Spotlight On: The Logic of English

10 August 2023


This article first appeared in Queenwood Weekly News on Friday 11 August 2023.

Sometimes, it can be painful to reflect on past practice, especially when we know better. But, with a firm belief in the warmth of our Queenwood community, I’m going to share a story.

My teaching career began in a previous millennium, a time when lesson plans were handwritten, and the internet was just a whisper of possibility. Stepping into my first classroom, I exuded confidence and preparedness. I’d read widely and purposefully throughout my undergraduate degree and believed firmly (as I still do) in the transformative power of literacy education. I was determined to make a difference in the lives of  young learners. My "balanced literacy" sessions were designed to cultivate a love for learning through engaging tasks and rich literature. The children memorised lists of spelling words and sight words and, when we came across a word that did not match our rule of the week, we joked about how weird English is.

Except it’s not. While English boasts the largest vocabulary among all languages and is notorious for its complexity in spelling, a surprising 96% of words adhere to consistent spelling patterns. The complexity comes from the origins of our language. Over time, English has evolved, absorbing elements from various languages and giving rise to a rich tapestry of spelling conventions. The challenge with learning to spell lies in the fact that English lacks consistent one-to-one correspondence between sounds and letters. We have to make choices about how to spell the sounds we hear because the same sound is not always spelled the same way. Fortunately, there are logical conventions in English which help make reading and writing more predictable.

Before we teach spelling, however, we focus on oral language, learning to segment and manipulate sounds in spoken words. This is called ‘phonemic awareness’ and is the foundation for early literacy learning. For instance, the words bat, bet, bit, but, and bot all contain three separate sounds, or phonemes, with the vowel sound distinguishing them from one another.

Once children can identify and manipulate separate sounds in speech (such as changing bat - cat – cap - cup), we begin to explore the letters that represent sounds. This is known as ‘phonics’ and is the basis of all reading. To ease the cognitive load during the early years of reading and spelling, we prioritise learning the most common sounds and spelling choices first, gradually building a comprehensive understanding of spelling conventions.

Understanding the logic behind written English helps our young spellers choose a ‘c’ for ‘cat’ and a ‘k’ for ‘kit’, because we tell them that ‘c’ usually precedes ‘a’, ‘o’ and ‘u’ and ‘k’ usually precedes ‘e’ and ‘i’. Furthermore, they know that /k/ can be spelled with a ‘ck’ if it comes after a short vowel and is never used at the beginning of a word. They will choose ‘igh’ when they hear a word like ‘flight’ and ‘y’ when they hear  ‘my’ because they know that the rules for spelling the sound /i/.

Phonemic awareness and phonics are two fundamental skills for reading and writing, yet for generations, we did not explicitly or systematically teach these skills. Instead, we relied on rote memorisation and intuition, shrugging our shoulders at the peculiarities of English and sighing over children who were poor spellers. At Queenwood, we know better so we are doing better. With a worldwide shift to evidence-based practice based on the science of learning, teachers are armed with the skills and knowledge to help all children become literate. This generation of readers is beginning to understand why words look and sound the way they do, and we are giving them the power to lift every word from the page.