“English spelling is crazy!”
I hear that a lot. Perhaps you’ve even uttered that phrase yourself!
Indeed, English spelling can seem ridiculous at times. With a nod to George Bernard Shaw (who jokingly claimed that fish could be spelled ghoti), I’d like to present the following crazy spelling for the word farmer:
Makes sense, right? After all, PH can say /f/, ARRE can say /ar/, MB can say /m/, and AR can say /er/.
No, we’re not nuts, and thankfully, such a word does not exist. But our crazy spelling for the word farmer does illustrate an important fact: there can be multiple ways to spell a single sound. But although English spelling is much more logical than the illustration above seems to imply, there is still a little problem to overcome.
Many educators believe that spelling is too unpredictable and random to make spelling instruction worthwhile,1 and that’s why so many schools have given up on teaching spelling. Simply put, the methods they were using didn’t produce good spellers, so they dropped spelling instruction altogether. (Click to discover “How to Find a Spelling Program that Works”.)
In large part, English conforms to predictable patterns, and those patterns can be taught to your child. That means there is a better—and more logical—way to learn to spell than by rote memorization of list after list of unrelated words. (Check out my post “Does Your Child’s Spelling List Make Sense?” to find out why most spelling programs don’t work, along with a solution.)
The best way to make spelling logical is to teach it logically! The seven tips below will help make sense of spelling for you and your student.
A phonogram is a letter or combination of letters that represent a sound. At the most basic level of instruction, it’s important to show that these letters and letter combinations are the building blocks of language. Our free downloadable phonograms app makes it easy to get familiar with the sounds of the phonograms.
It’s critical that there are no gaps at this stage. Learning to spell is like climbing a ladder, with each skill representing a rung on the ladder. When instruction begins on the most basic “rungs,” we are explicitly providing children with the skills they need so they don’t have to guess. This helps them learn to trust their own abilities and lays the foundation for a lifetime of spelling success.
Teaching the six syllable types one at time, and showing how words fit into these patterns, helps make spelling more logical. Studies have shown that students who learn the six syllable types score higher on reading and spelling assessments than students who were not given this explicit teaching.2 Learn more about the six syllable types with this handy chart.
The English language is full of predictable patterns such as “CK is used after short vowel sounds” and “OI is used in the middle of English words, but never at the end.” For an example of this type of explicit teaching, download this lesson plan where we teach kids how to spell the sound of /j/ at the end of a word.
Dozens of phonics programs teach that Silent E makes the previous vowel “say its own name,” as in the word home. But that’s only part of the truth, and it doesn’t explain the Silent E in hundreds of words such as have and hinge. To make spelling logical, it’s important to teach all the jobs of Silent E. Download our infographic to learn more about all the jobs that Silent E performs.
As you teach, it’s important to make the process of adding suffixes crystal clear and logical. We make teaching suffixes simple in the All About Spelling program. As an example, here are two spelling lessons that provide an introduction to vowel and consonant suffixes.
Words are composed of morphemes, which are the smallest meaningful units of language. One way we teach morphemic structure is by analyzing clues to the origin of words, such as words originating from French, Spanish, or Italian. Another fantastic way to study word structure is by teaching Latin and Greek word parts with word trees.
Are you curious about the logic behind how a certain word is spelled? Post it in the comments below and I’ll choose a few words to analyze from your suggestions!
1Simonsen, F., & Gunter, L. (2001). Best practices in spelling instruction. Journal of Direct Instruction, 1, 97-105.
2Blachman, B. A., Tangel, D. M., Ball, E. W., Black, R., & McGraw, C. K. (1999). Developing phonological awareness and word recognition skills: A two-year intervention with low-income, inner-city students. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 11, 239–273.