Spelling Myths and Truths

These are all true statements:

The spelling of every English word makes perfect sense.

There are no irregular words in English.  

Spelling is based on a logical, coherent system that we can understand by applying principles of scientific investigation to the words we read and write every day.

But if you don’t believe what you just read, I certainly don’t blame you.

Most of us have heard some very different claims: that the spelling system is an alphabetic code with rules, but lots of exceptions; that the primary purpose of spelling is to represent pronunciation; that there are words in our spelling system that are “regular” and make sense because the relationship between their pronunciation and their spelling is very clear but there are many words that are “irregular” or “rule-breaker” words. And I would bet that you have plenty of “evidence” coming to mind to support these generally accepted premises. Yet these notions are false.

And unfortunately, most reading science that is used to justify certain methods of instruction is built on these false assumptions.

However, I urge you not to take my word for this. If we treat the study of spelling as we do every other science, we actually need to use scientific thinking to question and test these widely accepted hypotheses.

We do that by learning about orthographic linguistics, a field of science focused on understanding the English writing system itself. By studying orthography — looking at written words as they exist today, their relationships to one another, and historical evidence about written words and the system for spelling them — we can test these competing hypotheses about English orthography (our system of writing):

1) the English writing system is an alphabetic code with lots of exceptions
2) the English writing system is a completely coherent morphophonemic system

And if we look at the evidence, only the second hypothesis holds up and we can see that it is possible to understand every aspect of spelling.

In the simplest terms, English words are composed of consistent units (morphemes) that are combined using consistent conventions. Spelling makes sense but the pronunciation of a given word is sometimes different than we expect. So people then define the spelling as “irregular” because they see an unexpected pronunciation. This is upside down.

Examples of this backward thinking are <say + s ➞ says, do + es ➞ does>. These words are spelled completely logically and systematically, but they are not pronounced the same as words that are spelled similarly: <play +s ➞ plays, go + es ➞ goes>.

Think about this parable for the shift that takes place when we look at the evidence scientifically and see how the English system of spelling actually works:

There was a time when scientific and popular wisdom held that the Sun and all the planets revolved around the Earth. Everyone who held that belief, including scientists, could clearly see that there was a relationship between the Sun and the Earth. That connection was real, and at the time, it was reasonable to create an Earth-centered hypothesis about the universe. This was an honest attempt to make sense of the evidence, from where those people were standing and the perspectives they held. And yet it was wrong.

What turned out to be wrong wasn’t asserting that there was a connection between the Earth and the Sun. It was placing the center in the wrong place.

It’s the same way with spelling. There’s a “Sun revolving around the Earth” premise that almost everyone accepts without question. I did, for most of my life. The conventional wisdom about spelling is that the purpose of the writing system is primarily to represent the pronunciation of words. We are told that spelling is “speech written down,” that English is an alphabetic “code” and that spelling is “encoding” the pronunciation of words while reading is “decoding” words.  And quite frankly, this is a bit like saying that the Sun revolves around the Earth.

There is obviously a relationship between written language and spoken language. We can identify many consistent patterns and relationships between the words we speak and the way we spell them. We need to understand those patterns and make sure students understand them. But if we are willing to test our assumptions by looking at the actual writing system, we will find clear and illuminating evidence that the central purpose of spelling is not to represent pronunciation and that there is a coherent and logical framework for spelling in which everything makes sense.

The relationship between graphemes (the letters and combinations of letters that we use to spell words) and phonemes (the smallest units of speech that carry meaning) can be understood accurately and completely, but they only make sense in the context of other aspects of spelling that have traditionally been defined as peripheral to the grapheme-phoneme relationships.

In our human experience with the solar system, when we made the shift in perspective from an Earth-centered universe to a Sun-centered universe, so many things that hadn’t really made sense before fell into place.

The same sort of shift happens when we use scientific inquiry to look at the conventional wisdom about spelling.

The understanding that emerges as you study this logical system is fantastic; it’s as though a fog clears and you are able to see the consistency and patterns in the same words that you used to think of as “irregular” or “rule-breakers.”

Many parents have found that this type of study finally allows them to help their own children.

Many teachers can finally help students with those aspects of spelling and reading that always nagged at them and held their students back.

And I believe that this is most liberating for those of us who are advocating for improved reading and spelling instruction for all students, including students with dyslexia. We are often the most excited to really grasp this changed perspective, because it changes literacy instruction in powerful ways.

A “phonology-centered” invented model of literacy requires us to build everything we do on areas where dyslexic students are the weakest. Studying the actual system builds on important strengths in dyslexic students— the ability to understand and remember things that are complex, but are logical and make sense. It’s like the difference between finding ways to help students memorize phone numbers versus studying and understanding relationships that make sense and learning colorful stories from history.

I’ve personally worked with many dyslexic students, both with the phonology-first, “best practices” model, and eventually with this accurate understanding of English. It took time for me to trust that showing students how the system actually works is the key to helping them develop literacy. No matter who you are or what you do, it’s important to take your time to think about this and look at what the actual evidence shows you before you make any changes to what you do.

And in case you are wondering about the research on this, it’s reassuring to know that meta-analyses indicate that learning about how English spelling actually works improves literacy acquisition in statistically significant ways, and provides the greatest benefits to the youngest and most struggling readers.

To illustrate some of the ways that this type of study works, you’ll find on this site stories of learning that have occurred when students are presented with an accurate understanding of spelling; and I’ll point you to blog posts and websites written by many others who have their own stories to share: parents, students, tutors, classroom teachers, advocates and dyslexic adults.

It’s also important to mention that learning about how English spelling actually works is just as powerful for English Language Learners and for students and adults who are not dyslexic — those who might be “natural spellers” and may have learned to read and spell easily. Understanding our coherent and elegant system unlocks deep meaning and broad understanding about words for everyone, along with critical thinking skills and scientific understanding.

There are many different ways that you can navigate around this site to read and consider and learn. This site is my attempt to solidify and share my own evolving understanding about spelling and reading, so I will be learning along with you, and I encourage you to start anywhere and go where your questions lead you. That’s the essence of scholarship — that and allowing yourself time to question, think, absorb and challenge all that you are encountering, and your own assumptions.

One of my mentors and dear friends always says that scholarship starts at three (people) and you may be interested in getting connected with a growing community of learners who are exploring this accurate understanding of the coherent system for spelling English words. You can read more about that here.

So now you can go to a number of different places to start to investigate what you’ve read so far. Click on any link above, or on any of these below:

How does English spelling actually work?

I can think of examples where going from Sound to Symbol works just fine. What is the evidence that it doesn’t work?

Click for definitions and a discussion of related terms from orthographic linguistics:

phoneme, phonology, allophone

phone, phonetics

morpheme, allomorph, morphology, base, affix, suffix, prefix, connecting vowel

grapheme, letter
I also would really appreciate your questions and thoughts about what you read here.  Contact me here.


published Jan 6, 2017
revised Feb 2, 2018