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English Gets a Bad Rap!

By: Louisa Moats, Carol Tolman
English orthography, or the English spelling system, may not be as transparent or easy to spell as Spanish, Italian, or Serbo-Croatian, but it's not crazy! Most English word spellings can be explained and most English words do follow spelling patterns.

However, it is true, unfortunately, that some of our most common words (e.g., does, of, aunt, been) just don't follow the rules of phonics. They are often the oldest words in the English language whose pronunciations have changed over many centuries of use.

Surprisingly, approximately only four percent of all English words in print defy explanation and are truly irregular. More commonly, speech sounds in English words are spelled with one of several possible spellings, which are determined by various kinds of patterns.

Approximately 50 percent of all English words can be spelled accurately by sound–symbol correspondence patterns alone, and another 36 percent can be spelled accurately except for one speech sound (usually a vowel). English orthography is not the senseless mess that George Bernard Shaw claimed when he proposed that we could spell the word fish as ghoti: gh for /f/, as in cough; o for /ĭ/, as in women; and ti for /sh/, as in nation.)

Regularity or predictability of English orthography is not an either/or proposition. We cannot divide words easily into "regular" and "irregular" spelling categories. Predictability exists on a continuum; some words are perfectly regular, some are a little bit odd, and others are very odd. Truly unpredictable spellings, typically leftovers from Old English, are common among the words most often used for writing. Traditionally, these words have been called such things as "outlaw," "lookout," "red," "unfair," "trouble," or "tricky" words in early reading instruction. Nevertheless, outlaw words are much less common than regular, pattern-based spellings.

The more a teacher understands about how English spelling works, the more likely it is that students will improve their spelling and decoding (Kroese, Mather, & Sammons, 2006).

Moats, L, & Tolman, C (2009). Excerpted from Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS): Spellography for Teachers: How English Spelling Works (Module 3). Boston: Sopris West.

For more information on Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) visit the Sopris West LETRS website.

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