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Spelling VII: Why Didn’t I Think of That?

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There are some things that most of us readers and speakers of English just know.  The letter q is always followed by u.  I don’t care what the Scrabble Dictionary says.  Though si sometimes sounds like sh (session), I don’t remember ever seeing anyone trying to use si for the sh sound at the beginning of a word (siip or siop rather than ship or shop).  

Then there are things good spellers know, but may not be able to explain. The other day someone asked me, “How do you know if a word ends in -ible or -able?”  My very helpful reply was, “I just know.  If I’ve seen it, I’ll remember.”  I really had never thought about it.  Just a few days later I happened to read the explanation and it made perfect sense.  The rule doesn’t hold true in every instance (you knew I was going to say that, right?), but here’s the “usually.”  A word that ends in -ible is usually of Latin origin.  If you take off the -ible you will have part of the Latin root, but not a complete English word.  For example, terrible.  If you take off the -ible you are left with terr.  That doesn’t mean anything in English, though it is the first part of terrēre, which means to frighten in Latin.  The same holds true for horrible.  Also for illegible, incredible, ostensible, plausible, and visible.

Though this doesn’t work for accessible, it does work for inaccessible.  In the same way, destruct in the word destructible is a complete word, but indestruct, as in indestructible, is not.  That might be a good way to remember some of these exceptions.  Add a “not” prefix, in- or un-, to a questionable word and see if that word without the -ible or -able is still a complete word.  This would help you out with flexible, controvertible, and resistible.

The test, then, for the -able words would be the same.  If the word still a complete English word without its suffix it is likely that you would use -able.  Attainable, avoidable, breakable, comfortable, considerable, dependable, disagreeable, foreseeable, laudable, laughable.

Let’s look at some of the exceptions for the -able words.  There are a couple of not-so-obvious reasons for many of them.  The first is for the words that have had their tails lopped off in order to form a more pronounceable word.  I can’t say I know when or how this happened (not because it’s a secret, but because I don’t know), but in most cases, I think we can be thankful that it did.  What if we said equalable instead of equable (obviously equa is not a complete word)?  How about appreciatable instead of appreciable; calculatable instead of calculable; impenetratable instead of impenetrable; or negotiatable instead of negotiable?  I suppose we would be used to it, but somewhere along the line someone thought better of the longer forms.  I haven’t investigated this thoroughly, but perhaps these tailless words are another good clue for choosing between -ible and -able.  

Another rule that makes many of these -able words tricky is that they seem to be incomplete words because the e at the end is missing.  The rule here is that we take off the final silent e before adding an ending that starts with a vowel.  This works for words like advisable, deplorable, disputable, and imaginable.  We do this because if we leave the e on the end of those words, we end up with the inscrutable diphthong ea before the suffix, which would necessitate figuring out if the word should be pronounced imaginable or some variation on the other possible sounds of ea: imagineeble or imaginehble.

The exceptions to taking off the final silent e may seem dizzying at first, but they make sense in light of some of the other rules we have already gone over.  You do not take off the e if doing so breaks another spelling rule.  Because a silent e often changes the sound of g from a hard gh to a soft j, changeable, knowledgeable, and manageable keep the e to signal that those words keep the j sound for the g.  

Likewise for c.  An e often changes the hard k sound to the soft s, so noticeable, peaceable, and serviceable keep the e, lest we wonder if these words are to be pronounced notickable, peackable, and servickable.  

Another rule tells us to change a y at the end of a word to an i before adding an ending that starts with a vowel (unless you are adding -ing).  So, variable, pitiable, and reliable don’t look like complete words when you take off the -able, but they would be if you were to put the y back.  

The e on the end of argue and value keeps those words from ending in u, which rule we’ve discussed before.  The e at the end of believe, conceive, live, and love keeps those words from ending with a v, also a no-no in English.  Since that is no longer a problem once the -able is added, the e goes away in arguable, valuable, believable, conceivable, livable, and lovable.  

We’re making tangible, laudable progress.  Next time, I hope to be available to answer more formidable questions about some seemingly inexplicable, indiscernible spelling rules.  

 

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Spelling VI: Phonograms

Part six of our Spelling Series:

Oy, Oi, Those Diphthongs!

diphthong – A complex speech sound beginning with one vowel sound and moving to another vowel or semivowel position within the same syllable (Webster’s II, 1984).

Somehow it helps me a little that the definition of a diphthong uses the word “complex?”  Because that word sounds complicated.  Its roots go way back through French and Latin to two Greek words meaning, “two sounds.”  Not so complicated, right?

We could also refer to these letter combinations as two-letter (or three or four-letter) phonograms.

