English Spelling has a reputation for being illogical and chaotic. What’s going on with yacht, and why the W in two?
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.
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”.
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.
This skill is particularly crucial as they move through school and must read and spell increasingly complex words.
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 it’s family. Two is the base word in twelve, twenty, between and twin.
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.
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.
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 inculcates tens of thousands of words from dozens of languages- most notably French, Greek and Latin.
English speakers have not always manages to get their tongues around their foreign pronunciation. So, the original spelling was often kept, but different sounds were applied to such words.
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 taught to all children, especially those who struggle with it.
In conclusion, if we don’t simultaneously teach students the phonology, orthography, morphology and etymology of words, then we are not giving them all the pieces of the spelling puzzle, thus, making them struggle.
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