Why are words confusing?
Hi there, and welcome to the Structured Literacy Podcast, where we talk all things Structured Literacy. This episode is coming to you from Pataway, Burnie in Tasmania, and I'd like to start by recognising the Palawa people of this land and their connection to the lands and waterways on which I live and work.
When I visit schools and model spelling lessons in classrooms, I often begin by explaining to students that 150 years ago, when I was a student at school, (and yes, there are some kids who try and do the maths on that), I was told that the spelling of English doesn't make much sense and that we just have to learn it. Basically, memorise it. Then I tell the students that simply isn't true and let them know that the reason I am there is to help their teachers make it easier for them to read and spell. When I'm talking to teachers, I acknowledge to my shame that I've also told children that English words don't make much sense, and that was at a time before I knew differently. Truly, just about everything I suggest that teachers don't do I've done at one point or another, and now would never do again. It's terrific that we now know that the way words operate is largely logical, and we want to help students avoid the confusion that we all experienced as students ourselves and continue to experience as adults. It's true that this is an important undertaking, and it's also true that it's one that scares the life out of many of us because we now have to actively build knowledge so that we can support students.
In her book, Speech to Print, Louisa Moats tells us that 96 per cent of English is logical when we understand about four key areas: phonics, orthography, morphology, and etymology. That is a very different percentage from what we have previously been told by people who insist that analysing words to discover patterns, using memorization strategies, and engaging in authentic writing will help us learn to spell. The challenge is that we need a way to do that at the same time as we build our own knowledge of how words work, but that's a discussion for a future podcast episode. And while you wait for that one, you might like to check out the highly practical companion podcast, Structured Literacy in Action, found wherever you are listening to this episode.
Mastering the Four Main Areas of Word Spelling and Phonics
Let's turn our attention back to words and how they work. I'd like to run through the four main areas that influence the spelling of words for you. If you've been at this caper for a while now, you will likely not be hearing anything new. But if you feel like you're treading water when it comes to words and how they work, then the rest of this episode will fill a few gaps and, I hope, help you feel a little more confident about words. You can also find the full transcript of this episode in the show notes on our website, www.jocelynseamereducation.com, so please bookmark it to go back to later. If you're a school leader, feel free to print the podcast transcript out and share it with your team in an in-school professional learning or professional learning community session.
Let's start with phonics and its role in reading and spelling. It comes as no surprise that phonics is critical. It's why there is so much conversation about it. Without knowing the code of words, nothing else is going to happen for us, and it's not enough to say, "Well, the students can read and write. Why do they need to be conscious of phonics?" Because there will always come a time when a student encounters unknown words to either read or spell and if they aren't conscious of that code, their chances of successfully decoding or encoding the word will be drastically reduced.
The Importance of Phonics.
So phonics is necessary. Students need to know how to connect phonemes, the sounds we say, with graphemes, the letter or letters that represent them, automatically and effortlessly. They need to know that one phoneme can be represented by multiple graphemes and that graphemes can represent more than one phoneme. The speech sound /ay/ can be written down with a letter <a> by itself, with <ai>, <ay>, and with a split diagraph, whether letters <a> and <e> are separated by consonant letter. I want to take a moment to stop and chat about this notion of a split diagraph and the terminology we use around it. People on Facebook can be highly invested in which term we use to describe the way that long vowels are referred to, but I have to tell you, I'm really not too worried about it. Now, technically, the <e> in the split diagraph has a job to do, which is to mark that the preceding vowel letter represents a long sound. As long as students know that and they can use that, they are fine. And I'd argue that bossy <e>, silent <e>, vowel split <e>, or split diagraph are probably all accurate ways to describe these graphemes and that it's more important that your team is consistent in their use of language than it is to get hung up on using a particular term. You might disagree, and that's okay. You do what makes the most sense to you.