We’ve talked about the vowel combinations, phonograms or diphthongs, that can make the sounds of each of the vowels’ names.  Of course, there are still a few more vowel combinations, but we’ve narrowed the field a bit!

Ow may not look like a vowel combination, but it has the same sounds as ou, which can have either the sound in now or the sound in know.  It is likely that ow came into use, though it has the same sounds as ou, for a couple of reasons.  English words do not typically end in u.  Perhaps nou and knou just looked odd and difficult to pronounce to the early scribes.  Without it we would also run into awkward-looking words like flouer, and oue. What if we had words like yellouing, mellouing, or shadouy?  

Sometimes ou sounds more like uh, but this is probably a change in pronunciation somewhere along the line rather than an actual spelling oddity.  In a few instances ou may also sound like the oo in good – could, would, and should.  

The reason for having oy and oi is probably the same as for ow and ou. English words don’t end in i, so we could not have boi, toi, or enjoi. It has not been too many hundreds of years since spelling began to be standardized.  In the 1611 King James Bible, there is much interchanging of diphthongs, sometimes even when diphthongs or entire words recur in the same sentence.

This story repeats itself when it comes to aw and au.  Same sounds, different positions.  Besides the ubiquitous you, English words don’t end in u.  So we have claw not clau, draw not drau, and saw not sau, etc.  

In our modern pronunciation, the diphthong ea may have one of three sounds: ee (eat), eh (head), or ay (break).  Originally, they all sounded the same.  Ay-ut, hay-ud, bray-uk.    

The phonogram ar doesn’t exactly fit the above definition of a diphthong because the initial vowel sound doesn’t move to another vowel or semivowel sound.  But since it hasn’t done anything to merit an article all to itself, it has to go somewhere.  You may disagree with me if you happen to be an ardent observer of National Talk Like a Pirate Day.  Aaargh, Matey!

Similar to ar’s category is or.  This one is fairly easy, especially if you explain that the phonogram is also a word.  

The last category-less phonogram that begins with a vowel is ed.  Also, not really a diphthong, but an ending.  The thing to point out to beginning readers is that it may have one of three sounds, ed, d, or t. There isn’t a rule for this, but you may point out that King James and Co. would have said, start-ed, lov-ed, miss-ed.  Our ears are pretty good at telling us which sound is correct.  Try to say startd, or lovt.

One of the rules in The Writing Road to Reading is that there are five ways to spell the sound er.  Er, the er of her, ir the ir of first, ur the ur of nurse, wor the er of works, and ear the ear of early.  The mnemonic for these is, “Her first nurse works early.”  You have probably already surmised that these would not all have sounded the same to the aforementioned king.    

There are only eight of the 70 phonograms we haven’t covered: kn, gn, wr, dge, none of which started out with silent letters.  

Ph for the f sound shows up in words derived from Greek.  

The sh sound made with ti or ci.

Si, which may say either sh or zh.  Most often, this phonogram sounds like sh when it follows an s (session), and like zh when it follows a vowel (vision).     

There now!  We’ve covered all 70 of the most common phonograms.  The Writing Road to Reading lists a few others as uncommon phonograms such as gh as in ghost, but we may cover those later.  

Let’s move on to some of the rules that may help with spelling and reading.

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Spelling V: Blended Families

Part five of our Spelling series:

Blended Families

You’ve been working with your child on the single-sound consonants and the first sounds of vowels.  He knows that most of the e’s on the ends of words are silent but busy.  He’s wanting to know how to spell everything and trying to read signs and cereal boxes, so you are practicing with simple consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words, and can’t explain everything fast enough.  Or . . . you’re not quite there yet?  That’s okay.  There’s no rush!

This is already tricky, so I won’t say that things start to get tricky once you move on to words of more than three letters.  But let’s add some more tools to the toolbox.  Remember the Berenstain Bears Bike Lesson?  Papa Bear keeps adding “one more” lesson before Small Bear gets to ride his new bike.  At least we do get to read before we get through all the lessons.  

One tool that will make it easier to learn longer words is to be aware of consonant blends.  You already do this without thinking about it and, for many children, their ears will tell them how this works without too much trouble.  “Blends” are two or more letters that work together to make one sound, or that run together in such a way that it seems like one sound.  The ck blend is an example of two letters that make only one sound.  There are two-letter blends that can be at the beginning and/or the end of words (twin, camp).  There are also three-letter blends (scrub, three, bench, catch).  

