Spelling Usually Makes Sense: The Logic of Sound and Meaning Patterns

The more we as teachers understand the logic underlying the spelling system, the better we will be able to teach literacy. It’s that simple. The most significant part of this understanding is that the spelling system of English usually makes sense. 

This assertion strikes many as outlandish: “What do you mean, it makes sense? We don’t spell words the way they sound!” Well, when we stop to think about it, what would it look like if we really did have a spelling system that tried to represent sounds consistently? Let's consider the following word pairs:     

defiyn/defunishun                        

cumpohs/compuzishun                       

siyn/signuchur                      

seenile/sunillity 

Now, let’s compare these word pairs with how they are actually spelled:    

define/definition  

compose/composition                     

sign/signature                      

senile/senility

What do you notice? When we look at the spellings in the second group, we recognize that parts of the words in each pair look the same—they share the same letters: define-definition, senile-senility, compose-composition, sign-signature. The sounds that certain letters spell have changed, but the letters themselves haven’t: The vowels in all four pairs and the letter g in sign-signature remain the same.  

What's Going on Here?

The second group of actual spellings reflects the fact that, in English, meaningful parts of words are spelled consistently: Words that are related in meaning are often related in spelling as well, despite changes in sound. The vast majority of words in the English language reflect this relationship between spelling and meaning. This fact has profound implications not only for learning spelling but for learning vocabulary as well—implications that in turn support the foundations of reading and writing. 

But what about young learners who do not initially encounter words like compose, composition, and senile, senility? Their task is to learn how to decode and spell primarily one- and two-syllable words. At this level, there is also more sense than nonsense. For example, why are there different spellings for the same sound? One primary reason has to do with where a sound occurs in a word: For example, if /oy/ occurs in the middle of a word, it is spelled oi (coin); at the end of a word, it is spelled oy (toy). Another reason has to do with a sound’s neighbors: /ch/ is usually spelled tch if it follows a short vowel sound (pitch), and ch if it follows a long vowel (coach). 

Saying that the spelling system makes sense does not mean it is easy to learn. The information and logic at the levels of sound and meaning will need to be negotiated over time but may be firmly in place by the middle grades. What we teach about these levels of sound and meaning, how we teach them, and how deeply we explore depend upon where our students fall along a developmental continuum. Once we’ve determined where they are, our efforts to support their explorations into the logic of the system can be far more engaging and effective than we may have realized. We will engage students in looking at and analyzing words from a variety of perspectives—a process of discovery that ultimately provides access to a new way of exploring the development of language and of thought.

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For more examples and ways of teaching the logic underlying English spelling to K-12 students, join us for an HMH Facebook Live with Into Reading author Shane Templeton at ILA on Saturday, July 21 at 3 p.m. CT. You can also learn more about HMH’s K-12 reading and literature programs and solutions here.