I think that most of us are familiar enough with core concepts of phonics that I won't go into things too closely here. But if you're an upper primary or secondary teacher feeling lost, never fear. You can find more detailed information about phonics in my book, Reading Success in the Early Primary Years, and in a course called Supercharge Your Phonics that's inside our Evergreen Teacher Membership that you can join as an individual and as a school. We also have courses about how to teach phonics in the literacy block there.
The limitation with phonics is that it explains some of how words work, but certainly not all. Phonics alone doesn't explain why there's a <t> in the word 'soften' or why the word 'running' has a double <n>. For that, we need to turn to orthographic and morphological considerations.
Understanding Orthography and Morphology
Let's get into orthography first. If you're unfamiliar with that word, just say it a few times. So, go on, repeat it after me. Orthography... orthography... orthography... Literally, orthography means correct writing, from ortho meaning correct and straight, and graph meaning to write. We see ortho also used in the word 'orthodontist'. You probably know orthographic conventions as 'spelling rules', and if you've just groaned at hearing spelling rules, stick with me. If you did groan and your eyes rolled back in your head, the reason is likely that you were thinking, "Yeah, okay, I get the rules, but there are so many exceptions that make them a bit useless." So let's start there. There are some exceptions to orthographic conventions, but more often than not, what we might think of as exceptions can be explained by thinking about a word's history and origin. More about that later.
To get a handle on orthographic conventions or generalisations, I really like Denise Eide's book 'Uncovering the Logic of English'. It outlines 31 conventions that apply in English, and yes, that might sound like a lot, but it's not really. Many of them have crossovers with phonics, so they can be introduced as we introduce and reinforce particular phonics elements. For example, the grapheme <ck> is generally used after a single short vowel, such as in the words duck, track, and stick. You can explain that to the students when you introduce this grapheme in the foundation year and then come back to it and revisit it as you need to in later years.
The Complexities of English Spelling.
The convention about a so-called soft C and G might be introduced in the second half of year one or into year two. That's where it sits in Reading Success in Action. Children are taught that C always and G mostly represent /s/ and /j/ when followed by the letters <i>,<e>, or <y>. But it's not a good idea to focus too much on a rule-driven approach to spelling, and I'm taking my cue on that statement from Louisa Moats. A little bit of knowledge building is necessary, but then we need to be working with these words or reading and spelling at word, sentence, and text levels to help these particular patterns become embedded into long-term memory. So phonics and orthography explain why 'gym' and 'city', and 'gym' as in the place you go to exercise, and 'city' are spelled the way they are, but they don't explain why the words 'gift', 'getting', 'giving', and 'girls' are spelled the way they are. After all, if <g> followed by <i>, <e>, or <y> is pronounced as /j/, what's happening in these words? The answer here is not that it's an exception. The answer lies in the history of those words, or etymology. The bases 'get', 'gift', 'girl', and 'give' are all Old English words whose spelling has persisted over time. So we can then ask, why does the word 'give' have an <e> on the end, but that <e> disappears in the word giving? And if 'give' has a split diagraph pattern, why isn't it pronounced /gighv/? What's happening here is that these words can be viewed and explained through a phonics lens, an orthographic lens, an etymological lens and a morphological one, all at the same time. And this is why we need to actively build knowledge, both for ourselves and our students. The word 'give' does have the letter <e>, but it's not a split diagraph in the same way as the word 'strive'. The job of the <e> at the end of the word 'give' is to prevent the word from breaking the rule that English Words don't end in the letter <v>. The morphological consideration in the word giving is that the suffix -ing is an inflectional suffix that changes the tense of the word to third person singular present tense, as in, "He is giving the dog a wash." The reason that the letter <e> disappears relates to a suffixing convention. That's a special orthographic convention that applies when we add suffixes to words. In this case, the convention is that when we add a vowel suffix to a word ending in <e>, we generally drop the <e> and add the suffix. The reason we wouldn't do this is if doing so would break another rule. For example, if we dropped the <e> when adding the suffix -able to the word 'manage', the <g> would no longer represent the phoneme /j/ because it wouldn't be followed by the letters <i>, <e>, <y>. But most of the time, the <e> is going to be dropped, and all will be well. If this feels a little confusing, just rewind a little bit and just have another listen to that and visualise the word or even write it down. It can feel really messy, but once you get a handle on it, things fall into place. But be gentle with yourself. Don't expect that you're going to magically have all of the understanding straight away.