When I’m teaching reading, I don’t usually belabor the concept of blends with flashcards or worksheets, because, as I said, the ear of an English speaker will usually make short work of the concept.  But should it be necessary, here are some of the common beginning blends: bl, br, ch, cl, cr, dr, fl, fr, gl, gr, pl, pr, sc, sh, sk, sl, sm, sn, sp, st, th, tr, wh  

Some common ending blends: ch, ck, ft, lf, lk, lp, mp, nd, ng, nk, nt, pt, sh, st, th, xt  

The Writing Road to Reading teaches ch, sh, ck, ng, and wh as separate, single-sound phonograms rather than blends.  Th has two sounds, as in think or this.     

The internet is awash with worksheets, should you require reinforcement beyond simply reading.  

I think most of us appreciate words that sound like they look and look like they sound.  Word “families” are just what they sound like, words that are related by letter patterns.  This is where we get into how vowels find the help they need to say something besides their first sounds.  We already know that the silent e in a VCV word ending usually makes the vowel say its name.  Let’s look at some pattern families that also help the vowels say their names.  


We’ll start with a.  There are two phonograms, diphthongs, that have the letter a in them and make the sound of a’s name, ai and ay.  When we practice these in class, we said, “Ai, never used at the end of an English word.”  Because English words don’t end with i.  We say, “Ay, the a we use every day,” because the word day and all the days of the week end with this phonogram.  I can point to the days of the week on the calendar or the chalkboard each time we say this.  If this doesn’t work for you, feel free to make up something that does.  “We play in the hay every day,” or something like that.

Word families that use these phonograms would include: 

ail, bail, hail, braid, laid, maid, brain, main, pain, chain, bait, wait, faint, paint

bay, clay, day, gay, gray, hay, lay, may, pray, ray, say, stay, stray, tray, way

Again, we don’t spell this way just to make it harder for kids to learn.  The original pronunciation of words with ai would have been ah-i, or ah-ee (bah-il or bah-eel, for bail).  The ay would have been more like aye, as in, “Aye, aye, Sir.” But more open-mouthed than the way we usually say aye these days.  A shift several hundred years ago in the way we use the inside of our mouths to pronounce these vowel sounds is responsible for our pronunciation not matching our spelling.

Four other phonograms sometimes sound like a:

ei: rein, veil, their (Anciently: ray-in, vay-il, thay-ir)

eigh: eight, weigh, sleigh (ay-ight, way-igh, slay-igh)

ey:  prey, they, grey

ea: break, great, steak (bray-uk, gray-ut, stay-uk)

There are four phonograms for the e sound: ie, ei, ey, ee:

ee is the easiest. We memorize this as, “Ee, the two-letter e.”

ie: “E, ī, ĭ; If you say e, i, and you write e, i, you’re wrong.”

ei:  “E, ā, ĭ; e squeezed together make an ā and ĭ.”  Which may not make a whole lot of sense on close examination, but that’s how I learned it, and the concept is that the e and i have squeezed the middle sound, a, out of the picture.  

ey:Ay, ee; They see a monkey.”

Two phonograms for i: ie and igh. For igh we say, “igh, the three-letter ī.”

die, lie, pie, tie and fight, high, light, night, right, sight, tight

Sometimes y will say ī: by, dry, fly, sly, try, why

One of the WRtR spelling rules is, “Vowels i and y usually say ĭ, but may say ī.”  Perhaps we should add, “We don’t know why.”  Probably simply because we no longer say, bee, dree, flee, slee, tree, or whee.

For o, the phonogram oe.  O, the o of toe.”  And doe, foe, hoe, sloe, woe.

When it comes to u, there could be some confusion between the sound of the letter’s name and more of an oo sound.  Some of that is regional, which is fine, since that’s how we got this messy spelling in the first place. We learn the phonogram ew as “Ewww, you,” and I hold my nose like I smell a bad smell.  I find, however, that I often have a hard time figuring out how our book determines which sound certain words should have.  

chew, dew, drew, flew, grew, new, threw, and few, mew, pew.

The same for ou and ui.  I pronounce you as yew, but soup as soop. To me, fruit sounds like froot, and juice sounds like joos. Even in words like prude, rude, and rule, in which the e ought to be making the u say its name, they sound like prood, rood, and rool to me.     

So I’ll throw oo in here.  We learn this phonogram, “Oo, ŏ, ō, put your boot on your foot on the floor by the door.”

oo: boon, moon, soon, toot

ŏ: cook, foot, hook, look

ō: door, floor

We have more vowel blends, but we’ll leave it at vowels saying their names for this time.  I’m sure it makes them happy to get to do that once in a while.  

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Spelling IV: Let’s Get Started

Let’s Get Started

I’ve established that simply telling children, “English spelling doesn’t make sense, just learn it,” doesn’t work for me.  I have also asserted that teaching phonics is essential.  After my foray into a bit of the history of English, someone commented, “Fine, but I still don’t know how to teach spelling.”

