Is it worth teaching a lot of spelling rules to kids?

(Sorry, this is grabbed from another thread, but the title of that thread is boring and I don’t want to see a good controversy go down with that ship!)

I hate to be a parade-rainer, but is it really even worth getting into all this spelling rule complexity, in a language in which:

A) “two”, “too”, and “to” are all pronounced the same, and none of them contain the vowel “u”?

B) the sound “er” can be spelled either “E-R” (teacher, father, etc), “U-R” (curl, hurl), or “I-R” (bird, girl) – yet ALSO appears as “O-R” in “world” and “work” AND “A-R” in “grammar”???

C) we have 2 ways to spell the sound “aw/au” and 2 ways to spell “ou/ow”, yet witness the words “bought” and “fought”!!!

D) the word “own” is spelled the way the word “one” should sound, and the word “one” sounds the same as the word “wun”?

Sigh… and so on.

I just teach them basic phonics and then when it’s time to start reading and writing, tell them, sorry - now throw all that out, 'cause English spelling is senseless. Just memorize the shit.

I had a lot of success with it. I learned a lot too! :wink:

From my favorite phonics book (Phonics from A to Z - Practical Guide, by Wiley Blevins), p.42:

[quote]“Why is the most common vowel sound in English the colorless murmur we refer to as the schwa sound? Why do vowels e, i, o, and u act as consonants in words such as azalea, onion, one and quick; and the consonants w and y act as vowels in words such as snow and fly? why don’t the word pairs five/give, low/how, paid/said, and break/speak rhyme?
These and other questions might cause one to reconsider the teaching of reading and writing because of the seemingly irregular and unpredictable nature of the English language. However, 84% of English words conform to “regular” spelling patterns. Of the remainng 16% of English words, only 3% are highly unpredictable, such as colonel and Ouija (Bryson, 1990). Given the high degree of regularity in spelling, it’s apparent why it’s important to teach children the most common sound-spelling relationshiips in English and help them to attend to common spelling patterns inwords. As teachers, we need to have a working knowledge of the many sounds in our language and the even greater number of spellings that can represent them.”[/quote]
I don’t know the other spelling book you refer to, but I recommend the book this quote came from as a resource for teachers who have doubts about the value of teaching spelling rules to kids - it really explains why and how we should teach these rules well, and is full of ideas for presenting phonics that work well with children here in Taiwan.

Look at the ‘k’ sound rule, for instance. I never learned this in school, but it would have made spelling much easier. It’s so simple.

Apart from a few words borrowed from other languages (kangaroo, karate, Korea, etc.), all words beginning with a ‘k’ sound follow this rule: if the ‘k’ sound is followed by an ‘i’ or ‘e’ sound (long or short), then the ‘k’ sound is spelled as ‘k’; for all other words, it’s a ‘c’.

So, you’ll only see ‘ke’ or ‘ki’ at the beginning of a word, or ‘ca’, ‘co’, ‘cu’, ‘cl’, ‘cr’.

There’s a similar rule for how a ‘c’ sounds in a word: if it’s followed by ‘e’ or ‘i’ or ‘y’, it’s a ‘s’ sound; oterwise it’s a ‘k’ sound. Exceptions to the rule are rare and easily taught - kids remember them.

For one-syllable words, ‘tch’ goes on the end of short vowel sounds; ‘ch’ on the end of long sounds (witch, botch, match / beach/pooch. etc.), but with a few exceptions: aitch, much, such.

An ‘s’ sound on the end of a one-syllable word is always spelled ‘ss’ with six exceptions: bus, yes, gas, plus, us, … and one more which I can’t remember right now.

A ‘k’ sound on the end of a one-syllable, short-vowel sound is usually spelled ‘ck’; for long-vowel sounds it’s ‘k’ or ‘ke’ (back, truck, lick / make, leek, took, etc.)

The list goes on, and I may have omitted part of the rule (I just woke up), but I saw my students spelling improve dramatically after just four weeks of teaching these rules. They were also able to spell words that they had never heard before, which is pretty rare for Taiwanese students.

Try it out; see how it goes.

i always thought “k” words denoted “foreign” origin: koala,kangaroo, Korea much as “ph-” denote greek origin.

