Rules for the Unruly

Sometimes the English language can feel downright unruly! After all, we have more sounds than letters and far too many different ways to represent each sound! We lament, "if only our language was more consistent." Yet, English is fairly consistent!

Like all cosmic chaos, there are actually English spelling patterns to recognize and employ. While there are few "hard and fast" rules, we can think of these patterns as rules that are a bit unruly! Maybe more like "rules of thumb" - shortcuts to aid in learning. Teach the patterns and the perceived chaos settles into meaningful concepts.

Our brains love to find patterns and use them as "hacks" for speed and efficiency. We call this pattern recognition ability "decoding" in reading, and we call this pattern usage "encoding" in writing. There is a code to notice and read, then write and learn.

Let's corral the chaos as we share some common English spelling patterns that all readers and writers must recognize and use.

Perceiving Patterns

Researchers call our pattern recognition skills "statistical learning." The more a pattern is seen (and practiced), the more likely it is that the pattern will be learned. For example, the letter s occurs very frequently in English, and it almost always represents two sounds: /s/ and /z/. This is so consistent that most children learn this pattern fairly quickly and use it in spelling fairly regularly.

Consistency in spelling is based on more than sound! It is also based on preserving a word's structure. So, we understand the consistency of a letter s in the base word sing, and we understand that a suffix -s may make a /z/ sound, as seen in the word sings.

Consistency & Frequency

The value of word level practice is improved reading fluency. Fast word recognition is a key element, as is the ability to accurately decode unfamiliar words. Once a word is decoded, we recognize its correct pronunciation, meaning, and usage - if it is in our vocabulary system.

So, consistency matters. Most kids find it easiest to learn consistent sounds. For example, the sound for the letter f is very consistent: /f/.

But frequency also matters. The more students read and write a word, the easier it is to learn. For example, learning the word of is easy because it is so frequent, even though it is the one time the letter f makes the /v/ sound.

Ironically, the word of is more frequent than all the other words that contain the letter f, so we help kids notice the word of, read it correctly, and write it frequently! And even though the letter f makes the /v/ sound in the word of, we still have kids say sounds as they write. The key is to have kids map the sounds they hear and say onto the letters they see and write. This is how we all learn; spell and write to read with ease.

Word Work

Decoding involves not only some phonics knowledge, but orthographic knowledge as well. This means we need to be able to recognize common spelling patterns. How do we learn them? Memorizing rules doesn't work, but noticing and practicing patterns does! This is why we engage in explicit & systematic teaching plus word-level practice. At Rooted in Language, word-level practice means both reading and writing each and every newly taught spelling pattern.

By the way, morphological knowledge matters too, but we will discuss that later.

Scribing Short Vowels

When it comes to the English spelling system, there are many nuances to learn, remember, and apply.

English scribes had very definite rules around doubling letters!

Double letters are mostly used to mark short vowel sounds. We see this commonly with the letters f, s, and l. We also see it in z now and again. For example, think of the two words: fuss vs. fuse.

However, double letters are sometimes used for other reasons. Here are a few to share with your students:

- To distinguish between homophones: but/butt, in/inn

- To lengthen a two letter content word: egg, odd, ebb

- To show proper names versus words: Finn/fin, Pitt/pit, Matt/mat

Students may notice double letters when prefixes are added to base words, as in the word correct, but these doublings are best explained through word study!

No Trouble - Just Don't Double!

There are also times we don't double final letters f, s, and l after short vowel sounds. Most people view these exceptions as a sure sign of our weak spelling system! Instead, let's teach students the more subtle rules at play here - a sure sign of a strong spelling system!

1. English honors other languages - We don't apply our English doubling pattern to content words from other languages, such as the French word chef.

2. English honors a word's parent - We don't apply the doubling pattern to words that are "clips" of multisyllable words, such as gas (shortened from gasoline).