All right then, let’s get basic:

Phonics is a system of correlating letters to sounds.  Phonograms are the representations of sounds in the spoken language.  The most basic representations in English are the consonants that have only one sound each: b, d, f, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, r, t, v, w, x, z.  

C has two sounds, k and s.  

G has two sounds, g and j.  

There are rules that are almost surefire ways of telling which of the two sounds to use.  We’ll get to that.

S may make either the s sound or z.  There are also, um, shall we say, “markers”, that often tell us which sound to use.  

Q is always followed by u to make the kw sound. (Sometimes a k sound in words derived from French. bisque)

X always sounds like ks except at the beginning of a very few words.    

Y acts as a vowel when it follows a consonant.  It is a consonant when it precedes a vowel.  It may sound like y, ĭ (short sound of i), ī (long sound of i), or ē.  

Of the single letters, the vowels can be the most confusing to teach and to learn.  We know that e sounds like eh more often than ee, but we need to know how to explain when it’s different and why.  The same goes for the rest of the vowels, a, i, o, and u.  Each has a name the sound of which it is seldom able to make by itself.  That is what I tell my students.  The vowels need help saying their names.  

Before we talk about each of those poor vowels individually, let’s start with our oh, so helpful final silent e. An e at the end of a word is silent unless it is the only vowel in the word, such as: be, me, we, she, he, the. Otherwise, it will be quietly doing at least one of five possible jobs.  Sometimes it does more than one at once.

1. In a vowel, consonant, vowel (VCV) pattern, it makes the previous vowel say its name:  cake, name, dime, nine, dome, cure, tube.

When we do spelling on the board in class, we mark these words this way – c a k e – and say, “Vowel, consonant, vowel, the e is making the a say its name.”

2. “V, u, job two.”  English words do not end with v or u.  The e is there to keep that from happening.  

An exception to this is our very common you. I suppose this goes back to the original pronunciation, and the lack of any good ideas for what else to stick on the end.  Sticking an e on the end would have made for a very odd combination of vowels, harder to figure out than it already is.  (youe)

In all the words I can think of that end with ve, the e on the end would originally have been pronounced as an uh sound.  (have = hah vuh, dive – dee vuh) So, this rule came after the pronunciation changed.

3. “C, g, job three.” An e after c or g usually makes either consonant soft. (cage, nice)

4. Every syllable must have a vowel.  A speaker of English would be unsure how to pronounce a word such as trou ble, without the final silent e (troubl).

5. The fifth job is called the “no job e.” For example, in the word are. That’s fine.  We can use that one.  But we know that the reason it’s there, in this case, is that originally the e was pronounced. (ar uh)  There are occasions when there seems to be no explicable reason for the e.  It’s possible that at some time some unknown scribe decided a word just looked funny without something else on the end.   

So, here’s how I would begin if I were teaching one of my own children.  I would start with the single sound consonants.  You can do this by making flashcards, writing on an erasable marker board, drawing in a tub of sand or on a steamy mirror, printing worksheets from the internet, or whatever works for your child who is ready to learn.   

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When I read with my own children, after I had taught the letters, I would point to the words as I read a simple book, stop each time I came to the word “I”, and wait for the child to say, “i”.  Then I explained that i is a letter and a word when it’s by itself like that.  

Another day, I would do the same thing with “a”, making sure to point them out in capitals and lowercase.

I also did this with the word “the” because it is so common that spotting it needs to become second nature.  It’s considered a sight word, but this is a good time to teach the sound of “th”, because that becomes necessary so quickly in basic reading. (this, that, these, those)

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It is also an opportunity to point out the limited number of words in which the e at the end of a word is the only vowel, therefore, it says its name.  Your child will already know the w sound needed to figure out “we,” the h for “he,” the b for “be,” and the m for “me.”   

Use this opportunity to teach the phonogram sh so you can teach “she.”  I have no qualms about lightly underlining phonograms in a book so a child can see that it’s sh rather than two letters with separate sounds, ss – huh.  You can erase later.  

Along with this, one thing should naturally lead to another, and you will find yourself teaching the consonant, vowel, consonant (CVC) words.  (mom, dad, man, can, etc.) Once children start learning letter sounds, they usually start trying to work these out on their own.  

The Writing Road to Reading, the program I use at school, refers to the short sounds of the vowels as “first sounds.”  Not only are they the sounds each vowel can make without help from other vowels, they are also naturally the first sounds you will teach with the simple CVC words.  It doesn’t matter whether you prefer to call them short sounds or first sounds as long as you are consistent.  However, in subsequent articles, I will use the term “first sound.”

