Tuesday, June 21, 2016

English Spelling: Making Sense of the Chaos (Part 3)

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

The “rules” of English spelling can appear to be so random and unreliable, they drive students (and at least one teacher) to distraction. Since I’ve started teaching an intermediate-level spelling class, I’ve had to re-learn some of these “rules” in order to help my students make sense of the chaos that is English orthography. I don’t call them “rules” in my class, though. When I did, my students were very quick to complain that with so many exceptions, they were hardly “rules.” Instead, we refer to them as “tips.” That just seemed to make everyone a lot happier.

So, in a previous blog post, I shared some ‘lessons learned” about teaching spelling. Here, I want to share some of the things I think ESL/EFL students need to know to be strong spellers.

Tip #1 – Some Consonant Sounds have Wacky Spellings
Sometimes consonant sounds are easy to spell. For instance, /m/ is usually spelled with an “m” or sometimes an “mm.” But, some consonant sounds are trickier. Students need to learn that /f/ can be spelled “f,” “ff,” “ph” and “gh.” Another tricky sound is /ʧ, which can be spelled can be spelled “ch,” “tch” and “tu.” Students can confuse that sound with /ʤ/, which can be spelled “dge,” “ge,” “j”, “g” and “du.” Students also struggle with spelling /s/ (choosing between “s” and “c”) and /k/ (choosing between “k,” “ck” and “c”). Then, there are all those silent letters, like the “b” in debt or the “h” in honest. What might seem straightforward, like spelling with consonant sounds, is clearly anything but.

Tip #2 – Vowel Sounds are Hard to Spell
As I said in a previous blog post, one of the hardest parts of spelling with vowels is getting students to actually hear the vowel sound they are trying to learn how to spell. Once that’s accomplished, once they can identify the vowel sound, they can start to learn the patterns associated with each sound. Some of them are pretty simple. The relative or short vowel sounds usually have a clear-cut sound-spelling correspondence. For example, /æ/ is spelled with an “a” 91% of the time and /ɪ/ is spelled with an “i” 93% of the time. Those are pretty strong patterns that students can get their minds around. Other vowel sounds are only a little bit more complicated. Take /ɔy/. It can be spelled one of two ways: either “oi” in the middle of a word or “oy” at the end of a word. However, other vowel sounds can be spelled in a bunch of different ways. For example, /uw/ can be spelled with “u + consonant + e,” “o + consonant + e,” “ue,” “ou,” “oo,” “ui,” “o” and “ew.” How confusing is that? Clearly students need to learn more than the “magic e” rule and the “vowel team” rule (when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking) to make sense of all of this.

Tip #3 – I Before E, Except After C
I actually really like this rule because it works with Oxford 3000 words almost all of the time. If a word has the vowel sound /iy/, the rule holds true, as in “relief” and “receive.” If a word has the vowel sound /ey/, then it’s spelled “ei,” as in “weigh.” The only exceptions to this rule on the Oxford 3000 word list are “either,” “neither” and “weird.” That’s a manageable list of exceptions. One caveat, though.  I kept saying “I before e, except after c” until I realized that my intermediate students didn’t all know the meaning of the word “except.” I won’t make that mistake again.

Tip #4 – Adding an “r” After a Vowel Mucks Things Up
Children’s videos refer to this as the “Bossy R.” Basically, when an “r” follows a vowel, it can change the way the vowel sounds. The International Phonetic Alphabet even has a special symbol for this sound: /ɝ/, as in “purple.” The reason this is important information for spellers is that they need to know that when /ɛ/, /ɪ/ and /ʌ/ are followed by an “r,” they all sound like /ɝ/ and it is impossible to know how to spell the vowel sound unless they memorize the words.

Tip #5 – Adding Suffixes Can Mean Changing the Spelling
Teaching suffixes can feel like handing the keys of a city to students. Suffixes offer the potential for students to create and understand all sorts of new words. However, they come with their own spelling challenges that students need to learn. The most famous rule, or at least the rule I remember from my own school days, is “change the y to i and add the suffix.” So, “empty” becomes “emptiness.” But, we don’t change the y to i if the letter before the y is a vowel. So, the third person singular of “play” is “plays,” not “plaies.” It’s pretty much downhill from this point, however, when it comes to spelling and suffixes. The “rules” become so inconsistent, I don’t even feel comfortable calling them “tips.” For instance, sometimes, we cut the “e” at the end of the base word when we add a suffix. In this way, “negate” becomes “negative.” But, sometimes we don’t, as in “amusement.” Sigh. Again, this is when a word list of common base suffix combinations can be invaluable for students.

So these are some of the topics we cover in my spelling class for intermediate-level students. In my program, we have a lower level class than mine and the teacher spends a lot more time wrestling with vowel spelling than I do. Also, the words her students learn are more elementary than the ones we learn in my class. And there is a new online class at a higher level than my class. In that class, the students will work with longer words and spend more time on affixes than we do.

It seems to me that students need to learn about spelling at all levels. We can’t assume that they will just get it as they learn new vocabulary words because often they don’t. And, all of my students recognize that accurate spelling is an essential part of written communication. They want to appear at least as professional, trustworthy and intelligent as they are, and spelling things correctly is one way to make sure that message is getting across.


Comment from Suresh Kumar D K
June 21, 2016 at 6:27 pm

When you write about the response of your students, it is more interesting. The issues that we face differ based on the level and even social background of our learners.Teaching a heterogeneous group is more challenging. I teach classes of 50-60 students(age group 15-18).Some of them do not know how to read but a few of them contribute essays,poems etc to school magazines.Some reflect their privation and backwardness. I keep a number of documents to understand their problems better.A ‘portfolio’ with the details of their family/financial background, a classroom activities log that I update after each class etc.

Comment from Tamara Jones
June 23, 2016 at 12:18 pm

I agree that teaching students with different skill levels is very tough. Keeping a portfolio sounds like a great idea.

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