Words We Cannot Teach

The cow on the left has eaten less grass than the cow on the right.
Teaching our students that they should always sound out their words when reading or spelling creates trouble in the classroom. For example, we would not be able to write this sentence on the board: "Cows grow when they eat grass." Further, if we want to teach about the words "ear" or "year," we should not write as the title of our lesson "Words to Learn." We must also be very careful to avoid having both "horse" and "worse" up on the walls of the classroom at the same time. Finally, it is a bad idea to teach the past tense counterparts of "pay" and "say" in the same lesson, even though these words rhyme. The problem is that "paid" and "said" do not rhyme with each other.

My Three Goals

I have three main goals for this page: (i) to show that using the method of "sounding out words" with our students does not work; (ii) to explain why it does not work; and (ii) to suggest alternative strategies for teaching word recognition and spelling. In what follows, I first present examples from two poems that illustrate the sheer amount of mismatch between English spelling and pronunciation. Next, I give a basic linguistic analysis of English sounds to show that there is no simple one-to-one correspondence between English spelling and English pronunciation. Following that, I briefly explain why modern English spelling is in its current state. After that, I discuss research that has been done on how the brain processes spelling as we move through a page. Finally, I suggest some alternative strategies we can use with teaching (written/printed) word recognition and spelling.


The difficulty of matching English spelling to English pronunciation is captured beautifully by some poets and writers. A couple of examples are given and discussed below: "I take it you already know" and "Phooey phonetics." Both of them are copied from:, which has a number of poems about the English language.

Suess-ToughCough.jpegI Take It You already Know

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: it's said like bed, not bead -
For goodness sake don't call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there's dose and rose and lose -
Just look them up - and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart -
Come, come, I've hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I'd mastered it when I was five!
Quoted by Vivian Cook and Melvin Bragg 2004, by Richard Krogh, in D Bolinger & D A Sears, Aspects of Language, 1981, and in Spelling Progress Bulletin March 1961, Brush up on your English.

A video clip of a reading of "I Take It You Already Know" is available here.

The poem above should speak for itself, but here are just a few interesting points that I thought I could raise. The poem begins by presenting eight words that look like they should rhyme but really do not. In the reading given in the above-mentioned video, the only ones that rhyme are "through" and "lough". In this variety of English, then, we can make up a list of seven words that end in the same four letters "ough" but that do not rhyme with each other. The main target groups for the sounding-out-words approach to reading and spelling tend to be students in Grades 1-3. In those grades, it is fairly likely for them to be exposed to three of the words in the list: "cough", "through", and "dough". Another word that they would also see is "enough", which is not in the above poem. It is clear that there is no consistent spelling pattern across these words, and therefore no way to give a rule to our students for the spelling of these words.

The second set of words are even more problematic: "heard", "word", and "bird" rhyme with each other but not with "beard." Again, all of these are words that a normally developing child would encounter by Grade 3. If we tried to teach them spelling with separate rules that cover words ending in "ord", "eard", and "ird", the fourth word "beard" would create trouble since "heard" and "beard" do not rhyme. Even if we leave out these troublemakers, we will still have to contend with this non-rhyming pair from the second half of the poem, "word" and "sword". Things will get even worse as the child goes on to learn words like "weird", "nerd", "scabbard", "teared", and so on.

What do we learn in school?

Phoney Phonetics

One reason why I cannot spell,
Although I learned the rules quite well
Is that some words like coup and through
Sound just like threw and flue and who;
When oo is never spelled the same,
The duice becomes a guessing game;
And then I ponder over though,
Is it spelled so, or throw, or beau,
And bough is never bow, it's bow,
I mean the bow that sounds like plow,
And not the bow that sounds like row -
The row that is pronounced like roe.
I wonder, too, why rough and tough,
That sound the same as gruff and muff,
Are spelled like bough and though, for they
Are both pronounced a different way.
And why can't I spell trough and cough
The same as I do scoff and golf?
Why isn't drought spelled just like route,
or doubt or pout or sauerkraut?
When words all sound so much the same
To change the spelling seems a shame.
There is no sense - see sound like cents -
in making such a difference
Between the sight and sound of words;
Each spelling rule that undergirds
The way a word should look will fail
And often prove to no avail
Because exceptions will negate
The truth of what the rule may state;
So though I try, I still despair
And moan and mutter "It's not fair
That I'm held up to ridicule
And made to look like such a fool
When it's the spelling that's at fault.
Let's call this nonsense to a halt."
Attributed to Vivian Buchan, NEA Journal 1966/67, USA, published in Spelling Progress Bulletin Spring 1966 pdf, p6, Reprinted from Educational Horizons.