One last note:  When you begin to write the alphabet with your child, please teach the lowercase letters first or along with the uppercase.  They will see the lowercase letters most often and need to be able to recognize them in order to read books.  It’s easier to teach both than to have to reveal later that, though you’ve only taught recognition of uppercase, there are 26 more letters to learn.

I’m so excited that you are going to get to see your child’s eyes light up as he learns to read his first words.

 

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Spelling II: Standardized Spelling?

Part two of our Spelling Series:

 

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“The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like.” – Pygmalion, Bernard Shaw

The other day, my daughter (who is just now beginning to homeschool her first-born) and I were talking about teaching children to read.  One of my very favorite things to do.  She said she remembers me teaching her the sounds of the letters, but that when we came to the exceptions, I would say something like, “This time it doesn’t say that.”  No explanation.  But, remember, that was all right because we “get it.”

The more experience I got with teaching, the more I realized how much I didn’t know.  And the more I realized that many people have a need to know.  Like hanging garden tools in the shed, giving students reasons and history gives them pegs on which to hang the modern spelling rules.

The more I learn, the more horrified I become whenever I hear a teacher say about our language, “I know it doesn’t make sense, you just have to learn it.”  Because, you do have to learn it, but it does make sense.  Most of it.  If you look far enough.  

I have always loved etymologies, and those blurbs inside brackets in the dictionary are what got me started wanting to know.  Word histories are a history of English, which I find endlessly fascinating.  One of the first things I had to find out, once I got serious, was how far back I had to go to get to the source.  Ooowee!  Quite a ways.  But when we’re talking about English that resembles something we might actually understand, it’s not nearly as far back as you might think.   

Old English was the language spoken from about 500 A.D. (see, at least we’re in the A.D.s) until the Norman invasion in 1066.  Not that everyone suddenly quit speaking Old English just because the Normans won, but it did start making a mess of the language by bringing in French, which brought in quite a bit of Latin.  Here are a couple of the opening lines from Beowulf, written around 1000 A.D.  

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,

þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

So, we’re not going to go back quite that far.

Please keep in mind that this is a very basic explanation.  The experts would probably come to my house brandishing pitchforks if any were to read this.  

For the next 500 years or so after The Invasion, the language evolved into what we now call Middle English.  I’m pretty sure they weren’t calling it that back then.  And the Normans were probably calling it unkind things indeed.  

Here is an example from the opening lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Taleswritten in 1386.

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.

Keep in mind that this is still before the invention of the printing press in the middle of the 1400s.  Books are copied by hand, slowly, laboriously, and communication is slow.  Scribes are still trying to decide the best way to represent the sounds of the language with the letters in common use.    Sounds varied from one region to another.  So, who gets to decide what “proper” spelling is?  Well, the printers get a lot of credit (or blame) for that. Once books started to become more uniform and available, spelling standards started to solidify.  Started to.  They’re still far from final.  

But one of our biggest problems with spelling today is that, with the advent of the mass production of books, spelling crept slowly toward standardization, but speech did not.  The gap between spelling and pronunciation widened with the centuries.  But it can’t have taken long.  As early as 1712 Jonathan Swift, of Gulliver’s Travels fame, was calling for a once-and-for-all spelling standard for English.

Samuel Johnson published his dictionary in 1755. His work was one of the most influential in regularizing spelling and pronunciation. In his introduction he says that he “chose spellings based on a word’s derivation,” but was often “obliged to sacrifice uniformity to custom.” Some doubtful words had to be left to his own preference. By that time people had been reading and copying the spelling of Chaucer, Sidney, Spenser, Milton, and Shakespeare for over 100 years.

And we must not forget the influence of the popular Bibles of the time.

Perhaps this will sound familiar:

“In the beginnyng God created the heauen and erth The erth was uoyde and emptye/and darcknesse was upon the depe/ A the Spirite of God moued upon the water.”  

Matthew’s Bible, 1537

Or:

“In the beginning God created ỹ heauen and the earth.  And the

earth was without forme & voyde, and darkenes was vpon the depe,

& the Spirit of God moued vpon the waters.

The Geneva Bible, 1560

Or:

“In the beginning God created the Heauen, and the Earth.  And the earth was

without forme, and voyd, and darkenesse was vpon the face of the deepe:

and the Spirit of God mooued vpon the face of the waters.”

King James Bible, 1611

And yet . . . How came we to spell thus?  Stay tuned next time when you’ll

hear Auntie LuLu say, “I before E, except in a heist on a weird, feisty, beige,

foreign neighbor.”

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