Virtually every school child hears the “i before e” rhyme at least once as he or she struggles with spelling.
But according to child development psychologist and reading development expert Rebecca Treiman, the “i-e” rule is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to spelling patterns found in the English language.
Research by Treiman and her University colleagues suggests that teaching children to recognize and use these patterns may help them learn to spell and read more easily.
“The English writing system is often considered to be chaotic and hard to learn,” said Treiman, Ph.D., the Burke & Elizabeth High Baker Professor in Child Developmental Psychology in Arts & Sciences. “Some believe the only way to learn it is to memorize.
“Our studies suggest that learning to spell in an alphabetic writing system is very much a linguistic process. Memorization plays some role — for example in learning about the ‘s’ of ‘island’ — but there is much more to spelling than rote memory. From an early age, children appreciate that spellings are maps of words’ linguistic structures and they create spellings that reflect their knowledge of linguistic form.”
In a perfect world, the best writing system for a language would be an alphabet that always spells a particular sound in only one way. Any person who knew this one-to-one mapping system of sound-letter correspondences could do a credible job of spelling out dictated words or pronouncing written text.
English, however — with words like “tough,” “though,” “through” and “bough” — has earned a worldwide reputation as hopelessly irregular and difficult.
While G.B. Shaw once described English as a language that “can’t be spelt,” Treiman prefers to think of it as a language with structures and goals that are all-too-often misunderstood.
In a forthcoming article in the journal Reading Psychology, she and colleague Brett Kessler, Ph.D., research scientist in psychology, contend that English spellings are actually fairly consistent and predictable as long as various rules and patterns are recognized.
Titled “Is English Spelling Chaotic? Misconceptions Concerning Its Irregularity,” the article is based on a careful analysis of phonemes — the smallest unit of speech that distinguishes one utterance from another.
Treiman and Kessler have found, for instance, that a word is often spelled with an “ea” when the short “e” sound is followed by “d” (“head,” for example). But when the final sound is “m,” the “ea” spelling is never used.
Another example is that words tend to be spelled with two consonants when the vowel is spelled with a single letter (i.e., shall, class, doll, bell, dress); and a shorter spelling when the vowel is spelled with more than one letter (i.e. jail, goose).
“While these patterns are not 100 percent accurate, they could aid in spelling and reading,” Treiman said. “This is something that could actually be taught. By getting a better idea of spelling patterns, English would not seem so chaotic.
“Right now, teachers have a system that doesn’t make sense. So they give kids 10 words to memorize.”
Deciphering spelling patterns
While some spelling patterns uncovered in the study might seem complex and difficult to apply to real-world spelling challenges, research confirms that many of these patterns have become internalized and routinely used by adult spellers. For instance, English spellers expect to see double consonants at the end of a word (class, bell), but most would be startled by double consonants at the beginning of a word (cclass, bbell), a pattern never seen in English.
In their research, Treiman and Kessler focus not only on deciphering these spelling patterns, but also on how well children of various ages are able to recognize and use them to improve their spelling and reading skills. In this study, a survey of first-grade text vocabulary showed that spelling consistency is increased significantly when young students take into account the position of the phoneme within the syllable and the identity of the phonemes in the environment.
In other words, environmental clues play an important role in helping students recognize that certain vowel sounds are spelled in certain ways when they come before or after certain consonants. For example, the long “eye” sound is usually spelled “igh” in words that end in “t” (night, right, light).
“Our studies show that young students already have begun to recognize and apply these patterns in their approach to reading, spelling and writing,” Treiman said. “When these patterns are taken into account, it turns out that sound-to-letter correspondences in English are not as inconsistent as widely believed.”
While one-to-one sound-letter correspondences have obvious advantages, Treiman suggested that divergences from this simple mapping system have evolved in English writing for a number of valid reasons — many of which bring their own benefits to the system.
For instance, once the spelling of a word becomes popular, we tend to stick with that spelling, regardless of how the pronunciation of the word changes over time or across dialects. This principle of “conservatism” serves the purpose of keeping English spellings consistent, no matter how differently a word is pronounced in England, Scotland, Ireland or America.
Similarly, words borrowed from non-English languages often retain spelling from their original language, a principle that provides new readers of the word with important clues as to its origin and meaning.
“In this paper we wish to state the case for English spelling,” Treiman and Kessler write. “We do not want to claim that the English writing system is ideal, nor do we wish to gloss over the real challenges it poses for children.
“But it is important to understand the nature of English spelling, and it is seriously misunderstood. English spelling is by no means irrational or pathological, but serves several goals other than that of a one-to-one phoneme-letter correspondence that critics have imposed on it.”
Treiman’s research on children’s understanding of language and phonology has been supported through grants from the National Institutes of Health and Human Development, the National Science Foundation, the Spencer Foundation and the March of Dimes Birth Defects Research Foundation.
In addition to spelling patterns, she has studied the linguistic bases of spelling errors in typical and dyslexic children, as well as the methods children use in learning to connect print and speech.
Planned research includes a study of the possible benefits to spelling of early cochlear implants (found to enhance speech production and language) in deaf children by working with St. Louis-area schools that emphasize oral communication rather than sign language.
“This is a very interesting area of research,” Treiman said. “It’s really theoretical but with practical applications. Some of the things that we’re studying can be incorporated into teaching methods.”