Haw tu tij speling: One approach you should drop completely

spellingHave you ever flipped through literacy materials in another language for early readers?

If you haven’t, let me tell you, phonetic languages are brilliantly simple. Let’s take Spanish: instruction begins with the five vowels, a-e-i-o-u, which have a single pronunciation each. Consonants are introduced next in conjunction with vowels, so students learn da-de-di-do-du, ma-me-mi-mo-mu, na-ne-ni-no-nu, pa-pe-pi-po-pu, ta-te-ti-to-tu. Do you see the pattern? Students do, too. Then, two-syllable words begin to appear: ma-ma, pa-pa, pa-to (duck), ma-no (hand), na-da (nothing). Three syllable words aren’t much harder: to-ma-te (tomato), pe-pi-no (cucumber). Other rules aren’t hard to learn, once such a predictable pattern has been internalized: tor-ti-lla requires an extra consonant in the first syllable, but it’s no biggie, and the double-l was probably taught weeks earlier. There are other challenges to be learned with orthography–tildes and acute accent marks, for one–but decoding doesn’t slam young readers, just as they’re starting out.

Meanwhile, teaching English spelling is woefully difficult by comparison. Remember the jikn incident? Sounding words out only works for a small subset of primer words like cat, hat, fat, hen, pen, ten. But chicken? The “ch” requires special instruction; as does the combined “ck,” and the second-syllable schwa gets lost completely by the brave new speller. It’s discouraging, to say the least.

Kelli Sandman-Hurley suggests a different approach to syllabic spelling instruction in this Edutopia post. While geared more toward second language learners than early readers, the basic strategy still applies. She suggests focusing on (and teaching the meaning of, where necessary) the root of a new word, which is where sneaky, errant letters can usually be traced. Every derives from ever; sparkle from spark, trusted from trust (past tense -ed can be generalized to a plethora of verbs), and president from preside. Another tricky example that comes to mind is electricity, spelled with a “c” to maintain the visual, if not aural, relationship with its root, electric.

Such an approach is helpful for spelling on a word-by-word basis, certainly, but it also zooms out and provides metalinguistic information to language learners: They can learn word families (preside/president/presidential/presidency), begin to internalize spelling patterns among more “academic” vocabulary, and recognize the influence of Latin, Greek, and French on modern-day English.

What tricks do you have up your sleeve for making English spelling more transparent to would-be learners?

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