(The italics are reproduced from the original webpage.)

The second line from the last says it well: it is indeed the spelling that is at fault. I think it might actually be better to not give our students the idea that there are simple rules of spelling in English they can learn - having this idea would only cause frustration later as they learn more words and face more exceptions to every rule they have learnt. I think it is useful to understand that the current state of English spelling is a result of a range of historical, linguistic, and social reasons; in the next section, I give some of these reasons briefly.


Linguists use phonetic alphabets to capture the sounds of the world's human languages; in these alphabets, each symbol represents one sound and one sound only. A commonly used phonetic system is the one known as the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). I underwent linguistics training at the postgraduate level for a number of years. In what follows, I use the IPA to capture the sounds associated with two letters of English spelling, "p" and "e". My aim is to demonstrate that, even if we restrict ourselves to words that are at a Grade 3 reading level and below, English letters and English sounds do not correspond to each other in a one-to-one fashion. Please note that words and letters in English spelling are in quotation marks, as in "cat"; when the IPA is used to capture sounds, the symbols are placed in square brackets, as in [kæt].

Sounds associated with the letter "p"Accident-Rpone.jpeg

There are at least four different sounds associated with the English letter "p".

1. Sound made by "p" in "pat": [pʰ]
To make the sound [pʰ], first, the lips come together. After that, the sound is released with some force through the lips with a puff of air.

2. Sound made by "p" in "spat": [p]
The production of the sound [p] starts with the lips coming together. The sound is then released through the lips. Unlike the above, though, there is no puff of air that accompanies the release of the sound. This contrast can be seen by holding up a piece of paper in front of the lips for the words "pat" and "spat"; the former will push the paper away while the latter will not. Note that [p] and [pʰ] are different symbols.

3. Sound made by "p" in "tap": [p˺]
When making the sound [p˺], the lips come together and stay together - they do not open to release the sound, unlike for the ones above.

4. Sound made by "p" in "graph": nothing
In this case, it is the combination "ph" that is usually associated with the sound [f]; the letter "p" on its own cannot be sounded out in the word.


Sounds associated with the letter "e"

There are at least seven different sounds associated with the English letter "e".

1. Sound made by "e" in "red": [ɛ]

2. Sound made by "e" in "read": half of [i]
Here, it is the sequence "ea" that is associated with the sound [i] and not a single "e." This "read" rhymes with "reed."

3. Sound made by "e" in "read": half of [ɛ]
In this word, it is the sequence of letters "ea" that is associated with the sound [ɛ] and not the single "e." This "read" rhymes with "bread." Here, I am using the pronunciation of "read" in Standard North American English, which is [rɛd] in IPA. There are dialects of English where the pronunciation of "read" is different, but which still rhymes with "bread". In Alabaman English, for instance, "read" is pronounced [rɛəd].

4. Sound made by "e" in "wallet": [ə]

5. Sound made by "e" in "eight": [e]
The pronunciation here depends on the dialect of English spoken. Some dialects pronounce "eight" as [eɪt]; others have it as [et]. In the former, it is the combination of "e" and "i" that is associated with the sound [e]. In the latter, the "e" is the only letter associated with the sound [e].

6. Sound made by "e" in "flew": half of [u]

7. Sound made by "e" in "made": nothing
Even if we think of the "e" as something that changes the pronunciation of the "a", there is no way to sound it out.

In conclusion, it would be a real challenge for a phonics-trained student to sound out the sentence below:
"The red reeds from the eight wallets flew right over the graph paper."



