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Uncovering the Logic of English: The Importance of Teacher Knowledge of Spelling Rules

Third-Grade Public School Teacher
Updated on March 16, 2023
  • English
  • Spelling

In science of reading circles, you’ll often hear experts and educators alike quote one of Maya Angelou’s famous lines: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” It is an encouraging and forgiving quote that reminds us of the importance of teacher knowledge. Teacher knowledge has a huge impact on classroom instruction. But we’ve seen in recent years that teacher knowledge in the classroom does not always reflect the growing body of research we call the science of reading. And one area where this disconnect can be readily seen is in phonics instruction.

The science of reading is by no means limited to phonics. However, phonics instruction is an essential component in a Structured Literacy classroom. From basic phoneme-grapheme correspondences to more advanced spelling rules, the explicit teaching of phonics is a hallmark of good Structured Literacy instruction. Phonics is both the system that governs how speech sounds and printed symbols are connected and the approach educators use to teach students how to use those sound-symbol connections to read and spell words. It includes the teaching of the rules that surround English spelling. And teacher knowledge of these rules is an important place to begin. I’m excited about an upcoming podcast with Denise Eide, author of Uncovering the Logic of English: A Common-Sense Approach to Reading, Spelling, and Literacy, that explores these rules.

It’s important to recognize the English spelling system is not illogical, unpredictable, or full of exceptions. In fact, many of the English spellings that might be considered unusual can be explained by one or more of the following factors:

  • Grapheme Position: The spelling of a word may be influenced by where the sound is located within the word. For example, the grapheme pair AI and AY are used in different places for spelling. AI is used in the middle of a word and AY is more typically used at the end of a word (mail/may). Another example is the use of -CK after a single, short vowel (duck, pick).
  • Language of Origin: English has borrowed many words, and their spelling, from other languages. An example of this can be seen in the three sounds that are represented by the letters CH. Typically, words with CH from Old English use the sound heard in words like child and each. Words with CH that come from Greek use the sound heard in school and chasm. And CH words the come from French use the sound heard in chef and brochure.
  • Morphology: The meaningful parts, or morphemes, in a word tend to remain stable in their spelling even if pronunciation changes in different forms of the word. You can see this in words like child and children or heal and health.
  • Pronunciation Change: Many of our oldest words (i.e., does, of, been) were likely pronounced more phonetically in the past. But as pronunciation shifted over time, spelling remained stable.

 

One amazing example of the complex but logical nature of English spelling can be seen when you examine all of the reasons for adding a silent-e to the end of words. Many children and adults know silent-e is added to make a vowel say its long sound. That is both an accurate and overly simple rule to teach students. In addition to this reason, there are eight others why a silent-e might be added to the end of a word.

  1. Add silent-e to make the vowel say its name. (cake, bike)
  2. Add silent-e because English words cannot end in V or U. (give, true)
  3. Add silent-e to make a soft c or soft g. (voice, language)
  4. Add silent-e because every syllable must have a vowel. (table, acre)
  5. Add silent-e to singular words so they don’t look like plurals. (moose, purse)
  6. Add silent-e to make the word look like a bigger word and not just letters. (awe, are)
  7. Add silent-e to make th say its voiced sound. (breath vs. breathe)
  8. Add silent-e to clarify the meaning of the word. (ore vs. or, teas vs. tease)
  9. Add silent-e for other reasons where explanations have likely been lost over time. (done, some, were)

 

Providing students access to the complex code that is English spelling will unlock opportunities for them in their future reading and writing. But first, educators need access to all the spelling rules that govern the English language.

Teachers who understand how English works are better equipped to pass that knowledge along to their students. They will be able to provide better phonics instruction to their students. There is a logic to English. Teacher knowledge of that logic benefits us all. It allows us to both know better and do better.  
 

References:

Eide, Denise. Uncovering the Logic of English: A Common-Sense Approach to Reading, Spelling, and Literacy. Pedia Learning Inc., 2012.

Moats, L. C., & Tolman, C. A. (2019). LETRS (3rd ed., Vol. 1). Voyager Sopris.

About the Author
Hannah Irion-Frake
Hannah Irion-Frake
Third-Grade Public School Teacher

Hannah Irion-Frake is a third-grade public school teacher with more than 15 years of teaching experience in second and third grades. She is a graduate of Bucknell University, Bloomsburg University, and the University of Massachusetts Lowell with Masters degrees in reading and curriculum & instruction. Irion-Frake is a Local LETRS® Facilitator and is committed to spreading awareness about the science of reading. She shares actively about how she brings Structured Literacy practices into her own third-grade classroom on her Instagram account, @readingwithmrsif, and on Twitter, @readingwithmsif. She lives in central Pennsylvania with her husband, also a teacher, and their three sons.

Learn more about Hannah Irion-Frake