'i' before 'e' - the trouble with rules

Last week in the UK there was an item in the news saying the government was telling primary teachers they shouldn't teach their children the spelling rule :

" 'i' before 'e' except after 'c' "

Look at the words below and make up your own mind. How many of these words follow the rule:

Wordle: i before e? Image made by me at Wordle (click on thumbnail to go there)

So is it a good rule? There are SO many exceptions to this that it is confusing. Some people say you should use a fuller rule:

When the sound is ee, 'i' before 'e' except after 'c'


'i' before 'e' except after 'c' or when sounded like 'a' as in neighbour and weigh

But they still have exceptions and those rules are now becoming long and complicated. So I agree with the British government (for once) - it's probably not worth teaching.

But what has really interested me about this has been other people's reactions to it in the media. This business about dropping this particular rule was one short paragraph in a 124-page document called Support for Spelling. But the Shadow Children's Minister said:
"Having systematically lowered school standards for a decade, it is sadly no surprise that the Government is now actively telling teachers not to bother trying to teach children how to spell properly."

He added: "The best schools in richer areas will continue to teach children how to spell and the victims of this dumbing down will be, yet again, poorer children living in poorer areas."
Ummm...but this is in a 124-page document detailing some excellent ways to approach English spelling. What is he talking about?

And then I read this from a senior English lecturer at King's College, London:
"It's a very easy rule to remember and one of the very few spelling rules that I can remember and that's why I would stick to it.

"If you change it and say we won't have this rule, we won't have any rules at all, then spelling, which is already terribly confusing, becomes more so."
Both quotes from here.

So she thinks a bad rule should stay because then it makes it look like we have one rule in English rather than none - and that is supposed to be helpful?

And in a discussion about the subject on another site a lot of people called Keith and Sheila had something to say about this rule!! One Keith said it wasn't until he was 25 years old that he learnt how to spell 'their' - when he suddenly realised that the 'ei' was the same as the 'ei' in his name! I've always said we should encourage learners to link what they don't know to what they do know - it took Keith a while but he eventually got there!

(By the way, I was asked to speak about this on National Public Radio - but unfortunately I got the message too late. The item is here, but it's obviously not me speaking.)

As always there'll be more on this and other 'rules' in my book "Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners"

British and American Spelling - spelling successfully reformed?

US+UK+flagsI've been asked several times to write about the differences between British and American spelling. I started to make a list and then got a bit bored, because there are lots of other such lists on the web. So at the end of this posting I'll link to some sites where you can find them (Check carefully though - some lists say that the British version of bank is *banque - rubbish! It's bank of course.) And there will be a much fuller exploration of British and American English in my book which I talked about in the last posting here.

But today let's look at how US spelling came to be different from English spelling. The big mover and shaker was Noah Webster. In "An Essay on the Necessity, Advantages, and Practicality of Reforming the Mode of Spelling and of Rendering the Orthography of Words Correspondent to Pronunciation" (phew - NOT a snappy title Mr Webster!) written in 1789, he says

It has been observed by all writers, on the English language, that the orthography or spelling of words is very irregular ... The question now occurs; ought the Americans to retain these faults which produce innumerable inconveniencies in the acquisition and use of the language, or ought they at once to reform these abuses, and introduce order and regularity into the orthography of the AMERICAN TONGUE?

Mr Webster thought reform was definitely needed. And he proposed the following changes:

1. "The omission of all superfluous or silent letters." So he wanted bread to be bred, friend to be frend and give to be giv.

2. "A substitution of a character that has a certain definite sound, for one that is more vague and indeterminate." This would give us *neer for near, *laf for laugh, *blud for blood, *wimmin for women and *korus for chorus.

3. "... ch in French derivatives should be changed into sh". So you would do your washing in a *masheen and a *shef would work in a restaurant. Other French spellings would also go, leaving us with *toor (tour) and *obleek (oblique).

4. "A trifling alteration in a character, or the addition of a point would distinguish different sounds, without the substitution of a new character." So here he proposed putting a little line across th to distinguish the voiced and unvoiced sounds. And he suggested using some dots over vowel letters to differentiate them.

Some of these suggestions were adopted at least in part but many of them the public just refused to use.

  • our got changed to or, so colour became color, but it never got as far as *culor.
  • re at the end of a word became er, so the British theatre became the US theater but for some reason not always (American National Theatre) and acre didn't become acer (because it would change the pronunciation).
  • Cheque got shortened to check, but unique didn't ever make it to *uneek (or *yooneek).
So was it a good idea or has it just made spelling more complicated, especially for those learning English as a second or foreign language? Certainly American spellings do look at first sight more logical and regular. On the other hand, there are now often two different spellings to learn, the British and the American. And there are still a lot of inconsistencies. If the reforms had been more complete, maybe this would have been more useful but now there are perhaps more opportunities for confusion, not fewer.

And another issue for me is that English orthography seems to purposely use different spellings to distinguish between most homophones. So check and cheque sound the same but are spelt differently to show they have different meanings. Also tire (to get tired) and tyre (black rubber on the wheel) deliberately, I think, have different spellings. In simplifying these for US English, that difference is lost.

So what about spelling reform generally - does it work? My feeling is that it's something that comes naturally to a language and it's a difficult thing to force on the native speakers of that language. It wouldn't surprise me if *alot replaced a lot, not because anyone in authority has said it should but it is the way many native speakers write it. And maybe u will become the new spelling of you. Capital letters may die out (or is it just a phase we're going through?) and the days of the apostrophe seem numbered (except that it appears where it shouldn't!).