The Effects of Adding Vowel Suffixes to Words
Adding vowel suffixes does all sorts of interesting things to words that spark a range of social media discussions. For example, adding the suffix -ion to the word 'conduct' gets us the word 'conduction'. If you are near a pen and paper right now, write that word down, and if you aren't, just try and imagine it. The base word conduct doesn't have the sound /sh/. But the word conduction does. Is <tion> /shun/ a suffix? Is <ti> a grapheme? The answer to both of these questions is no. Adding the suffix <ion> to base words very often triggers a pronunciation change in the word. Spelling and meaning very often remain consistent, but pronunciation is likely to change depending on the words. Think about 'aeration' coming from the base 'aerate' and 'creation' coming from the base 'create'. This pronunciation change is very common and doesn't signal that something is wrong or irregular about our language. It just signals a pronunciation change. It's how it works.
Is it a grapheme?
So let's come back to that Facebook discussion I mentioned. Should we teach <ti> as a grapheme and <tion> as a suffix? Well, I wouldn't. It's not accurate. Should we, however, draw students' attention to the fact that pronunciation will change when adding the suffix <ion> and provide them with the opportunity to work with words with that pattern? You bet. I include the spelling concepts around <si>, <ti>, and <ci> in Reading Success in Action Alternate Spellings, and I do this for the simple reason that children need to be aware of the pronunciation of these particular patterns. The intention is not to teach it as a grapheme but just to provide them with a range of words that are organised with a similar pattern so that they can start to learn it. I've heard Anita Archer also talk about this focus on pronunciation when introducing morphology, and I think it's sensible. So while technically <ti> is not a grapheme, something has to happen in the way that we say it when the <ion> is added, and I think it's okay to work with this as a pattern rather than thinking that it's a grapheme all by itself. Now we've included it in our phonics books, but only because it's such a common pattern for children to learn, and Spelling Success in Action was two years away at the time of writing, so we popped it there and I think it's okay.
Understanding the Relationship between Words
But not all words are as clear cut to understand as 'conduction' and 'creation'. Some words, their structures and their relationships to other words seem downright confusing to both us and the children. For example, how are the words 'support' and 'subvert' related? Sure, they both start with the letters <s> and <u>, but they mean kind of the opposite of each other. One means 'help', and the other one means 'undermine'. Are <sub> and <sup> different prefixes, or is <s> and <u> the prefix? These are reasonable questions to ask and understandable misconceptions to have. The answer is that both support and subvert come from the prefix sub, meaning under, however, the last letter in the prefix changes depending on the first letter of the base. This is called assimilation. In this case, there are two other members of the gang - there's 'sur', <s>, <u>, <r>, and 'suf' <s>, <u>, <f>, and this is where we get 'suffixes' that form the prefixes of various words. All four of these sub, sup, sur, and suf from the assimilated prefix 'sub' and mean the same thing but have different spellings depending on the spelling depending on the base or root.
Today's podcast episode is not going to make you a wordsmith, but I hope that it helps you see that English is indeed logical and not random, as we were probably taught at school. In developing our knowledge of how words work, we aren't trying to be linguists. Instead, we're building our own knowledge so that we can help children have a functional capacity to read and spell. So if you're wondering how deeply you should go into learning, how deeply you should go into explaining things to students, err on the side of function. It's how we make our decisions in the work that we do.
