinations, such as k (king), c (cat), ck (back), qu (queen), and ch (chorus). Why is this? Modern English has been influenced by several core languages, primarily Anglo- Saxon, Norman French (a dialect of Old French used in medieval Normandy), Latin, and Greek. Because each of these languages contributed its own conventions for spelling speech sounds, syllables, and meaningful units of speech, the spelling of a word is often related to, and even explained by, its history and language of origin.
As illustrated in the timeline below, the story of the English language begins roughly 1,600 years ago with the decline of the Roman Empire. At its height, the Roman Empire stretched from Britain to North Africa to the Persian Gulf, but barbarian attackers forced the Empire to split apart and withdraw from its outposts. After the Romans left Britain in 450 A.D., Germanic tribes known as Jutes, Angles, and Saxons invaded, pushing the Celtic inhabitants (who had lived under Roman rule for 400 years) to the west. As Celtic and Latin words, roots, and pronunciations were absorbed into the invaders’ Low West German languages, Anglo-Saxon — or Old English — was born. The most common, frequent words of Modern English — like those for animals, family members, numbers, common objects, emotions, and universal daily activities — are preserved from Anglo- Saxon. Some examples include goat, wife, mother, one, house, love, cook, and walk. Of the 100 words used most often in English, all can be traced to Anglo-Saxon origins.
Famously in 1066, Britain was invaded by William the Conqueror from Normandy. As a result, the Norman French language was imposed on the British natives for almost 400 years. Norman French and Old English were gradually amalgamated, merging by the late 15th century into what is now known as Middle English. From Norman French we gained thousands of terms for legal concepts, social and moral ideals, and artistic values (such as justice, peace, courageous, magnificent, and beauty). Though the Normans spoke Norman French, their cultured class wrote in both their native tongue and Latin, languages that were closely related members of an Indo-European language family. Latin-based vocabulary became the language of scholarship, commerce, and official discourse (such as solar, equine, residence, designate, and refer).
During the Renaissance, which was a time of renewed interest in classical Roman and Greek culture and language, the growth of scientific disciplines created a need to name many discoveries. Scholars looked to Greek to coin new terms (such as atmosphere, gravity, and chronology).(3) At the same time, as printed material became more common in the late 1500s, scholars trained in the classics brought even more Latin-based words (such as malevolent, fortitude, maternal, stadium, and calculus) into English.
What did all this merging, layering, and borrowing mean for English’s spelling system? The short answer is that it became more complex: As explained below, the pronunciation of some of the oldest Anglo-Saxon words diverged from their spelling, and both Norman French and Greek contributed some new spellings.
Today, most of our regular sound-symbol correspondences come from the Anglo-Saxon layer of language (for example, almost all consonant spellings). Ironically, most of our irregular spellings come from Anglo-Saxon as well. Because the spelling of a word usually changes much more slowly than its pronunciation, some of our oldest and most common words (such as said, does, friend, and enough) have retained spellings that represent how they were pronounced eight or 10 centuries ago.
Norman French contributed additional sound-symbol correspondences, such as the soft c for /s/ as in justice, soft g for /j/ as in courage, ge for /zh/ as in garage, ou as in house (which was huse in Old English), qu for /kw/ as in queen (which was cwene in Old English), que for /k/ as in boutique, and ette for /?et/ as in baguette. No new sound-symbol correspondences were contributed by Latin and only a few were adopted from Greek spelling patterns: y for /i?/ as in gym, ph for /f/ as in philosophy, and ch for /k/ as in chorus.
During and after the Renaissance, however, English adopted words from many other languages — and their spellings were adopted as well (e.g., barbecue, plaza, marijuana, and chocolate from Spanish; bayou, gauche, ballet, and levee from French; piano and cello from Italian; schmooze, schmaltz, and schlock from Yiddish). For the most part, these adoptions added words to the English language, but unlike the earlier changes in which spelling patterns were adopted (e.g., from cwene to queen), they did not affect already established spelling patterns.
The many layers of the English language do make it harder to learn to spell, but they also provide a rich vocabulary: The English language has roughly double the number of words of seemingly comparable languages like German, Spanish, and French. As the lists below show, the layers of languages that merged to form modern English have left us with many words to express our ideas.
|Water||Aquifer, aquarium||Hydraulic, Hydroponic|
Fortunately, the way English evolved, and particularly the way scholars drew from Latin roots and Greek base words, resulted in many families of words with related meanings and similar spellings such that whole groups of words in Modern English can be learned together with relative ease. For example, as Latin was layered on top of Old English, Latin roots like dict (to speak) and med (to heal) resulted in families of words like these: dictum, dictionary, edict, indict; medical, medicine, remedy, remedial, etc. If you are reading carefully you may be about to protest: These families of words have related meanings and similar spellings, but sometimes their pronunciations are different. This brings us to the next principle.
