Are you one of those lucky people whose first language has an obvious and consistent relationship between spelling and pronunciation? What you see is what you say!
I remember way back when I was a little girl at primary school, learning to read and write, what I said was definitely not what I was seeing! I take my hat off to all my teachers who helped me and my classmates to read and write, it was no easy task I imagine! (Funny, I remember them all with grey hair…)
I tried to teach both my kids (born and raised in Spain) to read and write in English when they started reading and writing in Spanish and Galician at school. There were tears and tantrums (kids and adults alike!) In the end I left them to their own resources and amazingly they taught themselves. How, I do not know…but thankfully they did!
So all you learners of English out there, I feel your pain.
I mean come on, what is going on here?
I’m sure you already knew before I shared my poem, that the relationship between spelling and pronunciation in English is not always the most consistent!
But fear not!
I’m going to give you 5 spelling and pronunciation rules to make life a little easier.
But first, let’s make some sense of the nonsense. Our brain likes to understand why. When we understand the why we feel calmer and more open to learning 😉
Why doesn’t spelling match pronunciation?
Let us have a little sympathy with the English language. Around 85% of Old English is no longer in use and the English that we see and hear today is a mix of a lot of very old words and other languages, some imposed and some “borrowed” never to be returned.
When the Romans left, first came the Anglo-Saxons & Vikings from northern Germany and Scandinavia. Then the French had a turn (and they really complicated things when it came to spelling and pronunciation.) Not to be outdone Shakespeare invented a couple of thousand more words. Then the academics decided to go back to their Latin roots for a while before inventing a whole load of new words in the 17th century, especially related to science. Add to this all the words which were “borrowed” from other countries during the time of the British Empire, it’s hardly surprising that there’s a little bit of chaos!
In the 1400’s the printing press arrived and they attempted to standardize English spelling but the problem is that English pronunciation has changed over the years.
The American Noah Webster definitely had the right idea in 1828 when he decided to make spelling a whole lot simpler with his American English Dictionary!
- color instead of colour (who needs the “u”?)
- gray instead of grey (makes more sense right?)
- catalog instead of catalogue (no explanation needed!)
Despite Noah´s valiant attempt to simplify things, we know that it’s still difficult when we read or write English and then try to speak it the same way we write it.
The good news is I’ve got some amazing spelling and pronunciation patterns for you (and you know how the brain likes a pattern 😉)
Warning! There are some exceptions (of course!)
5 spelling and pronunciation rules
First we need to understand the difference between long and short vowels
There are 5 long (alphabet) vowels
|A||/eɪ/||face, pay, straight, eight|
|E||/i:/||me, see, pea, field|
|I||/aɪ/||my, high, die|
|O||/əʊ/||go, phone, road|
|U||/u:/||too, two, you, Sue|
A vowel letter can also have a short sound (see #1 below)
#1 One syllable words + consonant at the end = short vowel e.g:
#2 The “magic e” rule. Add “e” to words like the ones in #1 and the short vowel changes to a long vowel e.g:
|tap /æ/||tape /eɪ/|
|pet /e/||Pete /i:/|
|sit /ɪ/||site /aɪ/|
Exceptions: have, live, come, gone…
#3 Two vowel letters together are often the alphabet pronunciation of the first of the two letters and the second is silent e.g:
Exceptions: soul, mouse, trouble, coup, cough, fought…
#4 Before a double consonant:
- hid (type #1 short)
- hide (type #2 long)
- hidden (short)
#5 R – vowels: A vowel + r changes the sound of the vowel before it e.g:
|pat /æ/||part /ɑ:/|
|pea /i:/||pear /eə/|
|bee /i:/||beer /iə/|
|pot /ɒ/||port /ɔ:/|
|hut /ʌ/||hurt /ɜ:/|
So the next time you’re about to curse because fear doesn’t sound like bear but beer, remember, there is some logic in the madness.
What words do you find most difficult to spell or pronounce?
Remember pronunciation is only one way to help you transform from reluctant speaker to CONFIDENT COMMUNICATOR.
Have you taken my quiz “Are you a Smart English Learner?” You’ll learn more ways to be a better English learner!
Happy Smarter Learning!
P.S If you like a bit of history and you’re a language geek like me, check out (the very funny) The History of English in 10 minutes
50 Tips for Teaching Pronunciation, Mark Hancock, Cambridge University Press 2020