'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"


  1. "If the letter C you spy / Put the E before the I" does most of the work (given that we are dealing with the [i:] sound) and has only "specie" and "species" as exceptions that I know of.

  2. Over the years, I've taught this "rule" to some students and not to others. I believe (note the very unscientific word) that the students I have taught it to have developed more quickly as spellers and word masters than those who I haven't taught it to. I think that's because in teaching it, and teaching the myriad exceptions, I've prompted them to think about words and how they're spelled. Perhaps the primary years are too early for this and it should only be taught in junior high or middle school, but I really think that it's valuable as a prompt for thinking about words.

  3. Thanks for posting this video! It´ll make a great comical intro to my next class, especially after some of my students questioned some of the discrepancies of the 'i before e except after c rule'.