3. English honors a word's flavor - We don't apply the doubling pattern to many slang words, such as pal.

4. English honors a word's usage - We don't apply the doubling pattern to words that are used for a functional or grammatical purpose, such as of, as, and is. These are called function words because their usage is primarily to hold sentences together in support of content words.

5. English honors a word's structure - We don't apply the doubling pattern to affixes, only lexical words. We don't double the l in locality because -al is a suffix (loce/ + al + it + y).

No they don't. Yes they do. No, really . . . they don't!

"No doubling" is a type of rule called "graphical constraints." This is a term used by linguists to describe spelling patterns that are not allowed in English.

In native English base words, we almost never double the letters shown in our graphic.

If you do see these letters doubled, consider why? The word vacuum has a -um suffix, afterall. The word bookkeeper is actually a compound word. Doubling doesn't cross morphemic boundaries, so before you cry "exception" - check your word sum!

Note: Some doubling violations are chosen for advertising and in names, such as the Wii. According to Google, "Wii is defined as a product name developed by the Japanese company Nintendo... [and] doesn't really have any meaning in Japanese. The two lower case "i" letters are meant to symbolize two people, playing side-by-side."

Homophone Challenge One: Say What!?!

Here is a great vocabulary word for today: pseudogeminates

Teach your child this word, and then bring it up at your next family reunion to impress your relatives! Check out Lois (almost 2), Levi (almost 3), and Margot (almost 5) each attempt to say this big word!

"Geminates" are double consonant clusters.

"Pseudogeminates" are spelling patterns adopted in the 15th century to replace geminates that were no longer acceptable due to scribal constraints on doubling.

For example, the geminate <kk> became <ck>, <gg> became <dg> + a Silent-e marker to preserve the soft-g sound of /j/, and <cch> became <tch>.

We call these Smack Dab spelling patterns, but pseudogeminates is way cooler! Either way, check out our Smack Dab free download to help you teach these three spelling patterns.

Confessions of the Printing Press

Many spelling patterns were established five hundred years ago. The invention of the printing press increased the demands for printed material in daily life, and suddenly, establishing spelling conventions became a priority. In particular, rules were employed to distinguish between homophones, including these strategies:

 - Adding a final <e>, such as by vs. bye or aid vs. aide

- Doubling a final letter (called geminates), such as in vs. inn

- Doubling + adding a final <e>, such as mat vs. matte or step vs. steppe

- Alternating between <s> and <z>, such as quarts vs. quartz or raise vs. raze

- Alternating between <c> and <ck>, such as tic vs. tick or sac vs. sack

- Alternating between <c> and <k>, such as scull vs. skull or disc vs. disk

- Capitalizing proper nouns, such as Peg vs. peg

Sharing this kind of information with students helps them understand the “why” of spelling… and understanding is what deep learning is all about!

Alien Bugs, Not Alien Words!

We have been talking about homophones! Why? Because teaching homophones helps kids notice vowel spellings! Why are vowel spellings important to work on? Because vowels cause the most spelling issues! Vowels are also a big part of what makes English such a complicated language . . . and so interesting!

So much of our spelling is steeped in the history of the English language, and through word study, we can turn a boring spelling lesson into a magical, meaningful ride through time. Be sure to download our word study products, including Alien Bugs (shown in this photo) and follow us for spelling instruction that is both explicit and satisfying!

Homophone Challenge Two: Fuzzy Phrases

Try another homophone challenge with your students. Here is how it goes: Listen to each phrase. Then, think of a match that sounds alike but means something different. How might these Fuzzy Phrases confuse a listener (and a writer)?

Here are our answers to Fuzzy Phrases: already, always, sun's rays, weave, isle/aisle, heal/heel.

A follower had fun coming up with this pair: apart and a part

Now it's time for you to get creative with Fuzzy Phrases!


Homophone Challenge Three: Fix this Word

Try another homophone challenge with your students. Here is how it goes: Read each base word. Then find another base word that sounds alike when a suffix is added! You might have to use each version in a sentence to help kids guess the answers. Then, notice how the words are different and what each base word means. As always, these combinations may confuse a listener (and speller).