English Spelling Is Conservative

When we are teaching spelling, we often forget that human speech had been fully developed for a long time before the technology of writing was invented. Further, natural (spoken) language changes over time as a matter of course. Depending on the speech community, the writing system could also change, but sometimes at different paces and in different directions from the spoken language. The current body of English orthographic words is actually a very conservative one; it still retains grapheme-phoneme (spelling-sound) matches from Middle English, which was spoken about 500-600 years ago. Many of these pronunciations have changed by now. For instance, in words like "pace" and "space", the "e" at the end used to be pronounced. Over time, in the spoken language, that final vowel sound was deleted. This particular diachronic change - known simply as vowel deletion in the historical linguistics literature - is not at all uncommon among languages. There are some reasons to retain old spelling conventions; for example, it gives modern readers a chance to access older literature relatively easily. I am not necessarily saying that keeping Middle English spelling when we no longer use the pronunciation of that time is a good or a bad thing. It is just how things are now and therefore what we need to keep in mind when teaching English spelling.

Invasions can cause linguistic troubles!

War makes spelling hard.

English History Is Multilingual

Another major reason for the hodge-podge nature of English spelling is that English took in words from different languages at different times in history. Modern English words come from a whole myriad of languages, including Old English, French, Latin, Greek, and German. The principal etymologist at the Oxford English Dictionary gives a pretty good brief discussion of some of the main events that have shaped the language. For a short ten-minute video summary of the history of English, click here.

English Writing Is Multidialectal

One actually good reason for English spelling being the way it is is that it stays the same throughout all its dialects - depending on how one counts, there must be at least 30 - 50 dialects of English, some almost mutually unintelligible from each other! When I first read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, I was a high school student in Singapore and had only been exposed to Singaporean English at that point in my life. I would have had no hope of understanding what Harper Lee was saying to me if she was standing right in front of me and talking and gesturing to me. However, I could understand the book without much trouble. Therefore, people from these varieties of English across the world can understand the same body of literature even though they could not understand each other very well, if at all, verbally. The thing is, the only way to keep the written language accessible to multiple systems of pronunciations leaves no way for spelling and sound to match each other closely.


The following passage makes an interesting point.
external image brain_cool1a.gif
The passage above is copied from:

All of the English speakers and readers that I have asked to read the above have had no difficulty making out the words; neither did any of them have to read slowly to understand the content. This is not surprising. Research has shown that English orthography is actually fairly opaque - speakers do not generally seem to process English writing through phonology, i.e., sounding words out. Most of us seem to actually read the words on the page in a pictorial fashion and what we are looking for in word recognition are pictures that generally fit our image of a word. There have been much research that supports these ideas. Here is an abstract of a paper from the journal, Scientific Studies of Reading that compared the ways people processed the Turkish and English orthographies. The Turkish writing system is largely based on pronunciation. The researchers found that phonology processing is used much less in English reading than in Turkish reading. The full citation of the paper is given at the bottom of this subsection.

Since English word recognition is not necessarily tied to pronunciation, it makes sense to find ways other than the sound-it-out method to help our students master the English writing system. In the next section, I suggest some strategies toward that end.

Oney, B., Peter, M., and Katz, L. (1997) "Phonological Processing in Printed Word Recognition: Effects of Age and Writing System." in Scientific Studies of Reading 1 (1): 65-83.


In this section, I suggest some strategies for helping our students with word recognition and spelling. I have also included a few illustrative examples and the curricular outcomes that each of them targets. In the Alberta English Language Arts curriculum, learning to spell is specified under Specific Outcome 4.2 "Attend to Conventions." For the K-9 and 10-12 Programs of Study of English Language Arts in Alberta, please click here.

(1) Organizing Words into Groups
Have students work with words with similar spelling patterns in spelling tests, word games, tongue twisters, poster design, collages, and various other art projects. Group words according to whether they rhyme with each other and whether they look the same. For example, we can have the groups below:
A. dough, though, although
- These words look similar and have the silent "gh."
B. enough, cough, tough
- These words look similar and "gh" is "pronounced."
C. dough, slough, thorough
- These words look similar, have the silent "gh," and do not rhyme with each other.

