What do kids’ names teach them about spelling?

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The first word a child often learns to read and write is their own name. What first impression of our writing system does this give little Charlie, Chloe and Charlotte?

Our current crop of 5-year-olds was born in 2018, so I googled most popular baby names 2018 and looked for names that wouldn’t surprise a child with complete faith in ‘sounds of letters’, alphabet song type phonics.

I found only one name: Max. Even that would surprise kids whose poster/song says letter ‘X’ represents /eks/ as in ‘x-ray’. Add Quinn if you know a doubled consonant is usually pronounced the same as a single one, and your poster/song doesn’t say letter ‘Q’ by itself represents /kw/.

However, most kids’ names have more than one syllable, and contain at least one unstressed vowel. Let’s assume kids aren’t phased by vowel reduction or doubled consonants. Now we can sound out Emma, Ella, Camilla, Madison, Elena, Addison, Bella, Stella, Anna, Allison, Benjamin, Cameron, Adam, Landon, Colton, Ezra, Hudson, Dominic, Jameson, Evan, Declan, and Weston. A total of 24 names out of 200.

Hmm. Let’s add names containing ‘long’ vowel sounds represented by one letter (‘a’ in apron, ‘e’ in even, ‘i’ in icy, ‘o’ in open, ‘u’ in unit). IMHO the best thing about letter names is that the vowel names are also relevant sounds (but kids who extrapolate this to consonant letters tend to write ‘spl’ for ‘spell’, ‘pn’ for ‘pen’ and ‘cr’ for ‘car’). A child able to manipulate vowel sounds in words can now sound out Ava, Zoe, Maya, Penelope, Lila, Nova, Hazel, Violet, Eva, Mason, Logan, Jacob, Leo, Caleb, Owen, David, Samuel, Eli, Nolan, Roman, Rowan, and Jason.

This brings us up to 46 of 200 names, or 50 if we count names with ‘long’ vowel sounds written with ‘split’/VCe/silent final e spellings: James, Zane, Miles, Grace, (though she has a funny /s/ spelling), and Luke (though his vowel sound is really /oo/, not /ue/ as in ‘tune’).

Three-quarters of this sample of kids’ names still contain unexplained spellings. I don’t understand why being able to spell one’s own name is considered such an important milestone for tinies. Spelling names can be very hard, though Vaughan, Traigh, Clodagh, Siobhan, Niamh and Leigh weren’t hot in 2018.

Kids can make more sense of unexpected spellings in their names (and other words) if they know:

  • There are more speech sounds than letters, so we write many with letter combinations.
  • Some spellings represent more than one sound.

Our Embedded Picture Mnemonic desk mats are one simple tool which can help teach these concepts. They have the alphabet on one side, and the other speech sounds on the flip side, for example:

They also show shared spellings, as at the start of Asher and Ava, Evelyn and Ethan, Isabella and Isaac, Olivia and Owen, the ‘u’ in Hunter and Samuel and the ‘oo’ in Brooklyn and Cooper:

Confusion over harder sound-spelling relationships in names can be assuaged by teaching kids that most sounds are spelt a few ways, for example:

  • The sound /ee/ is written ‘i’ in Sophia, Olivia, Aria, Amelia, Mia, Mila (depending on pronunciation), Aaliyah, Eliana, Arianna, Victoria, Emilia, Liliana, Lillian, Gabriella, Maria, Gianna, Naomi, Juliana, Vivian, Julia, Ezekiel, Damian, Xavier, Adrian, Gabriel, Sebastian, and Liam.
  • /ee/ is written ‘ey’ at the end of Riley, Aubrey, Kinsley, Hailey, Paisley, and Audrey.
  • /i/ is written ‘y’ in Dylan, and is unstressed in Adalyn, Evelyn, Madelyn, Brooklyn, and Jocelyn.
  • /ie/ is written ‘y’ in Ryan, Wyatt, Skyler, Bryson, and Kylie.
  • /k/ is written ‘ch’ in Chloe, Michael, Nicholas, Christian (from Greek).
  • /f/ is written ph in Sophie, Sophia, Joseph and Christopher (also from Greek).
  • /z/ is written ‘X’ in Xavier, Xander and Xena, though sadly the Warrior Princess’s name wasn’t trending in 2018 (again, Greek!).

During a recent conversation about where words come from, a tween with an unusually-spelt name told me she’d always wondered about the spelling of her name.

Please don’t leave the kids in your life wondering.


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