Spelling for kids

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English spelling really sucks, but kids still expect adults to be able to explain it. And fair enough.

Here's a 10-point explanation I sometimes find useful:

1. History of English spelling

English spelling sucks because English is a mashup of lots of different languages and their spellings.

First England was invaded by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who spoke old German languages, then by Vikings who spoke Old Norse, and these languages got mixed up with the church's Latin to make Old English. Then in 1066 the Norman French invaded, bringing in lots of French words.

Lots of migration and social upheaval after the Black Death led to a thing called the Great Vowel Shift, when all the vowels moved around. During the Renaissance everyone went mad for Latin and Greek, and started using a lot of their words for new discoveries and inventions. Once the British got Empire-building, they pinched words from all round the world, and now we have the internet, so the madness just continues (if you want to give some examples of English word origins, click here, or watch the Open University's hilarious 10-minute History of English, from which the above image is taken).

A bloke called Samuel Johnson published a dictionary standardising English spelling in 1755, and we've stuck to it pretty well since then, though  American Noah Webster's attempt to simplify spelling actually made things worse, giving us two ways to spell words like "centre/center", "harbo(u)r", "travel(l)ing", "leuk(a)emia", "am(o)eba" and "catalog(ue)".

Simplifying English spelling is now impossible because more than a billion people are using it, and nobody is the boss of it any more, so we just have to suck it up, and teach and learn it well.

2. Spoken words are made of sounds

There are 44 sounds in spoken English – 24 consonant sounds and 20 vowel sounds. Every English word is made of combinations of these sounds.

If you want to know what all the sounds are, click here.

3. Letters are how we draw speech sounds

We can't actually draw sounds, because they are invisible, so someone a long time ago came up with the idea of letters, and we use them to draw the sounds of spoken words.

4. One letter can spell one sound

Unfortunately we only have 26 letters in our alphabet, so they all have to work fairly hard.

Each letter of the alphabet has one sound that most people ordinarily associate with it, like the "A" in "ant" and the "B" in "big" (well, "x" actually represents two sounds, and "c", "k" and "q" mostly represent the same sound, but you get the idea).

5. Two, three or four letters can spell one sound

There are many two-letter spellings for sounds – both consonants, like "ch", "sh", "th", "ng" and "ck", and vowels like "ai", "ee", "oo", "ey" and "oi".

Sometimes three letters work together to represent a single sound, like the "tch" in "fetch", the "dge" in "bridge", the "igh" in "high" and the "air" in "chair".

Sometimes four letters work together to represent a single sound, like the "augh" in "caught", the "eigh" in "eight" and the "ough" in "bought".

6. Some vowel spellings are split

The "a…e" in "take" (incidentally a Viking word), the "i…e" in "time", the "o…e" in "home", the "u…e" in "tune" and the "e…e" in "these" are single vowel spellings, but we put a consonant in between their two letters (I like to demonstrate this with my Movable Alphabet).

7. Each sound can be spelt a few ways

Most sounds have more than one spelling, and some have multiple spellings.

For example, the sound "aw" as in "law" is also (in an Australian accent) spelt "or" as in "for", "ore" as in "more", "our" as in "court", "oar" as in "roar", "au" as in "launch", "a" as in "all", "ar" as in "warn", "ough" as in "bought", "augh" as in "caught", "al" as in "walk" and "oor" as in "door".

But don't panic, "aw" is about the worst sound, with the most spelling choices.

Many sounds only have a couple of main spellings e.g. the sound "ou" is almost always written "ou" as in "out" or "ow" as in "town", and then a handful of others (drought, miaow, Maori etc), all of which you can see by clicking here.

8. Some spellings are shared by more than one sound

Quite a few spellings are used by more than one sound.

For example, the spelling "ch" represents three main sounds:

The spelling "ea" has quite a few different sounds: as in "sea", "dead", "great", "Sean" and "bream", plus of course the two letters "e" and "a" can stand next to each other but represent two different sounds, as in "idea".

9. Many spellings behave predictably

If you collect up a whole lot of words with the same sound, and sort them into groups according to the way the chosen sound is spelt, you can often see spelling patterns.

For example, the "aw" sound is typically spelt "a" before the sound "l", as in "all", "fall", "tall", "call", "also" and "walnut".

It's typically spelt "ar" after a "w" sound, as in "dwarf", "quart" and "swarm".

It's typically spelt "ough" before a "t" sound, as in "bought", "fought", "thought" and "nought".

Many spellings occur in a particular place in words – the "oy" in "toy" and the "ay" in "day" occur typically at word endings, while the "ti" in "action", "inertia" and "patient" is often the first spelling of the last syllable.

10. There are always spelling exceptions

English spelling really sucks, so there are always a few funny spellings that don't follow any pattern, like the "oo" in "brooch" and the "ew" in "sew".

Fortunately, once you've got your head around the main patterns, the funny spellings are fairly easy to notice and remember.


2 responses to “Spelling for kids”

  1. James Mc Inerney says:


    Very usefull material!!!

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