Illustrative example: Tongue Twisters
Break students into teams of 2-3 and have each team create a visual tongue twister that uses at least six of the eight words above. After they are done, have them give their tongue twisters to other teams to read out for a class competition. The teacher may choose to inspect the tongue twisters before they are exchanged among the teams. Teams could also be restricted in the time they have to practice the tongue twisters given to them.
Examples of visual tongue twisters (albeit nonsensical ones, which were the only ones I could come up with!):
  • "Even though the dough was first thoroughly kneaded and baked, those who coughed did not get enough to eat their way through the slough."
  • "The dough filled up the slough thoroughly even though the cough was not deep enough!"
General Outcome 4 "Enhance the clarity and artistry of communication" (and its Specific Outcomes)
Specific Outcome 5.2 "Work within a group"

Illustrative example: Collages/postersCollage-dough.jpg
Get students to come up with graphic representations of the three groups of words above in a form that captures their grouping. Challenge the students to make a graphic that will be help them to remember how these words are spelled and pronounced.
For example, if the students so wish, they can make collages or posters that group the above words together. I made a simple diagram on my computer for the sake of illustration; that is the ugly picture on the right. In this picture, the "ough" in Group A share the same set of letters and the letters that complete the various words fan out around that central set.
For an added challenge, have students also indicate pictorially in each graphic representation whether the words rhyme with each other or how the "gh" is pronounced (or not).
Suggested materials for students: magazines, newspapers, and colored paper that can be cut up.
One way to learn English spelling is to organize words into groups in terms of their meaning, spelling, pronunciation, etc. If we can get our students used to the idea of organizing words for the purposes of their own learning, we will be hitting these both curricular outcomes concerning spelling as well as the organization of information.
Specific Outcome 3.3: particularly, "Organize information"
Specific Outcome 4.2: particularly, "Attend to spelling"

history-english-map.jpg(2) Discovering Word Origins
I also propose that we teach our students about the history of English: explain the mess to them so that they understand that there are reasons for things being the way they are and that we are also aware of the mess.
It would be directly useful, for example, to point out that words coming from the same language tend to exhibit many similar patterns. For example, French words have similar stress patterns that are different from the rest of English. (The words collage and garage both received stress on the final syllable; usually, in English, the stress on nouns do not fall on the last syllable.)

Illustrative example: Word origins
In the subsection "English History is Multilingual", I mentioned a ten-minute video that summarizes the history of English. This can be used to introduce and lead a lesson on the subject. Following the video, have the students play a game where they have to guess which country/region various English words comes from. Break the students up into groups of 3-4 and give each group a map of Western Europe as well as a list of words. Pick as many or as few of the words from the list below. Get the students to find out the origins of those words on their own using either resources available in the classroom or the library or on the internet. When they are ready, they should stick the word onto the right region on the map.
French: joy, beef, mutton, commence, encounter, liberty, justice, army, captain, blue, orange, carrot, garage, café, genre, collage
German: angst, hamburger, pretzel, Wiener, kindergarten, poodle, justice, wanderlust, abseil, blitz, fest, flak, Volkswagen, hinterland, iceberg
Greek: abacus, abyss, angel, angle, agony, biology, gigantic, gnome, democracy, diet, elastic, zone, ethics, theme, circus, guitar, logo
Debrief: ask students how they came up with the origins they decided on. Also, ask the students to use this exercise to explain why English spelling is so difficult/confusing.
Specific Outcome 3.2: particularly, "Access information"
Specific Outcome 4.2: particularly, "Attend to spelling"


(3) Discovering Dialects of English
I gave above one of the good reasons for the current state of English spelling: it is accessible to speakers of all its dialects. Having an appreciation of this feature of the writing system might help students feel less frustrated at their inability to sound out English words. To help them with this, the International Dialects of English Archive is a fantastic resource; it provides short recordings of English dialects all over the world free of charge.

