Part 1 of Simple Gifts shows how the essential features of English grammar can be taught in ways that children and adult learners find easy to understand. This second part, Slimmed Down Spelling, is the outcome of practical work with people learning to spell. I have been working on it since 1996, initially as a development from the approach to reading that appeard in The Literacy File.
We use plain English. No technical terms are needed.
We understand and explain that English spelling, because of its history, is an example of fuzzy logic. The letters tell us broadly what we need to know, but not always precisely. The history of English spelling is set out in David Crystal's Spell It Out. This book should be required reading in all initial and in-service training.
The result of this fuzzy logic is that information from letters in English needs to be interpreted, for example to see the difference between should and shoulder. An area of the brain, described by Professors Blakemore and Frith in The Learning Brain as the "word form area" is activated in order to do this. It is not needed in highly regular languages such as Italian.
I have found that these two maxims help children and adults to learn to read and spell in a language based on fuzzy logic:
We use what the letters tell us, but we don't believe the letters tell us everything.
The language is a thousand years old. If we were a thousand years old, we'd have a few wrinkles.
The second point is based on the influx of French into English following the Norman conquest. I illustrate this by showing this excellent animation of the Bayeux tapestry, discussing the character of William I - children understand bullies - and saying the word table, slowly, in French, so that children can hear the l before the e. Many other words have the same origin, and spelling pattern.
Because of the large number of words in English, and the small number of letters in the alphabet, letters can't always represent one sound each, as in cat, hat etc. Sometimes they work in groups, sometimes words have an extra letter that changes the sound of another (in face, the e indicates a change from the most frequent sound indicated by a, and softens c). Most words in which this happens are also shared with French. Most words with an extra letter have only one. Sometimes the extra letter is a double letter, usually to act as a wall and keep a voice (vowel) sound short. The good news is that we don't have triple letters, other than in joke words such as Aaaaargh!
The outcome is that spelling can be explained in these four principles of Slimmed Down Spelling:
- If we hear a sound when we say a word carefully - without taking any shortcuts - we need at least one letter for it. We use a letter to represent a sound because we hear it. This covers roughly three-quarters of spelling.
- Sometimes letters work in groups –eg, station has one sound per letter for the first three letters then the group tion. We use a group when we’ve learned we need it – this way, we don’t guess at what group we might need.
- Some words have an extra letter, eg made, chaos. We use an extra letter when we’ve learned we need it. Sometimes there is a function for the extra letter – eg plague where the u stops the e from softening the g, as it would in page.
- Sometimes, because of shortcuts in speech, or changes in the way people speak, the letter we need is not the one we think we need. These letters are awkward, and we only use them when we’ve learned we need them. The easiest example is probably was rather than woz. This is Germanic, and wa is found in a range of shared words with German, including warm and Wasser (Water), both of which, in German, have the normal short sound of a. Once again, we use an awkward letter only when we’ve learned we need it.
Once we’ve learned to spell a word – and we never copy – we find at least one other that is like it. This helps us build up our understanding of patterns, and is especially useful to people who do not find learning to spell straightforward.
It usually takes children and adults six weeks to three months to learn to apply these principles. They work. But they are designed to teach people to spell and not to promote a political agenda. Slimmed Down Spelling was originally published in The Times Educational Supplement, and there is more detailed discussion of word patterns in my book, Using Phonics to Teach Reading and Spelling. It works.