Keys to Understanding Spelling from Keith W. Wright

There are five main problem-spelling areas in the English language.

1. Spelling words that have been borrowed from foreign languages, e.g. café; chateaux; archaeologist, Caesar

2. Pluralized words such as radius > radii ; woman > women; tomato > tomatoes

3. Words that have silent symbols, for example, lamb, column; island; subtle.

4. Homophonic words that sound the same but are spelt differently and have different meanings, e.g. stationary – stationery; council – counsel; there – their – they’re

5. Words that are pronounced wrongly, e.g. factory as factry; history as histry or ministry as ministery and infantry as infantery.

Just as there are 4S keys or mnemonic (memory) rules for understanding why words are pronounced the way they are, there are also keys for remembering how to spell words correctly.

Some of the 4S keys have a dual purpose and can be used to teach both pronunciation as well as spelling. These "dual rules" will be considered in next week’s MB column along with some more 4S Keys to Understanding Spelling.

A proven way to remember the 4S Keys to Understanding Pronunciation and Spelling is to create lists of words to which a rule applies as well a list of any exceptions. One of the reasons there are exception to the rules in English is because of the 450,000 words in the English language, tens of thousands of words have been borrowed from other languages and the rules or Keys do not always apply.

A simple example is the French word, café. Normally in English, the final "e’’ in a word is silent. However, in café, the "e" makes the sound of "long a".

Again, usually in English, when there are two vowels together in a word, the first one is sounded and the second one is silent, e.g. seat. In a number of foreign words that have been added to the English language over the centuries such as archaeologist, the first vowel is silent and the second one is sounded.

Even though there sometimes can be exceptions to the keys, they are still well worth teaching and remembering. Combating illiteracy in any country is like being in a fierce battle. When you are in a war, it is best to have a weapon with which to fight with even though sometimes it might fire a few blanks.


‘Q’ always needs ‘u’.

In English, regardless of which of its four sounds "q" makes in a word, it is always spelt with the vowel "u", e.g. quit, quack, equal, mosquito, mosque, bouquet, queue. The exceptions are some words like Qatar and the acronym, QANTAS – the Australian airline. QANTAS stands for Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Service.

Words and syllables always have at least one vowel

This 4S key teaches that you cannot spell a word correctly unless every syllable has a vowel, e.g. de/pend as d/pend or pre/vent as pr/vent or Pe/ter as P/ter.

The first syllable must have a vowel as must any other syllable. Unlike a consonant that cannot be a syllable on its own, a vowel can be, e.g. e/ven, i/dea, o/val. N.B. "y" plays the role of a vowel, e.g. sky, po/ny. Depending on whether it is pronounced as two syllables, rhythm is the only exception to this rule, e.g. rhy/thm.

Long vowels are usually followed by single consonants.

If a vowel is ‘long’, i.e. it says its own name, then the consonant that follows it stays single, e.g. elect, idle, obey, agent, utopia, baker, miner, Muhammad, Moses, Judith.

This rule is demonstrated by tiger and trigger and by diner and dinner. It has already been taught that "l can rebel", i.e. "l" can break the rules as seen in roller and stroller where the long vowel "o" is followed by "double l" not just a single one.

• ‘V..’-ending words end in ‘e’ but rarely in ‘v’.

Words that end in a "v.." sound are spelt with "ve" not just with "v", e.g. drive, stove, move, eve, etc. Abbreviations are exceptions to the "v" rule, e.g. Bev, Nev, Kev, rev, Chev.

• In most ‘eeee…’ sounding’ words, ‘i’ comes before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ e.g. brief, piece, priest, yield, etc.

This key is very useful for spelling when it is also known that the same rule can apply to "s" and "k" as seen in seize and Keith because "c" can make the same sound as "s" and "k".

It needs also to be remembered that except for the "ee.." and "long i.." sounding groups, e.g. thief and client, most word groups are spelt with "ei" not "ie", e.g. eight, height, their, weird, reign, foreign, vein, leisure, receipt. It will be noted that "ei" and "ie" words readily break the Two Vowel Rule that teaches: When two vowels go out walking, the first one usually does the talking.

• Only ‘s’ and ‘f’ are doubled on the end of multi-syllabic words.

This key is an excellent aid to spelling, e.g. possess, caress, distress, success and sheriff, bailiff, tariff, plaintiff.

4S teaches that words with more than one syllable rarely end in other double consonants such as "pp", "tt", "zz", etc. The only exception is "ll" when a single, syllable word has had a prefix added to it such as refill, recall, install, retell and the USA spelling of "fulfill". Remember: ‘l’ can rebel.

• When the first syllable of a multi-syllabic word is stressed, the final consonant is rarely doubled when a suffix beginning with a vowel is added, e.g. target = targeting; garden = gardener; filter = filtered; master = mastered.

In contrast, when the primary pronunciation stress is placed on the second syllable of a bi-syllabic word, the final consonant is doubled, e.g. begin = beginning; occur = occurred; forbid = forbidden; refer = referral.

The "l" ending words need to be considered separately as "l can rebel" even against this rule, e.g. cancel = cancelled; travel = traveller. It will be noted that American spelling can be different.