How to Crack the Tough Nut of English Spelling
English language spelling is difficult for many children, as well as adults. When in elementary school, children are taught using 3 main strategies. First, students are presented with weekly spelling lists, using word families, such as 'at' to which the teacher adds different initial sounds, such as m-at, c-at, s-at. This is called onset and rime, referring to beginning sound and word family, respectively. Often, the spelling list will also include a few sight words that are used frequently, but cannot be taught phonetically. For example, the word "many" is a word that is used frequently in reading, writing and speaking, but is not spelled completely phonetically.
This brings us to the next important point in learning how to spell, and that is, with enough repetition, our brain makes pictures of the words we read. Have you ever had the experience of writing a word incorrectly and then looking at it and thinking, "That word doesn't look right?" What is happening is that the letters you have written do not match the picture your brain has formed of the word in question.
This is typical, and is what is supposed to happen when we are learning to encode and decode. Eventually, after learning the rules and practicing writing words (including writing them in sentences), as well as reading them in books, your brain makes pictures, called "orthographic images" of all the words that you have seen in print or have written, and you know how to spell them. But, of course, this process takes time, and part of this process is learning the rules of the "spelling road."
Surprisingly to most, English spelling is more rule governed than many think. Also surprisingly, many rules revolve around short vowels, as you will notice as we discuss them.
Children often make mistakes with respect to the letter 'c,' so let's first discuss the letter 'c' rule. In our reading sessions, the students make lists of words beginning with the letter 'c' making both the /s/ sound and the /k/ sound, and they are asked to try to notice a pattern. After some investigation, we discover that when the letter 'c' is followed by the letters 'y', 'i' or 'e', it makes the sound of the letter 's'. Think of the words "circle, "cement," and "cycle," for example. In all other circumstances, the 'c' makes the sound of the letter 'k'. That's it. NO EXCEPTIONS!
Now, let's go over a number of rules that revolve around short vowels:
1.) If a one syllable word has an ending sound of /k/ and has a short vowel, and no other intervening sound, then the /k/ sound is spelled 'ck'; otherwise, it's spelled with a 'k.' Notice "back," "bank," "bake," "lick," "link," and "like." These words include examples of short vowel only, short vowel plus another letter/sound and long vowel. If the word is not a monosyllable and the next letter after the /k/ sound is not 'e', 'i' or 'y', then it is spelled 'cc' as in broccoli, stucco, raccoon. Otherwise it is 'ck' as in lucky, rocker, pickiest.
2.) If a word ends with the /ch/ sound, it's spelled 'tch' when the word has a short vowel and no intervening sound. Some examples include "catch," "pitch," "notch." This rule has some notable exceptions such as "much," "such," and "rich," and the speller has to either remember them or look them up (easy with KidsVoyager Online). Similarly, the /j/ sound at the end of words follows a similar rule. Following a short vowel, the sound is usually spelled 'dge' as in "budge," "hedge," and "ridge" and 'ge' in other circumstances.
3.) The rule of doubling. Think "hop," "hope" and then "hopping" and "hoping." Notice the word with the short vowel (and no intervening consonant) has a doubled consonant when the 'ing' ending is added. This is true for any ending; any ending causes the final consonant to be doubled following a short vowel. (For example, consonant doubling also occurs in words with the 'le' ending. Notice "puzzle," "middle," "bubble" and contrast that to "title," "bangle," "humble.")
When we are made aware of spelling rules, we become better at both decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling).
So the "tough nut" is cracked by learning rules, applying them, and then making mental pictures of what correctly spelled words look like. There are more rules than you probably suspect, but learning them is far simpler than having to learn individual words.
But before we go over some other rules, let's look at 2 more "doubling" rules:
- If a word is one syllable, has a short vowel, and ends with s, z, f, or l, that consonant is doubled. Think of pass, fizz, staff, and pill.
- If a word has two syllables and the second syllable has a short vowel sound in it, you double the final consonant only when the final syllable has the emphasis on it. Here are some examples: the word open has the emphasis on the first syllable, so there is no doubling; open becomes opening or opened. This is in contrast to the words begin and permit. The accent is on the second syllable, so with the ending added, the consonant is doubled as in beginning and permitted
With doubling rules behind us, let's move on to suffixes. Although there are a fair number of rules, it's typically easier to memorize them then to memorize individual words.
The easiest rule to remember is that if a suffix begins with a consonant, such as ment or ful, as in pavement and grateful, all you need to do is add the ending.
But things are not as easy when the suffix begins with a vowel.
- If a word ends with silent e, and the suffix begins with a vowel, the e is dropped, as in like/liking (for words like liked, you can think of it as dropping the e, then adding an ed).
- Words ending with ce or ge:
- If the word we are adding the suffix to ends with ce or ge and the suffix begins with a, o, or u, we need to keep the silent e in order to maintain the soft c and g sounds. Example: notice/noticeable. Remember, in part 1 of this article, we talked about c and usually g demonstrating their soft sounds (like /s/ and /j/) when followed by an e, i, or y.
- If the word we are adding the suffix to ends with ce or ge, and the suffix begins with i, e, or y, we drop the e, because i, e, and y cause a soft c or g, as in notice/noticing, or page/paging. Notice the sound of the final consonant does not change.
- If a word ends with y, the y changes to an i when adding an ending. Happy becomes happier, bounty becomes bountiful, lucky becomes luckiest.
Our students often confuse the word ending ist with est. An easy way to remember is that ist refers to a person as in guitarist, whereas est is the superlative ending as in busiest. Similarly, the cian ending is used for people (as in musician), while the tion, sion endings are used for other nouns (condition, television).
Three endings that sound the same are: er, ar, and or. There is no particular rule for this one, you just have to remember. But, there are many more words that end in er.
One useful tip about er/or: As mentioned above, the vast majority end with er but here is a great rule to know: If the root word ends with ct, it or ate (think of director, editor and creator (notice the e dropped off in creator) then the word ends with or.
Once you have these rules under your belt, there will be few mistakes made.
It is clear that knowledge of spelling rules helps us with not only encoding, but also decoding as well as reading comprehension. Spelling is not unimportant, as some believe. Using a spellchecker does not make up for poor spelling skills, and it appears to many in the field of teaching reading that spelling is not only an essential part of literacy in and of itself, but also, as mentioned just above, facilitates decoding and comprehension. This appears to be something many educational systems seem to be unaware of.
If I write, "I mist you" (which will also not be picked up by a spellchecker), I am demonstrating my lack of understanding of past tense forms. If I spell the plural of dog as dogz, I am similarly demonstrating my lack of understanding of plurals. So the next time someone says that spelling doesn't matter and "hey there is always spellchecker," you can explain why that is wrong.
Think about your own child. Imagine him/her going to a job interview with a resume with common misspellings that are homophones. These errors would not be picked up by a spellchecker. If your son or daughter uses pear for pair or air for heir, what kind of impression does that make on a college essay or a job application? That may seem far away, but good spelling habits tend to develop early and it is so much easier to learn to spell a word correctly the first time, rather than having to unlearn the incorrect spelling and relearn the correct way.