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