When to use c or k

An eight-year-old asked me the other day, “When do I use the letter C and when do I use K?”. She’s a pretty good reader but her spelling is not so great, which is why she was referred to me.

I got her to answer her own question by doing the following:

C or K at word beginnings (before vowels)

I wrote out some words like the following ones in two columns (I am in the habit of underlining letter groups that are working together to represent a single sound, so I will do this here too):

C K

car

cash

cat

clap

clock

club

coin

corn

cot

crab

cross

crow

cup

cut

cue

keep

keg

Ken

kerb

key

kid

kind

king

kiss

kit

Kylie

Kym

skill

skin

sky

Then I gave her a highlighter pen and asked her to highlight all the letters “C” and “K”, plus the next letter:

C K

car

cash

cat

clap

clock

club

coin

corn

cot

crab

cross

crow

cup

cut

cue

keep

keg

Ken

kerb

key

kid

kind

king

kiss

kit

Kylie

Kym

skill

skin

sky

Then I asked her to go down the list and write the letters following the letter “C” at the bottom of that column. She wrote: “A, L, O, R, U”.

Then I asked her to write the ones that follow a letter “K” at the bottom of that column and she wrote “E, I, Y”.

Then she summarised this as something like “When we’re writing the sound “k”, if the next letter is E, I or Y, we usually use a letter K. Otherwise we usually use C”.

Then I asked her to consider what would happen if we put “C” instead of “K” in the words in the right column, e.g. “ceep” not “keep”, “cing” not “king”, and she read these with a “s” as in “city”, “cell” and “cyanide”, not the sound “k”.

We summarised this as, “When the letter C has E, I or Y next, the sound is ‘s'” (the only spelling rule that works in English!).

As always in English, which steals words from all round the world, there are a few words which don’t stick to the “K is followed by E, I or Y” pattern, like “Kate”, “skate”, “koala”, “kangaroo”, “Korea” and “Kung Fu”. People who make alphabet posters and other alphabet-teaching materials have an annoying tendency to include lots of these words, and obscure the KE, KI, KY pattern. They also like to include the “n” sound spelt “KN” in words like “knight” and “knot”, adding further to the confusion.

C or K at word endings (after vowels)

Here I wrote out four lists of words like these:

CK K K C

back

buck

deck

dock

duck

hack

mock

muck

neck

Nick

pack

peck

pick

tack

tick

tuck

yuck

ask

book

dark

fork

hawk

milk

oak

park

pink

shriek

soak

speak

spook

stork

sulk

task

week

bake*

bike

broke

cake

duke

fake

hike

joke

lake

like

make

nuke

sh ake

smoke

spike

take

woke

classic

clinic

comic

critic

epic

garlic

havoc

logic

mollusc

music

panic

picnic

relic

topic

traffic

tragic

tropic

* When I’m handwriting, I draw a little loop under words with “split” vowel spellings (or “bossy e”) to show that the two vowel letters are acting as a unit to represent a single sound. But I can’t do that when typing, so you’ll have to imagine little loops joining the underlined vowel letters in column 3.

I asked the student to highlight all the CK”, “K” and “C” spellings. Then we eyeballed the lists and deduced:

  • That “ck” is an ending spelling in short words or syllables that end with “ack”, “eck”, “ick”, “ock” and “uck”. She highlighted the preceding single vowel letters, so this pattern really stood out.
  • Some longer words like “panic” and “traffic” just end in “C” not “CK”, and I added that there are a few little, not-very-common words, like “arc”, “disc” (the circular shape, not the computer thing, which is spelt “disk”) and “talc” that also fit in column 4, and added them.
  • We tend to use the letter “K” at word and syllable endings the rest of the time, i.e. after consonants (as in “ask” and “pink”) and other vowel spellings, including “bossy e” vowels like “bake” and “like”.

I wrote the words “brake”, “fake”, “like”, “trike” and “puke” out in pencil, then asked her to change the “K” to a “C” and see what happened. This changed them into “brace”, “face”, “lice”, “trice” and “puce”. The student was able to tell me this was because the letter “C” sounds like “s” when a letter “E” is next. Good girl.

When we’d finished, she picked up the sheets of paper on which we had done this working-out, and asked, “Can I keep these?”. Nice one. Of course. I hope she’s going to play teacher to a friend or younger sibling, who’s confused about when to use C or K.

Feel free to give this lesson about when to use C or K to anyone who might find it helpful.

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16 thoughts on “When to use c or k

  1. Mel

    oh i love this!!

    will use in my class – thank you! It makes so much more sense to allow kids to investigate the rule for themselves rather than just tell them.

    Reply
  2. Krupa

    Thank you so much I am going to save this for future. My son is 4yrs old and he knows sounds and started forming 3 letter words and he gets confused in c k sound, for now i tell cat C and Kite K. Do you have any suggesation how to teach him, as he does not know vovels.

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Dear Krupa, sorry for the delay in replying, I have been snowed under. If you follow any good systematic synthetic phonics program, it will introduce letters then letter combinations in a logical way, but please also remember that your son is only four, so helping him learn oral language via lots of pretend play, stories, games and just chatting is probably the highest priority. Children who start school recognising letters, rhyming and identifying first sounds are in a good position to learn literacy but he doesn’t need to be able to read and spell before he starts school, in some ways that makes the teacher’s job harder as they are having to occupy him while they teach the others things he already knows.

      Reply
  3. Christine Milton

    Wow! Very good practical ideas to foster independence and for children to be able to work out the rule as oppose to you just giving them the rule. I’m all for it. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. Taruna

    Thank you …it is very helpful…I also want to know about how to use c and s letters …like circular…not sircular…. how to explain in easy way

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Dear Taruna, I’m not sure there is always an easy way to explain when to use c and when to use s, but sometimes these can be linked to meaning to provide a clue e.g. circle, circus, cycle, cyclone are all c and all to do with circles. But sometimes it’s just a case of learning which words have c, and the rest have the standard s. Alison

      Reply

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