Three things to tell your students about spelling

Published 16/03/2018

It’s no secret that the English spelling system is complicated and challenging to learn. But how much detail do you share with your students about the reasons that spelling is difficult?

Why spelling is difficult?

I think it’s important to give them some background about the development of the language and the way spelling works to help them understand why we have such a variety of rules – and exceptions to rules. However, I also think we need to take care not to laboriously lecture them about the origins of each word when it is not relevant to use such depth.

Here are the three things I would tell my students – adapting the level of explanation according to their age:

1) How invaders built the language
Old and Middle English is peppered with the remnants of other languages. Every time we were invaded, our foreign visitors brought with them new words that became adopted and remained in use. This is why we can identify Germanic, French and Latin spelling patterns within our modern words. This also draws parallels with the way the language continually evolves to this day – disused words are abandoned, and new words incorporated all the time.

2) How printers were naughty
When the first printing presses were established in the 15th century they added letters to words and deleted letters from words to fit them on the lines of the page. There was also prolific variety on way that words were spelled across the country.

The word ‘people’ could be spelled: peple, pepule, pepul, pepull, pepulle, pepille, pepil, pepylle, pepyll, peeple, peopel, poepull, poeple, poepul, puple, pupile, pupil, pupyll, pupul, peuple or pople (‘people’ examples from The Adventure of English, Melvin Bragg, 2004). When the Masters of Chancery regularised the spellings for those we know today they did not base their decisions on simplification or rules of common sense. They chose the versions they liked the best!

3) The process needed to learn spelling
When we want to spell a 
word we first think the word aloud in our head and we break it down into sounds from beginning to end (segmenting). Then we need to decide which letter or letters are used to represent those sounds (code knowledge). The decisions we make over which letters to use are influenced by our visual memory if we have seen the word before, or advance spelling knowledge for example you might instinctively know that a /s/ sound by an /igh/ sound could be represented by the letters cy rather than siTherefore the age that you, and your wider world experiences with written language will affect the way that you spell. This is also why young children spell ‘the way it sounds’ and not necessarily choose the correct spelling patterns. 

As a final aside I would emphasise to my students and to you, that these facets of the English spelling system we try our best to teach today, are absolutely fascinating and show what a wondrous and rich language it is!

Follow Abigail on Twitter @Abigail_Steel