I want to leave you with one last concept today. That is the notion of word transparency. Some words are easy to figure out, and some just aren't. There are three types of transparency. The first is semantic transparency. That is, the meaning of a word and its relationships is clear. The next level of transparency is phonological. Can I hear the base in the word? The third is orthographic. Can I see the spelling of the base in the word? For example, when we take the word recooked, meaning to have cooked again, the meaning of the whole word is easy to connect to the base 'cook'. The prefix and suffix added give us an extra dimension to the word, and that's not confusing. So the word is semantically transparent. The pronunciation of the base is maintained in the new word. I can hear the base cook in recooked, so it's phonologically transparent. And finally, I can see the spelling of the base and the whole word. There was no spelling change when I added re and the past tense, ed. Transparent words are easier to understand and learn, and it's why Spelling Success in Action 1 has units organised by suffix and then word lists in each unit organised by orthographic transparency. We don't want to just throw a bunch of complexity at children when they're first learning these concepts. We need to maintain the principle of structured literacy, of supporting cognitive load by working from simple to complex. If we don't do that, we're asking children to think about morphology and etymology using words that are the opposite of transparent. That is, they are opaque. And those are the actual words used to discuss these concepts.
If you take nothing out of this episode other than the message that some words are easier to understand than others, then I'm happy. All too often, we start on a journey of building our knowledge about words only to hit a roadblock when things aren't obvious. We think that we mustn't be clever enough to understand it all or that the mountain is so high we'll never climb it. The truth is that language is unconstrained, and we'll go on learning about it for the rest of our lives. So whatever point you are up to right now is just fine.
Help is at hand.
When you come to a word you don't quite understand, ask the questions. I'm sure that you're familiar with the website Etymonline. This site is a goldmine of information when it comes to the why of words. However, I also acknowledge that it can be daunting to look at in the beginning. Look for the bolded bits and follow them. They'll help answer your questions. I can also recommend John Ayto's Dictionary of Word Origins as a great source of information. I use that one frequently as well.
In our upcoming release of Spelling Success in Action 2 Prefixes and Suffixes, I've done the research for you, and I'm including key information about more opaque words so that you have the information you need at your fingertips as you teach. I've also included notes about orthographic conventions that are used in the word list so you'll know how to explain the words to the children. I do think we all need to get better at finding the answers about words we aren't sure of because we will continue to encounter things we don't know. But in getting Spelling Success in Action 2 ready for you, I wanted to give you a helping hand and as much support as I could for your teaching. Life is complicated enough without having to spend an hour trawling the internet before every lesson.
Finally, if you're a Resource Room member, you can access over a year's worth of teaching about morphology and suffixing conventions right now. The pink lessons are the introductory ones where we've carefully arranged content according to morpheme and suffixing conventions. These can be used from Year One onwards and are also great for older children just becoming conscious of the concepts. We want to teach the children without overwhelming them. This is one of the ways to do that. Then we have the meatier work for years three to six with a four-day teaching sequence for each unit. No stand-alone lessons that you have to try and add on to. One of the lovely things that I hear from people using our resources is not only about the increased confidence and capacity of their students but about how they themselves are growing in knowledge and confidence as they teach. Great resources build teacher capacity at the same time as helping students achieve great results.
If you're new to all of this, you might want to have another listen to this episode and remember that the full transcript is in the show notes at www.jocelynseamereducation.com. To further support teachers and leaders to grow their knowledge, I'm running my new workshop, Building the Foundations for Your Literacy Block in Years 3 to 6, all around the country between now and the end of 2024. You can find dates and links to book at www.jocelynseamereducation.com. This workshop comes with a language reference pack because I know how important it is for you to have easy access to simple information exactly when and where you need it. And you also have 12 months of follow-up support and learning through our Evergreen Teacher membership. This membership gives over 50 hours of recorded courses, access to two new live courses every year, monthly live group coaching and special leaders-only sessions where school leaders and instructional coaches can receive support for their in-school efforts.
Developing our knowledge of phonics, orthography, morphology and etymology and how to teach them, and knowing how to examine words through these four lenses is critical if we're going to make every lesson a language lesson. But that won't all happen in a day. Be gentle with yourself, ask lots of questions and have a crack at using Etymonline. As you gain confidence and enthusiasm for words, your students will pick up on that and be right there on the journey with you.
That's all from me for this episode. Have a great week ahead, everyone.
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