Tricky Words

Tricky Words 2017-05-19T11:10:19+00:00
  • Why does knee have a ‘k’ at the start ?
  • Why does apple have a double ‘p’ ?
  • Why does ‘q’ almost always have a ‘u’ ?
  • Why is what spelled as it is, when it sounds like wot ?
  • Why do we have ‘ed’ when it sounds like ‘t’ (as in stopped) ?

Agility With Sound includes a manual that contains many stories (some of them ever so slightly fictionalised) explaining how these patterns came about.

There are tales of kings and dungeons, invasions by the French and their weird ways of doing and spelling. You can read the stories to the children, bring the language alive, and at the same time help the child absorb the patterns that the language is based on.

When children internalise the patterns, they store words efficiently and can read and spell easily.

Every word in the English language is spelt the way it is for a reason. However irregular it may seem, there are patterns, there is a logic and predictability.

There are many patterns, layers of patterns that sometimes contradict each other, but patterns that give the language its structure and predictability. Good spellers and fluent readers consciously or more commonly unconsciously understand these patterns.

The underlying principle is that the written word should be easy to read, that the process of extracting meaning from text should be as straight forward as possible. It is not therefore just about the sounds. There are clues to pronunciation and meaning embedded in the spelling system, and there are conventions inserted to make reading, if not spelling, as straight forward as possible.


The ‘g’ in sign links it with signal, significant, signature, designated, resign and resignation. If we recognise these parts, we can more readily infer meaning.Muscle makes sense when linked with muscular; the ‘t’ in wrestle makes it easy to infer the meaning of the little-known verb wrest.

In times past, much of the reading material was hand written, and some letter combinations were difficult to decipher. ‘u’ next to m, w ,n or v can become a series of similar squiggles. ‘o’ was substituted to represent the ‘u’ sound in many of these words. Money, love, come, worry, wonder, Monday, cover, nothing, London and  onion all follow this pattern. Think of ‘o’ as another way of representing the ‘u’ sound, and these words and many others are no longer exceptions. They follow a pattern.

‘sh’ is primarily used in words that originated in Old English – sheep, wish, shudder. Words derived from Latin or other sources spell that sound differently: ‘ti’ in station, partial, cautious; ‘ci’ in precious, sufficient, magician, special; ‘su’ in sugar, usual , surely, casual; ’si’ in mission, Asia, controversial. Identify the ‘sh’ sound in these words, and the word makes sense.

English is comprised of many such patterns. Know the patterns, and the conventions of English spelling start to fall into place. Competent readers and spellers ‘know’ this.

For most of us, these patterns are locked away in our sub-conscious, but it is this information that we all draw on when reading and spelling. We know how to pronounce endoffle. It is not a real word, but we recognise the information in its spelling instantly. We know that endofle is pronounced differently, even though the same sounds are represented.

Substitute ‘ph’ for the ‘ff’ and ‘yll’ for ‘le’ – still the same sounds – and we get endophyll. Different pronunciation, different stress, different meaning – and we know this even though it is not a real word. And having read each version once, we know how to spell them. We do not have to learn them, we just know, because the information we need is already stored in our brains. We know that endophle and endoffil are spelling mistakes. They do not look right, because they do not fit with the patterns we know.

Children need to absorb patterns in order to store words efficiently, to read and spell easily. The less the child is able to absorb these patterns unconsciously and unaided, the more critical it is that they are directly and explicitly taught.


Further reading issues are covered in Dyslexia.