Words’ meaning and part of speech can determine their spelling
English words are spelled according to both their sounds (phonemes, such as /b/) and their meaningful parts (morphemes, such as the root dict).(4) In contrast, languages like Spanish and Finnish, for example, use single, consistent letters and letter combinations for sounds; they pretty much stick to the job of representing phonology. Once you know the sound-letter correspondences, you can read and write in Spanish or Finnish. That may sound great to a struggling speller, but it comes at a cost: If you encounter a new word, its spelling doesn’t give you specific clues as to its meaning. In English, by contrast, if you know what to look for, you can find clues about an unknown word’s meaning. The words credible, credit, incredulous, and incredulity offer an example — all four share a Latin morpheme cred, a root meaning “to believe” that is preserved in spelling. And the last two also share the morpheme in, meaning not. The spoken sounds of the words, however, differ considerably. A purely phonetic, sound-by-sound spelling of incredulous might be increjulous, but then the meaningful relationship between credible and incredulous would be obscured. With written English, readers who know the Latin morphemes in and cred may access word meaning directly. Meaning trumps pronunciation in the spelling of hundreds of English words. Here are some additional examples: anxious, anxiety; define, definition; heal, health; wild, wilderness; and rite, ritual. The spelling of the morphemes is constant, but the pronunciation of the morphemes varies.
We’ve dealt with the two big sources of complexity in English spelling: the layering of various languages as English evolved and the emphasis on meaning instead of sounds. Now it’s time to run through the three principles that make English spelling more predictable than you may think it is. These principles provide a framework for understanding those seemingly endless lists of rules that have given English spelling its bad reputation. We’ll start with the most straightforward principle and then build up to some odd — but regular — spellings, such as beginning and ending /j/ sounds in judge.
Speech sounds are spelled with single letters and/or combinations of up to four letters
These sound-symbol relationships are known to linguists as phoneme-grapheme correspondences. A phoneme is the smallest speech sound that distinguishes words. The words beet, bit, bate, bet, bat, bite, but, bought, boat, boot, and bout are all distinguished from one another by one phoneme — the vowel sound. A grapheme is a letter or letter combination that spells a phoneme. Graphemes may be composed of one to four letters, as in the following spellings for the /¯a/ phoneme: cradle, maybe, feign, and weigh. Although many phonics programs and assessments speak of “letter-sound” correspondences, the mapping system between sounds and symbols in English is more accurately conceptualized the other way around — as a map between phonemes (sounds) and graphemes (the letters that spell those sounds).5 In English, we have just 26 letters to work with — but we have about 40 phonemes (sounds) and more than 250 graphemes (ways to spell those sounds). The lists below provide some examples of the variety of graphemes that can be used to spell a single sound.
Examples of Graphemes
|/m/||mitt, comb, hymn||m, mb, mn|
|/t/||tickle, mitt, sipped||t, tt, ed|
|/n/||nice, knight, gnat||n, kn, gn|
|/aw/||saw, pause, call, bought||aw, au, a, ough|
|/u¯/||moo, tube, blue, chew, suit, soup||oo, u_e, ue, ew, ui, ou|
The idea of learning 250 graphemes may seem overwhelming at first, but spreading instruction across several grades makes the task manageable for teachers and students. Most can be learned through direct instruction and practice; some are learned more opportunistically, such as the various spellings for the vowel sound /u¯/: ue, ui, ew, u, oo.
Since the speech sounds in English can be spelled so many ways, how do we know when to use a particular spelling? For those of us who cannot just “absorb” the right spelling as we mainly we need to practice recognizing and writing groups of words that share a given pattern. “Rules” are often predictable letter sequences that can be learned with a combination of pattern study and memorization. The next two principles provide a framework that makes the patterns a little easier to learn.
The spelling of a given sound can vary according to its position within a word
Making sense of when to use which grapheme relies in part on the position of the sound in the word. Scribes and dictionary writers invented some of these conventions as our language absorbed new letters, sounds, and words from other languages. As an example, let’s focus on the three graphemes most commonly used to spell the phoneme /k/: c (cast), k (kitty), and –ck (rock).(6) The letter c represents /k/ most of the time: It is used in consonant blends (as in clam, craft, and scroll) and is usually used before the vowel letters a, o, and u (as in catch, corncob, and cup). The letter k can represent /k/ before any vowel, but it is almost always used before e, i, and y (as in ketchup, kid, and kyack); in these cases, the letter k is taking over for c because when c is followed by e, i, or y, it has its soft sound /s/ (as in cent, city, and cycle). The letters ck represent /k/ after a stressed short vowel (as in nickel) and at the end of one-syllable words (as in back, rock, neck, and stuck).
Not all consonant or vowel spellings are that complex, but the choice of grapheme for a given speech sound is often determined by the speech sound that precedes or follows it. Here’s a less complicated example: When the sounds /f/, /l/, or /s/ directly follow a short vowel in one-syllable words, a doubled f, l, or s is used to spell the sound (as in staff, will, and grass). Even vowel spellings, which can seem terribly complicated because they tend to have many graphemes for their short and long sounds, often become more predictable when the position of the vowel sound is considered. For example, /ou/ can be spelled with ou or ow — it’s just a matter of where the /ou/ sound appears. If it is at the beginning of a word, use ou (as in out). If it is in the middle of a word or syllable, ou is usually correct (as in mouse and house) — except when /ou/ is followed by only a single n or l (as in brown and howl). Lastly, if the /ou/ sound is at the end of the word or syllable, use ow (as in cow).