I know what your’e saying Vay. There do seem to be a lot of exceptions. But as Asiababy’s quote points out, about 84% of English words follow the basic phonics rules.

I’ve always been a fan of teaching a good phonics program, and it’s currently working very well in the kidnergarten I teach in, my Grade 1 class, and for my private students. Students learn the phonics rules, and the exceptions as ‘sight words’. Reading becomes easy, and for spelling they only really have to memorise the sight words, so their memorisation load is cut right down.

I get good results. My students can read and write well. Sure, it doesn’t always work 100%. A kindergarten student of mine wrote a card to me and my wife yesterday, but she’d never seent he word wife. She spelt it ‘wighf’. :slight_smile:


Should we bother? Yes. Can you imagine trying to memorize the spelling of 500,000+ words when there’s an easier way to spell 84% of them right without having ever seen them before?

And even irregular verbs follow patterns of sorts. The trick is teaching them the basic patterns first (which any good spelling program does), and then get to the exceptions once the basics have been covered.

I realize what you guys are saying and point taken that any hint of order is better than straight out memorizing everything.

Still, this 84% figure seems a bit bogus to me. It must mean 84% of ALL English words, and NOT 84% of the most commonly used English words (ever noticed that most rarely-used verbs are regular, while most commonly used ones are irregular?)!

Let’s look at some of the most basic words I’m supposed to teach kids in 1st semester…

you / you’re
he / she (should be pronounced short “e”)
are (should be a long “a”)
person (should be a “u”)
child (should be pronounced short “i”)
father (should be an “o”)
mother / brother (should be a “u”)
English (should be an “i”)
Chinese (should be a “z”)
elementary school

And this one REALLY annoys me: we teach them: “A — aaaa — aaapple”, and then teach them “I am a (pronounced short “u”) boy/girl” !!!

Not to mention 5 of the numbers 1-10 have spelling problems…

It makes me wonder whether this whole “84%” line isn’t just a scam to prevent a total spelling overhaul of the English language!

The 84% number doesn’t mean that the words are spelled the way they sound according to a 1 symbol 1 sound relation. It just means that there are regular spelling rules that they will obey.

But there is a point of diminishing returns. Sometimes learning all the rules is more difficult than learning the individual spellings. It’s one thing for us to know the rules as a teacher, it’s another to teach them to students who may be better off just memorizing certain words.

I’d say look at how general the rule is, or how common an exception is. If it is common then it will help the kids. If it is rare it is probably more effort to teach than it is worth.

One more thing to keep in mind-- our brains are capable of intuitively grasping these patterns. We may not even know that we know them. As students gain more exposure to the language they will catch on to some of these patterns. We don’t have to go out and teach every one of them to the students, but it may be good to know them overtly to be able to fill in the gaps that non-natives encounter in their learning.

I went to a primary school that had lots of “old school” teachers, and I am so pleased they insisted on teaching us the rules of English spelling and using a combination of explicit instruction, rote memorization, and creative writing activities. I can still remember chanting “i before e except after c” and other such things, as well as being taught big words like syllables and stress, and doing exercises to show we knew what they meant, from age 7, I guess. Even now, those rules help. We also need to remember that whilst good readers can work out these things for themselves, weaker readers cannot - they do need to be pointed out to them.

Looking at your list of words for the first semester, I am going to jump in there and suggest that there is some confusion between learning vocabulary for spoken English conversation and learning spelling with the aim of reading. Whilst some of your words (the, you, he, she, a) are on the lists of most frequent words (American Heritage 150, Dolch 220, others (mother, father, English, Chinese, elementary school) are not, and neither are they words that a reading program would teach in the early stages. It is true, mother, father, English and Chinese are words that we teach in conversation class. However, is it reasonable to expect children in their first semester to learn (memorize) these in a beginning reading program?

High frequency words do tend to have that characteristic of not fitting the rules. If you keep in mind that only 13 words (a, and, for, he, is, in, it, of, that, the, to, was, you) account for more than 25% of the words in print, and that the 250 words make up 70-75% of all words children use in their writing, it is worth getting those lists and learning the strategy to teach them, by rote and through association, as part of the reading program.