Here are our answers to Fix this Word: guessed, lacks, cougher, pleas.

Did you think of any we missed? How about these fun fixes from our followers: past and passed, sense and scents.

Homophone Challenge Four: Sound Swap

Because English is influenced by so many languages and also borrows words from other languages, we have many sounds that are represented by two or more letters. Have students look at these homonym word pairs and determine which consonant letters represent the same sound. As always, discuss how these combinations may confuse a listener (and speller).

arc-ark -

dock-doc - & plack-plaque -

peek-pique -

cell-sell -

gym-Jim -

no-know -

whole-hole -

right-write -

tuff-tough - & choral-coral -

shoot-chute -

which-witch (this one has two) -

Did you think of other interesting word pairs? Our savvy citizens sent these ideas our way: whether and weather.

Diverse Spelling

In the last one thousand years, English has borrowed many words with spelling patterns different from native English. Our image is from a Draw & Tell story in our Pinwheels Year 2 curriculum that we use to teach young students about diverse spelling patterns.


One of the most confusing examples for our older students is the spelling of <ie> for the long /ee/ sound, as seen in these words: grief, relief, achieve, field.

Richard Venezky, in his book The American Way of Spelling, helps us appreciate the welcoming nature of the English language. He says: "Had English maintained tighter immigration laws for their vocabulary, we might have a simpler and more symmetrical spelling system today."

So, celebrate diversity today and investigate the sound that letter <i> represents in Latin and French. Then, practice spelling some words with that pesky <ie> spelling pattern!

Shhh . . . Silent Letters

In Pinwheels, we use Draw & Tell stories to explain many word study principles. One of these is called "The Story of Silent Letters." Draw & Tell stories help us explain complex historical spelling information in a way that is both fun and sticky!

According to Richard Venezky in his book The American Way of Spelling: "Many [silent letters] result from the loss of pronunciation in English of the consonant in certain consonant clusters (gn, kn, wr) . . . some result from borrowings (e.g. hymn), and some are the result of scribal tampering (e.g., plumb)."

When we teach spelling, we love to notice silent letters! The more fun we have with spelling, the more likely our kids will enjoy it, too. Sharpen your word study skills by taking our Foundations for Teaching Reading, Writing & Spelling course; soon you will spread the love around as you teach your students!

Webster's Words

According to Richard Venezky, Americans prefer the spelling at the end of a word, but the Brits are "equally consistent in using ."

"The American usage dates mainly to Noah Webster, while the British usage has developed over the last 350 years."

Americans may think their way is better, but Webster created problems when suffixes were added to some base words ending in <er>. That's when the Webster-led rebels had to humble themselves and follow the Brits!

Like this example: center + al What do we do with this!?!

Before we can spell this new word, we must return to our English spelling ancestors and convert the <er> back to an <re>:

centre/ + al → central

Another way of looking at this is to consider that the base word center contains a potential <e>. We keep it sometimes when adding suffixes:

cent(e)r + ed → centered

But we don’t when adding other suffixes:

cent(e)r + al → central

Teaching kids about the history of English, including dictionaries, makes spelling easier to understand. This beats memorizing spelling lists any day of the school week!

Yummy, Yummy, in My Spelling Tummy!

Borrowed words influence our English spelling system, and we see a huge variety of these words in our foods! Add some flavor to your spelling work by challenging your kids to think of common food words from other nations. There are so many, and they influence our spelling system.

Here are a few to get you started:

Hindi - punch

Latin - soda

Portuguese - buffalo

Arabic or Turkish - coffee

It's your turn. Think of food words we have borrowed from these languages: Arabic, French, Greek, Chinese, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Spanish.

Then engage in some really deep learning by consuming one of these yummy "borrowed" foods . . . spelling never tasted so good!

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