I'd love to hear your opinions:
  • Is US English easier to spell than British English?
  • Tell us about other varieties of English (Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African, Indian, Carribean, etc, etc)
  • Can spelling reform work?
  • Has it worked in other languages that you know?
  • What other English spellings do you think might change?
Oh, and the links I promised you:
For a full list of the differences between US and UK English (and some other varieties):
A bit more user-friendly if you just want to check something quickly:
http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwesl/egw/jones/differences.htm (but beware of *banque)
And if you want to read more from Noah Webster (where the info above came from):


Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners

I'm so excited! I've just had the cover of my book - Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners - designed. And I want to share it with you.

Just one problem - I haven't finished writing the book! But I'm getting there.

Questions I'd like you to ask me...

So what's the book about?
Well, how to teach spelling to people who are learning English. Although it's primarily aimed at teachers of adults and teens, all the principles and most of the activities can be used with, or adapted for, children too. It starts with an examination of English spelling, how 'regular ' and learnable it really is and why some people struggle with it. Then we take a quick look at some research I've done about learners, teachers and materials. All of this helps to inform my approach to teaching spelling. The rest of the book describes this - the methodology and specifically how we can teach spelling strategies and some spelling patterns - particularly those that seem to bug our learners most.

What makes it different from the other spelling books? What spelling books? There aren't many, not for ELT. But mine moves away from a phonics approach - because

a) so much of English isn't phonetically spelt and
b) many English language learners have problems with pronunciation too.

So I deal with multi-sensory and cognitive approaches to spelling. We all learn different things in different ways, so there are loads of very different types of activities for you to use or adapt. The other difference is the focus on strategies. We can't make anyone learn to spell (just as we can't make them learn anything else) but we can show them some ways how.

Why are you writing it?
Guilt! I remember hearing myself tutting over student work and saying"You really must do something about your spelling". They would nod sadly and ask,"How?" and I had no answer. I knew just "read a lot" wasn't very helpful. So I started looking into ways to help them. Then came an MA dissertation. Then getting big and enthusiastic audiences at my presentations about spelling and requests to read the dissertation. So I decided to build on it and include lots of activities and ... here we are - well, nearly.

When will it be out?
Ah, good question! Hopefully, by the end of this year. In time for your Christmas stocking, chilly evenings or lying on the beach (depending which part of the world you are in).

What can we do to help you out?
Well, since you ask, encourage me! Tell me that this is the book you've been waiting for and that I should hurry up and get it finished and you know X number of people who want to buy it. Oh, and get someone to invite me to talk about how to teach spelling. And spread the word. And keep coming back to the blog to see how it's coming along. Thank you very much.

Thank you.
It's my pleasure!

And by the way, do you like the cover? Please leave comments.

Handwriting and spelling

Where is your memory? In your brain certainly. But it also seems to be in your muscles. When you write a very familiar word or even just a string of letters as part of a word, you don't stop and think about the spelling, your hand just does it. You have gained automaticity: that is, you do something without really thinking about it (like changing gear when driving). The great thing about automaticity is that it frees up your conscious attention for dealing with higher-level tasks. In writing this means you can be thinking about how to express your ideas rather than how to spell the words. It's what people who are learning to spell should be striving for.

So how can learners gain this automaticity when it comes to spelling? Handwriting is an important consideration. If students 'print', that is, they write each letter separately and individually, they are missing out on valuable opportunities to get the hand to remember spellings of whole words or common chunks of words (letter strings) such as '-ing' or '-tion'.

Learners from languages that are written from right to left sometimes start to write a letter on the right and work towards the left. So in the common string 'wh', they may start writing 'w' at the top right of it and then when they get to the top left of 'w' they have to skip back to the right ready to write the 'h'. All the flow from one letter to the next is thus lost. This needs to be corrected if at all possible.

In Melvyn Ramsden's Rescuing Spelling, he recommends that children are encouraged to join up their letters or at least write letters that can be joined up (i.e. they have those little tails on them - called ligatures). He suggests they should write the letters in each morpheme together, so their hand learns to automatically make that shape. So when writing '-ing' at the end of a word, the pen shouldn't leave the paper and the 'i' should be dotted last, after the 'g' has been written. He gets his children to say out loud "ing" when they dot the 'i'. Neat! I'm going to try it out with an adult English language learner who has this problem.

Here's a video I just found of Melvyn Ramsden in action:


Interesting, but I found it a bit uncomfortable to watch. What do you think? Are children taught to print or join up their writing when they start learning to write in your country?

Look, Say, Cover, Write and Check (LSCWC)

Sometimes you just have to learn to spell words. But how? One of the most tried and tested methods for English-speaking children is look, say, cover, write and check ... and it works just as well for adults.

LOOK at the word you want to learn, and I mean really look. Which bits of the spelling are easy and which are not so obvious? Mark the 'hard spots', that is the difficult part of the word, using a different colour pen. Is the word similar in spelling to another word that has a related meaning? Can you break it into parts?

Have a really good look and think about the spelling until you feel you can spell it.

SAY the word, while looking at it. Is the spelling a reflection of the sound? If not what is different?

COVER the word with your hand, a piece of paper, your coffee cup, the cat or whatever. Close your eyes and try to 'see' the word in your head.


CHECK your spelling by uncovering the word and comparing it with your spelling. Check it letter by letter. If it's wrong, start again; if it's right, have a sip of coffee and tell the cat how clever you are.

Even better, do it online - then you can't cheat! Here are some great websites to help you.

My favourite is Ambleside: http://www.amblesideprimary.com/ambleweb/lookcover/lookcover.html . It's so simple and you can put in your own words. For adults as well as children.

This one from the BBC is fun and full of surprises but you can't put in your own words unfortunately. http://www.bbc.co.uk/skillswise/words/spelling/waystolearn/lookcover/game.shtml

There are more sites like this. Let me know if you want more or know of more yourself.