As for the other words, I really think it is one of the issues with bushiban classes. Conversation texts teach conversation, but many schools use these words as spelling words, too, when really there should be a different kind of program for reading. The result is we teach the words that are the exception, before those that are the rule. So I do understand your problem with some of those other words! However, you can use them another way. You can focus on the regularities within the words and use the words given to teach those regularities to children.

Also, be a bit careful - things are not always what the seem. “Child” is actually the long i sound, and there are a whole lot of words that belong in this group of common long i (bind, blind, climb, find, grind…) I am also pretty sure “School” is not “ch” but “Sc” plus the “h”. H is silent when followed by the “k” sound, like “sc” in school or “k” in khaki.

I also am wondering, why should “father” be an “o” sound? And isn’t “elementary” in the same group of short e as “elf” and “elm”?

So, basically, is your problem perhaps not that English spelling makes no sense, but that your school’s spelling program needs some reconsideration?

[quote=“Vay”]Let’s look at some of the most basic words I’m supposed to teach kids in 1st semester…

you / you’re
he / she (should be long “e”)
are (should be a long “a”)
person (should be a “u”)
child (should be pronounced short “i”)
father (should be an “o”)
mother / brother (should be a “u”)
English (should be an “i”)
Chinese (should be a “z”)
elementary school

And this one REALLY annoys me: we teach them: “A — aaaa — aaapple”, and then teach them “I am a (pronounced short “u”) boy/girl” !!!

Not to mention 5 of the numbers 1-10 have spelling problems.[/quote]

No offense, but it looks to me like either your school has a crap reading/phonics program or you don’t understand how to teach basal reading.

The words you are listing as spelling words are better taught as sight words, especially since they are of high frequency so kids should learn to recognize them instaneously rather than phonetically. There is a rule about “ild” words and “ind” words having a long i vowel sound, by the way.

The phonetic sound /ae/ (short a) and the word “a” are not the same. Besides, “a” is more of a schwa sound unless it’s being emphasized; then it takes on the long a sound.

Number words are generally taught as whole language. “Cat”, “hat”, “glad”, etc. are generally taught by phonemic spelling. Whole words like “person” are taught as whole language until children have learned enough basic rules about vowels and consonants to move on to more complex English sounds like the schwa, as in the ‘o’ sound in “person”.

Again, it all points to a badly written reading/phonics program…or misunderstanding of how to teach reading with both a whole language and a phonics approach.

[quote]I also am wondering, why should “father” be an “o” sound? And isn’t “elementary” in the same group of short e as “elf” and “elm”?

Well, try to rhyme “father” with A) “rather”, and then try to rhyme it with B) “bother”. Which does it sound like? If you’re a speaker of North American English, the answer should be B).

As far as “elementary” goes, “elf” and “elm” don’t have an “E” following the “L”, which by the spelling rules I remember from kindygarten should make that first “E” long, eh?

[quote]The phonetic sound /ae/ (short a) and the word “a” are not the same. Besides, “a” is more of a schwa sound unless it’s being emphasized; then it takes on the long a sound.

I realize they’re not the same; the problem is that they should be! And as for the article “a” being pronounced as schwa, that varies according to the speaker, I think. I can pronounce it either way and it sounds good. For example, “I’m a teacher” and mutha fucka sound exactly the same, when I say the two back to back.

These 2 points I won’t quibble with – because sadly I’m beginning to realize they’re right.

My school does a sort of “integrated” approach where they learn the alphabet and then they just start copying whiteboard writings which teach the functions we want them to learn. There’s a little bit of phonics practice but no seperate reading component. And let me tell you, generally speaking their spelling really SUCKS ROCKS – which is why I’m interested in the topic.

And ps, I don’t know what “basal reading” even means. Is it something like “elementary reading”, only lower?

Basal reading programs teach the basics of reading: print awareness, decoding phonetically, decoding contextually, and reading comprehension skills. Most reading programs have a basal level where they teach sight words and phonics as well as skills like making predictions, distinguishing fiction from non-fiction, and distinguishing narrative elements. They often incorporate grammar and spelling into these programs as well.

You might want to pass this info along to your school… :wink: