English spelling has a reputation for being illogical and chaotic. What’s going on with yacht, and why the W in two? There are a thousand other “but why?” questions our children ask about English spelling.
“English is crazy/confusing/tricky,” we say. “There are some words you just have to learn by heart,” we advise young children. “It’s a special word.”
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Those responses aren’t accurate or helpful to a child learning how to spell. English spelling isn’t random. There is a system to English spelling, and there are reasons words are spelled the way they are.
How do words work?
Morphology (the meaning components of words), phonology (the sound components of words), orthography (the multiple ways the same sound may be written), and etymology (the origin of words) are the threads that work together to explain the spellings of words.
An effective spelling program will teach all these threads together.
Words are packets of meaning
English is a morpho-phonemic language. This means words are spelled according to their meaning parts (morphemes) as well as their sounds (phonemes). Morphemes are base words, prefixes and suffixes.
Phonemes and morphemes work together, so to teach English spelling it’s important to teach the two together.
For example, the word magician is not spelled majishun, even though it sounds like it should be. So before asking “what sounds can I hear?” when we spell a word, we need to ask “what does this word mean?”.
A magician is a person who does magic – and all of that meaning can be found within the spelling of the word. Magic is the base word, and “ian” is the suffix that means “the person who does”.
We see this suffix at work with lots of base words that end in “ic”, such as musician, politician, clinician, physician, electrician and technician.
Breaking words into their meaningful parts is very helpful for students because it also improves their vocabulary and reading comprehension. They can use these skills to tackle the longer words that often trip them up when reading.
This skill is particularly crucial as they move through school and must read and spell increasingly complex words such as collaborate (col = prefix meaning together, labor = work, ate = suffix that makes verbs).
It also helps them learn the concepts embedded within the words, such as perimeter (peri = around, meter = measure).
Even single morpheme words are part of a larger family that are worth studying. The silent W in two becomes audible and more memorable when we look at its family. Two is the base word in twelve, twenty, between, and twin.
This is well within the learning capacity of very young children. For example, I watched a five-year-old volunteer Twix to his teacher as she was explaining the two word family to her class. He explained a Twix was two sticks of biscuits.
Of course, the C sound in magic could potentially have been written as a K, “ck”, “ch” or “que”. In English, for the vast majority of words there will be more than one way to spell the sounds you can hear.
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There are patterns we can teach children to make this easier (orthography). That’s why we teach children things like I before E except after C. It doesn’t work all the time, but it reduces the odds.
Very often, making the correct choice comes down to the word’s origin – and that brings us to etymology.
A multilingual language
As a language, English is no snob. It began as a German language but it hasn’t had a history of protectionism. Instead, it has opened its arms and its dictionary to tens of thousands of words from dozens of other languages – most notably French, Greek and Latin.
But while English has been a keen adopter of words from other languages, we English speakers have not always managed to get our tongues around their foreign pronunciation. So we’ve often kept the original spelling, but applied our own English sounds. That’s how we end up with words spelled like yacht but said like yot.
Interestingly yacht meant hunter in Dutch, which is what they invented the yacht for, to hunt down pirate ships to protect Dutch trading ships.
Helping struggling spellers
This etymological work, and indeed the work on morphemes, should not just be extension work for high achievers. It’s core work for understanding how words work in English and so must be done with every student. All children must be shown how the English language works, and none need this more than those who struggle with the language.
Read more: Trying to change English's complex spelling is a waste of time
English spelling is not an illogical burden there to make life difficult for our children. If we are not simultaneously teaching students the phonology, orthography, morphology and etymology of words, then we are not giving them all the pieces of the spelling puzzle – and their struggles will be our failure.