Someone asked recently how to help students who struggle to remember even the simplest words. The word <the> was one of these words.
The reason that so many words are categorized as “irregular” is because they have an unexpected pronunciation, not an unexpected spelling. But to understand their spelling and their orthographic phonology — the relationships between graphemes and phonemes — we must start with meaningful connections.
So, we can study <the, an, a, any & many> together. Start with <a, an & the>. Notice that we have two forms for the indefinite article <a & an> but only one for the definite article <the>.
When we think about pronunciation, we have to realize that we don’t all pronounce words, including <the>, the same. But regardless of our pronunciation, anyone who speaks English spells them the same, because that’s how spelling works. So when I talk with students about these words and their pronunciation, we are discussing our pronunciation with our American accents. The concepts are the same no matter how you pronounce these words.
When we look at <an>, we can see that it could be classified as “decodable” and we notice that it shares the same vowel grapheme as <a>. But we rarely pronounce <a> as [eɪ] (“long a”) unless we are really stressing it. “You may have A cookie, but only one.” And when stressing that word, some people might pronounce that as [eɪ] (“long <a>”) and some as though it’s [ʌ] (“short <u>”). But the second pronunciation is an attempt to stress a schwa. Kids understand what the schwa is easily with the word “banana.” There are three <a>’s in <banana> but the first and last one are pronounced as the neutral, unstressed pronunciation that we call a schwa.
Notice that we need two forms of the indefinite article because of the way we pronounce it before vowel and consonant phonemes.
A dog, an elephant
And notice how the pronunciation shifts in <the>, so we don’t need two forms.
The dog, the elephant.
The pronunciation of <the> before a vowel phoneme is exactly as we would expect with a single <e> at the end of a word (<he, she, me>). But since it is unstressed in connected speech, we often don’t notice that pronunciation.
And if we stress <the> for emphasis — “it was THE best cookie I’ve ever had” — we also pronounce it as [iː] (“long <e>”).
We don’t need to use the terminology “definite and indefinite article” if we don’t want to; we can just talk about how we use those words in English, because preschoolers know what those words mean and how to use them. But if we do use the terms, even young kids dip their toes into grammar, and begin to understand how grammar and spelling are interrelated.
Then we could study <any ➞ an + y>. <Any> is a determiner, which means that it introduces a noun and often tells us about possession or quantity. It’s built from the article <an> plus suffix <y>. And we can even compare <many> which has a completely different origin than <any> but has a similar pronunciation. Etymonline tells us that the pronunciation of <many> was influenced by <any>.
In half an hour or less of study, even with 5 and 6 year olds, five words — four of which are considered “irregular’ — can be understood and spelled correctly, or at least connected to a meaningful reason for the spelling which shows the relationship between the phonology and the spelling. And a student who gets to study this can think back to those meaningful connections when they misspell or misread these words in the future.
Spelling always makes sense.