The spellings of some sounds are governed by established conventions of letter sequences and patterns
When dictionaries were first written and disseminated, rules for spelling had to be standardized. Scholars like Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster worked to accommodate the norms of the day and give the language more regularity.
To illustrate this principle, we’ll examine the spellings for /v/ and /j/. It was not until the 1800s that the letters j and v were fully welcomed into the English alphabet.
By then, scribes and writers of dictionaries had determined that English words would not end with those letters because they were easy to visually confuse with i and u, respectively, the letters from which each was derived. Though it seems odd to us today, that is why the spelling ve is always used when the phoneme /v/ ends an English word; the combination prevents a word from ending in plain v. Thus, words with short vowels ending in /v/ (have, give, glove) are “regular” from the standpoint of spelling conventions. Likewise, because j is not an option at the ends of words, the speech sound /j/ may be spelled with either ge or dge. English uses dge right after an accented short vowel. Why? Because if it were not for the extra consonant protection of d, the letter e could reach back over the single consonant g and make the vowel say its long vowel sound (badge, nudge vs. wage, huge).
Here’s another example of a spelling convention: The letter u is a marker for the hard /g/ sound in words like guest and guide. To see why it is necessary, you’ll need to know one more example of the previous principle (that the spelling of a sound can be affected by its position in a word). Like the letter c, when g is followed by e, i, or y, it has its soft sound (/j/ as in gem, gist, and gym). So, in the case of guest and guide, the letter u intervenes between the g and the e or i, requiring the g to have its hard /g/ sound.
Conventions like these were developed to help people pronounce words correctly. Consider the differences in pronunciation between these words: hopping vs. hoping, hotter vs. hotel, bubble vs. bible, and comment vs. moment. In each pair, the first word has a short vowel sound that is “protected” from being a long vowel sound by the double consonant.
Together, these five principles explain how English can be rich and varied, yet contain words spelled in regular and predictable ways. Virtually every word’s spelling can be explained by its language of origin, meaning, and/or sound structure. But, as we’ve seen with the many ways to spell /k/ and /j/, it’s not as if words are simply predictable or not: The predictability of English words exists on a continuum. Only a few phoneme-grapheme correspondences work all of the time (regardless of sound sequence), such as in that, must, and pan. Most of the correspondences are predictable, but are determined by the position of a phoneme in a word and/or a variety of spelling conventions. Yet other correspondences visually represent the meaningful parts of and relationships between words, often at the expense of phoneme-grapheme correspondences. Odd and truly unpredictable spellings, such as of, aunt, and does, are only a small percentage of words in English. But because they are often very common words (coming from Anglo-Saxon), they are used frequently and, as a result, probably contribute to the widespread myth that English is terribly irregular.
Spelling instruction: Key content and strategies for fourth through seventh grade
Grade 4: Latin-based prefixes, suffixes, and roots
Direct teaching about the meaningful parts of words begins with the most common inflections, but then extends to prefixes, suffixes, and roots of Latin origin. Prefixes and suffixes have stable spellings and meanings. Suffixes such as ly, al, ment, less, ness, ful, ous also signify the part of speech of the word to which they are added. Roots such as nat (to be born) can be studied through families of words, such as natal, native, nation, national, multinational, international, nationalistic, etc. This is especially helpful in grades four through eight to help students develop a larger vocabulary. A sample exercise on the prefix super- and the prepositions over and under appears on the left. Although the relationship between the meaningful parts of a word and the present-day meaning of a word range from transparent, as in antebellum (with ante meaning before and bellum meaning war), to obscure, as in apartment (with a meaning to or toward and part meaning to share or part), the stability of morpheme spellings assists with recall and recognition.
Grades 5-6: More complex Latin-based forms
Content words (nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs) in academic text are commonly of Latin origin and composed of prefixes, roots, and/or suffixes. Their study is productive for reading comprehension, spelling, and vocabulary development (Carlisle and Stone, 2005). However, more complex words or word parts derived from Latin often change either the pronunciation or spelling of the prefix and/or root. For example, collaborate is related to the root labor (to work). The prefix col is a changed form of com (with), designed to blend easily into the root. Many other “chameleon” prefixes operate this way. It’s best to organize word study around a common root once prefixes and suffixes are recognized (Henry, 2003; Templeton et al., 1992).
Grades 6-7: Greek combining forms
Since the Renaissance, scholars have drawn from the Greek language to name scientific concepts and discoveries. As a result, middle school (and older) students will encounter hundreds of words derived from Greek in math, science, and philosophy texts. Greek word parts work more like compounds than roots. They can be combined more flexibly, as follows: thermodynamics and isotherm; psychobiology and neuropsychology; telephone and phonogram. Their spellings are very consistent, and often use the correspondences ch for /k/, y for / i./ or / i¯/, and ph for /f/.