I have picked out two recordings that might make for an interesting comparison/contrast experience for students in Alberta. These are both recordings of the same passage "Comma Gets a Cure" by Caucasian female speakers, which form a nice minimal set for comparison.
a. English dialect from Alberta
b. English dialect from Alabama
One way to use these recordings is to start by getting students to listen to the recording of the Alabaman dialect and see how much they are able to understand. After that, play for them the recording from Alberta and ask about their understanding. Finally, give the students copies of the passage read in the recording and see how much they now understand. They should have a much easier time with the last two activities than the first one.
As an accompanying activity, the students can be given a passage (or even book) written by someone from Alabama and see how much they are able to understand. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has a lot of choice passages. These series of activities should clearly illustrate the advantages of a writing system that does not worry about actual pronunciation.
I would argue that these activities target multiple Alberta Language Arts curricular outcomes. For example, exposing students to a wide range of English dialects serves directly to expand their knowledge of the language, which is one of the specific parts of Specific Outcome 4.1. Further, understanding how the spelling system of English works with respect to dialects can serve as a motivation for learning how to spell well since that raises the number of people who can understand what we write. This directly ties in to the subheading in Specific Outcome 4.1, "enhance legibility" and to the subheading in Specific Outcome 4.3 "present information." Last but not least, having a greater awareness of the differences that exist among English speakers can promote an appreciation for diversity and an understanding that we are simply different, not better or worse than one another. This gets at two of the subsections under Specific Outcome 5.1, namely, "appreciate diversity" and "relate texts to culture." The table below gives a summary of these outcomes. For the higher grades (8-9), longer or more difficult passages can be picked for consideration and discussion.
Specific Outcome 4.1, particularly "expand knowledge of language"
Specific Outcome 4.1, particularly "enhance legibility"
Specific Outcome 4.3, particularly "present information"
Specific Outcome 5.1, particularly "appreciate diversity"
Specific Outcome 5.1, particularly "relate texts to culture"

(4) Motivation through Authentic TasksSpellinr-error.jpg
I believe that giving students authentic tasks with authentic audiences for their efforts/products is one of the best things we can do to motivate them to learn - and that includes something as potentially frustrating as English spelling. To continue from the activities targeting dialectal appreciation above, we can seek out a school or school district in Alabama that is willing to carry out a joint pen-pal project with our students. If it works, it would be a lovely way for our children to learn to communicate with others in writing; my hope is much learning can be achieved if we can help them with spelling, punctuation, and so on as they write their letters.
Another relatively meaningful task we can ask our students to engage in is to write a script for a play or a skit that their peers would act out. Concerning spelling, the motivational factor here is that the writers should make sure their words are spelled right so that their friends can understand what they are saying and how they should act. The spell check process can be the final step in a lesson/unit that targets General Outcome 4, the various subheadings under Specific Outcome 2.4, as well as Specific Outcome 5.2. These are spelled out, no pun intended, in the table below.
Specific Outcome 2.4 "Create original text"
General Outcome 4 "Enhance the clarity and artistry of communication" (and its Specific Outcomes)
Specific Outcome 5.2 "Work within a group"

(5) Understanding non-English Writing Systems
One of the best ways to understanding something is to look at things outside of and things other than the object of our quest. I am fortunate enough to have been brought up in a multilingual environment: I speak 4 languages (or more, depending on how we count) and read and write in two orthographic systems, English and Chinese. I believe it would be useful for our students to see how other writing systems work, especially those who are struggling with and frustrated with the English orthography. As mentioned above, the Turkish writing system matches sound and writing pretty closely. From what I know of the Malay/Indonesian writing system, there is also a pretty close sound-spelling match. The Chinese system, on the other hand, does very little of that in comparison. English is somewhere in between the two. Consider the three pairs of Chinese characters below, where each pair are pronounced exactly the same way.

Pronunciation: [y̌] (IPA)
= fish
= on/concerning (some topic or event)

Pronunciation: [lǐn] (IPA)
= forest
= just before

Pronunciation: [dʒáŋ] (IPA)
= to open (one's mouth, for example)
= to reveal (a talent, for example)

We can explain to our students that a good way to learn English words is actually to think of them a little like Chinese characters - in terms of pictures. An activity that should help struggling students remember a word pictorially is drawing word-pictures. For example, to learn the spelling of "eagle", get the students to fuse the drawing of an eagle into the letters "eagle". For activities such as this, we are really only limited by our own imagination.

If the reader is interested in obtaining more Chinese characters for various purposes, feel free to write me by posting on this wiki.

This concludes my section on suggestions. My aim here was to provide ideas that would spark the reader's own thinking and imagination. I hope I have managed to do that a little bit!

Reader experiences?

If you've had any experience with phonics either as a teacher or as a student, or in any other context, I would love to hear from you! :-)